Olive Senior delivers prestigious 2019 Margaret Laurence Lecture: A Writer's Life

Olive Senior was born in Jamaica in 1941, the seventh of 10 children. She went on to become one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers. Hear excerpts from her 2019 Margaret Laurence Lecture, readings of her work and a conversation with IDEAS producer Mary Lynk.

Past lecturers include Margaret Atwood, W.O. Mitchell, Dionne Brand and Tomson Highway

Olive Senior delivered a soulful, witty and tender exploration of what it means to become a writer in her Margaret Laurence Lecture, in May 2019. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

** Originally published on October 9, 2019.

"Everything in my writing life, I owe to my childhood. The place I was born. The ground on which I stood," Olive Senior told a packed audience at the Central Library in Halifax in May 2019.

"The word 'ground' has a great deal of resonance for me, apart from its common usage. I will use it as a foundation of my talk, as it is a foundation of my life — a writer's life."

The celebrated Jamaican-Canadian author shared a soulful, witty and tender exploration of becoming a writer in her recent Margaret Laurence Lecture. Since 1987, the Writers' Trust of Canada has selected a prominent Canadian author to deliver a lecture on the topic: "A Writer's Life."

A young writer's life

Born in 1941, Olive Senior was the seventh of ten children, raised in rural Jamaica. After graduating high school, Senior came briefly to Canada as a Commonwealth Scholar to attend Carleton University in Ottawa. But it wasn't until the early 1990s that the prolific writer settled in Toronto full-time. 

Senior has published 18 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's literature, including Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Over the Roofs of the World, and The Pain Tree. Her work has been translated into several languages worldwide and has won many awards for her work, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and F.J. Bressani Literary Prize. 

Olive Senior told the audience in Halifax's Central Library: 'this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done' before starting her Margaret Laurence Lecture. (Writers' Trust of Canada)

In 1997, Senior was commissioned by the BBC to write a "letter" to a dead poet. She chose Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet who was also a diplomat and politician. The writer says she had a difficult time writing this poem.

Here is Olive Senior's full poem, Ode to Pablo Neruda:Mobile users: View the document
(Text KB)
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Another poem Olive Senior read in this episode of IDEAS is called White, inspired by a Protestant hymn that asks God to "make me whiter than snow" to gain entry to heaven. Senior decided to write a response to that hymn and created the character of a Jamaican laundress, Miss Dora, who points out the fault in the hymn's advice and rebuts it with fierce wit and insight.

Here is Olive Senior's full poem, White:Mobile users: View the document
(Text KB)
CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content

** This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.