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The intrinsic written quality of the spoken word in Olive Senior's short fiction

Marie-Annick Montout


Cet article a pour objet l’étude des différentes techniques utilisées par Olive Senior (auteur jamaïcain qui s’inspire de la vie quotidienne sur son île natale) pour imprégner ses nouvelles de la langue orale jamaïcaine. Nous tenterons, en particulier, de mettre en évidence le jeu très étroit que l’auteur établit entre écriture et oralité en nous attardant sur le choix des narrateurs qui, en tant que membres de la communauté rurale jamaïcaine ou ayant eu des contacts étroits avec celle-ci, véhiculent naturellement la tradition orale et les habitudes culturelles héritées du passé. Nous montrerons aussi que l’impression générale qui se dégage à la lecture des nouvelles est celle d’une belle complémentarité entre deux façons différentes de raconter des histoires.

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Olive Senior
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  • 1  If not otherwise specified, the pronoun “he” shall be used to mean “the narrator”.

1Complex linguistic background is a crucial dimension of Olive Senior’s characterization. Her command of voice demonstrates that the contradictions inherent in European values versus indigeneous values as encapsulated in the word can be transcended by the word. In her short stories orality forms an intimate part of the narrators’ artful mode of writing as their insurgency and/or that of the characters against the English canon lies in the choice of topics and language. The narrators1 are often members of the community who recall a particular event in the community life or in their own life as members of the community, and who choose Jamaican English as the medium for communication. The borders between the written word and the spoken word become all the more blurred as the narrators choose to show speech rather than to describe it, and to offer no overt cushioning for the lexical items which highly deflect from Standard English. Even when the aesthetical value of the oral tradition on which the narrators heavily draw to weave their stories seems to be overtly questioned by reference to the aesthetical canons of the written text, the intricate interplay between the two modes of story telling is paradoxically highlighted.

2It should be pointed out here that in Jamaica, the linguistic spectrum includes Jamaican Patwa also called Deep Jamaican Creole, i.e. fragmented English speech and syntax developed during the days of slavery with strong African influences, Jamaican English and Standard Jamaican English, i.e. Jamaican English with a high degree of competence in Standard English. Patwa is the basilect whereas Standard Jamaican English is the acrolect. In between the two extremes lies the mesolect or a continuum with various degrees of competence in the acrolect. A Jamaican whose command of English is imperfect speaks Jamaican English.

  • 2  “Zig-Zag”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart Inc. (Toronto, 1995), p.182
  • 3  “Ballad”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman (Harlow, 1986), p. 108.
  • 4  “The Tenantry of Birds”, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories, p.46.

3The narrators and characters in Olive Senior’s short fiction use mainly Jamaican English  with a greater or lesser degree of competence in Standard Jamaican English which may go unnoticed to the non-Jamaican reader inasmuch as the oral/scribal language codes combine to mark the difference without losing his/her comprehension. Code switching makes it possible to establish the narrators’ and characters’ counter-discourses. The saying “Cockroach have no business in a fowl roost” is a case in point since it is used again and again, albeit with minor modifications according to how influenced by English values the character is. Working with a family who has adopted  English values, Desrine2 does not omit the copula verb “have” –an omission that is characteristic of Jamaican English– when she utters the saying. By contrast, Big Mout Doris3, whose employers are not as closely influenced by proper English, does. It is also interesting to notice that the English name for the locally called Tyrant Flycatcher bird, that is to say “petchary”,  is not spelt by the narrator of “The Tenantry of Birds”4 according to the rules of written English, but according to the way it is pronounced, with the omission of the consonant “t”. This variant spelling in a text written in Standard English signals that the narrator remains closely attached to  Jamaican culture, a fact which is corroborated by his use of the popular Jamaican name “kling-klings” –whose alternate, more standard orthography is “cling-cling”– to designate blackbirds.

  • 5  “Ascot”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 28.
  • 6  Rolling Calf appears as a calf with red fiery eyes and clanking chains. It both rolls and roars, a (...)
  • 7  Ascot”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 31.
  • 8  “Zig-Zag”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, p. 181.

4Choice of language, in Olive Senior’s fiction, is a channel for the characters’ revolt against the established norm or against its adoption when Jamaican communal values are at stake. Thus, all through her text, the narrator of the short story “Ascot” stigmatises Ascot’s attitude because he betrays his race and culture. She and Ascot were born and raised in the same village, she, to a family with a rather good living standard, and Ascot, to a broken, poor family. The major difference between them is that she remained in the village, that she nonetheless acquired a good command of Jamaican English and that she continued speaking Patwa whereas Ascot left for the United States to improve his lot, which, for him, meant marrying a white American girl, speaking almost perfect Standard Jamaican English, and disclaiming his family origins. The narrator’s strong disapproval of Ascot’s behaviour when he first came back to the village with his wife is expressed through language; she switches to expressions connected with Jamaican culture to clearly show where she stands and where he should stand. For instance, to describe Ascot’s fiery look when it becomes obvious to his wife that he lied about his family origins,  she compares him to a “shame-me-lady macca”5, a name which is one of  the Jamaican names for the mimosa thorn. She also amplifies her father’s sharp criticism of Ascot’s dishonest behaviour by resorting to the image of the rolling calf6 :”Papa stand there with him mouth open like him seeing rolling calf […].”7To a similar effect, Saddie calls her sister Muffet “Shame-Brown-Lady”, and “Shamey-Shamey-Lady”8 because she is trying to remind her that she is mixed-raced and coloured, and that she should not take offence at her origins and shy from them. Nor should she lash out at Saddie when the latter proves her attachment to local culture. So, through words only, the narrator infuses his text with local cultural elements and values, finds the means to create a genuine voice not jarred by the European language norm, and passes on critical comments on attitudes which reject the African past.

5Because the narrator and the characters communicate via Jamaican English with a greater or lesser degree of proficiency in Standard Jamaican English, distinguishing between narrator and character when free indirect speech makes the narrator’s text resonate with that of a character might prove tricky. The following passage in which, as befits a Jamaican English speaker, the narrator omits the auxiliary verb “be”, and Katie neither respects the genitive form nor the number concordance between subject and verb form, is an enlightening illustration:

  • 9  The Christian name sounds ironical insofar as it carries kinship to Dorcas, the Christian woman of (...)
  • 10  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 68.

Right now she consoling about Beccka who (as she telling Auntie Mary)every decent-living upright Christian soul who is everybody round here except that Dorcas9 Waite about whom one should not dirty one’s mouth to talk yes every clean living person heart go out to Aunty Mary for with all due respect to a sweet mannersable child like Cherryher daughter is the devil own pickney.10

  • 11  Duppy stories are part of Jamaican folklore. “The ‘duppy’ is believed to be the spirit of someone (...)

6The narrator so artfully fuses his and Katie’s voice that, were it not for his comment in brackets which acts as a warning, that part of Katie’s narrative might be read as offering his own point of view from beginning to end. Yet, the narrator has already intimated that he sides with Beccka, which makes it totally improbable that he shares Katie’s point of view. In addition, he subtly helps the reader disentangle his and Katie’s voices through syntax. For one thing, the quoted sentence is much more wordy and overblown in quality than the others belonging to the narrator. It incarnates the word-of-mouth rumour mill that defines the community sense of who is good and who is to be condemned, and is characteristic of gossiping Katie. Secondly, the narrator tends to resort to the relative pronoun “who”, whereas Katie resorts to “that”. The relative clauses should therefore be attributed to the narrator. They ironically comment on the community’s and on Katie’s judgemental preacher-like attitude towards those women who do not conform to what they call Christian decency. Because the narrator does not support such moral values and disagrees with Katie’s judgement of Beccka, he expresses his distance by distinguishing his and Katie’s voice. He completely dissociates himself from Katie when the latter ceases to be, or to pretend she is, the voice of the community developing through village gossip, and becomes again the true specialist in un-conforming women’s overt debasement. He subsequently quotes Katie’s own words as the latter tries to instil doubt in Aunty Mary about who Beccka’s father is by implying that Cherry might have been possessed by a duppy11 of the worst kind :

  • 12  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 68.

“But see here Miss Mary you no think Cherry buck up the devil own self when she carrying her? Plenty time that happen you know. Remember that woman over Allside that born the pickney with two head praise Jesus it did born dead.  […] And Miss Mary I telling you the living truth, just as the baby borning the midwife no see a shadow fly out of the mother and go right cross the room. She frighten so till she close her two eye tight and is so the devil escape.”12

7This example shows how sophisticated Olive Senior’s writing of orality is, particularly in third-person narratives when the language of the third-person narrator is directly related to that of the characters, but not only in those. Olive Senior varies her approaches so that they aptly illustrate how community judgements are formed through oral speech. In “Country of the One-Eye God”, the narrator speaks Standard English whereas the characters speak Jamaican Creole. The narrator does not mediate the characters’ speech in order to leave an opportunity for conventions and styles belonging to oral exchanges –for example, the habit to state genealogical references– to be disclosed  in such a way as they seem to inscribe themselves in the written text, rather than to be inscribed in it.

8Orality may even form part of the story motif as in “The Tenantry of Birds” where it implicitly shows light on Nolene’s identity crisis. Nolene comes from a well-off family. Her background was marked by white Anglo-Saxon cultural values, which were the only ones admitted within her urban family sphere. For all that, she felt strongly attracted to deep Jamaican culture every time she had an opportunity to stay with her relatives in the country. The following skipping rhyme comes to her mind at the beginning of the story:

  • 13  “ The Tenantry of Birds”, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories, p. 46.

Room for rent
Apply within
When I run out
You run in.13

  • 14 Ibid, p. 49.

9It comments on her personal situation as an abandoned wife. It’s no accident that she recalls the incantation-like words (“Green Bush. Green Bush. Green Bush”) pronounced by her cousins to keep wasps away14. These words used to startle her because they showed how much in control her cousins were, and she so little. She felt as powerless then as she now does. It’s no accident either that she recalls the ring games “Brown girl in the ring”, “Jane and Louisa”, and “Bull inna pen” they used to sing and play. The girls’ games, which lay the emphasis on un-inhibition, serve as a reminder that so far she has not given vent to her own personality and style. The boys’ game, in which she was always trampled on, points to her past errors, and shows the path to strength and empowerment. The message in the story could be that orality is part of the nation’s fabric as well as of the individual’s fabric and identity.

  • 15  “Confirmation Day”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 81.
  • 16  The song goes:
    One two three four
    Colon man a come
    With him a watch chain
    A lick him belly
    Bam Bam Bam
    A (...)

10Again, in Olive Senior’s short stories there is no contrast between the spoken word and the written text. There is on the contrary what might be termed some sort of complicity between the two as in “Confirmation Day”15 The popular song “Colón Man”16, which the children in the story wittingly start singing, participates in the ironical tone of the passage as it implicitly comments on the bishop’s driver’s bombastic attitude: this song was inspired by the demeanour of the Jamaican men who went to Colón to participate in the construction of the Panama canal, and who came back to Jamaica with a flashy style; as the song shows, they were viewed with ambivalent feelings which the reader is invited to share.

11In Olive Senior’s short stories, the spoken and the written word undeniably play complementary roles and because of this they are cleverly woven to achieve the narrator’s desired effect. As if to convince the reader of how complementary they are, the narrator of “Discerner of Hearts” penetrates into Cissy’s thoughts to release the part of the duppy story not covered by the written press, and then expresses them in her own words:

  • 17  “ Discerner of Hearts”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, pp. 32-33.

Cissy was convinced now that Theresa couldn’t have made that up, because she had known Father to use exactly that kind of recipe to drive out a troublesome duppy that was causing rockstone to fall on a house and pots to go flying off the fire and dishes to smash into the wall and the people inside to run for their lives. Father was particularly proud of that case for it was a celebrated one. It had even been written up in the Gleaner, and many learned men from the university had gone down to the house where this was happening to see what they could do. But nobody could do anything, the duppy even chased out the university men, flung stones at their car, caused one to drop his briefcase and another to lose a sandal as they rushed to get away. Nobody could do anything until Father Burnham was called in, but there was nothing in the Gleaner about that, for this thing had gone on too long and people had lost interest.17

  • 18  “ Kumina is based on the Central African belief in each person possessing a dual soul: the persona (...)
  • 19 Summer Lightning and Other Stories.
  • 20  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, p. 74.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 76.

12Cissy, a Khumina18 worshipper, knows the whole story because it has been transmitted to her orally by Father Burnham. By bringing the whole story to the fore, the narrator supplies a piece of information that would otherwise have remained ignored by the press. He thus draws indirectly on orality to subtly correct the insufficiencies of the print world submitted to official culture, and to pass on subterranean culture. In addition, he points to a major difference between written knowledge and oral knowledge. The former risks being discontinued due to the balance which must be kept between the need to globally satisfy the reader’s aroused sense of curiosity and the need to yield to his globally volatile attitude. The latter is more continuous as it is imparted thanks to a sustained intimate complicity between the teller and his audience. In view of this, the oral form of story telling chosen by most of the narrators in Olive Senior’s short stories might also be analysed as an act affirming the aesthetic role orality has to play in short fiction by keeping the reader enlivened, notably through humour and artistry. Oral culture contains elements, such as riddles and lying stories, which are destined to provoke sheer enjoyment. When infused in a written text whose goal it is to undermine values and/or behaviours, they add to its comic atmosphere. “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”19 is a relevant instance because it shows how much written culture and oral culture wonderfully combine with one another. When the archdeacon invites Beccka to ask him questions about the Bible, she seizes the opportunity as one to speak in riddles. She tricks the archdeacon who cannot find any suitable answers because he is not prepared to make the unexpected associations Beccka has in mind due to her excellent knowledge of the Bible. While he sticks to the written words of the text, she is able to stretch their meanings to extremes by crossing barriers between the concrete and the abstract. For instance, when she pretends that she wants to know “Who is the shortest man in the Bible?” she is anticipating the delight of supplying him with the ready-made answer, “Peter. Because him sleep on his watch. Ha Ha Ha.”20 Beccka is versed both in texts which do not originate in Jamaican culture, and in texts belonging to it. Telling lying stories, a favourite kind of artfully construed story in Jamaica, bears no secret to her as shown by the great artistry she displays in phrasing the invented piece about her performing in a circus: “in spangles and tights lipstick and powder (her own) Beccka perform every night before a cheering crowd in a blaze of light.”21 The rhythm of Beccka’s sentence needs not be marked by commas because of the echoes in her carefully chosen consonants (sibilant, plosive, dental), and also because of the assonances (“tights ; night ; light”) at regular intervals. The narrator’s craft at threading the oral text into the written text operates unobstrusively, yet wonderfully.

  • 22  “ Mad Fish”, p. 9.
  • 23 Ibid, p. 4.

13In the stories where the narrator openly unthreads the two fabrics in an attempt to assess the merits of orality, the reader is nonetheless caught unawares in a network of interacting textual systems. The yet unpublished short story “Mad Fish” is a case in point. It is composed of four parts. The first part and the last two parts belong to the first person narrator. They frame the story proper reproduced by the narrator mainly as it was originally told by Radio to her husband and herself. In the first part, the narrator recalls the day when Radio burst into the family dining-room with that story. She intersperses her account with observations on all the changes Radio’s narration brought -how his speech defect miraculously disappeared so that he was not robbed of the novelty to tell, and how the community began its search for a new system of meaning. These observations form an implicit discourse on the subaltern’s control over the text as the narrator makes plain in the fourth and last part of her narrative when she remarks that Radio has now got “voice and attitude.”22 She ends the first part with explicit metafictional considerations on Radio’s text and lays out the linguistic and aesthetic basis on which she has chosen to present it to the reader. She takes great pain to inform him that she has contaminated Radio’s text up to a point, and she invites him to embark on a critical reading, which, she announces, will be engagingly provocative. Yet there is more to it than it seems, and the narrator’s discourse should be read as an implicit postcolonial discourse in which she decolonises the indigenous text. First, the sections narrated in the first person point to the separate autonomous existence of Radio’s oral narrative. Secondly, in keeping with that acknowledged independence, the narrator steps down to leave Radio entire responsibility for poetic diction, and to take linguistic co-responsibility only by supplementing the latter’s text with whatever explanations she thinks fit to suit the non-Jamaican reader’s needs. To this end, she abandons her Queen’s English rich in words of Latin origin for, as she says, “a closer approximation of the English language.”23She thus lays bare the foundations of a text that places the spoken word at the centre and the written word at the margin. Thirdly, she establishes a direct speech dialogue with the non-Jamaican reader in which she challenges him to appropriate the story she has written for him, and to transform it as he pleases in order to create his own mode of perceiving the reality of the Caribbean world. By so doing, she implicitly de-sanctifies the written text as the finished private object of the writer, and she re-positions it as an unstable object in the hands of an independent recipient capable of teasing out original meanings.

14The dialogic dimension of the text which “Mad Fish” delineates is also emphasized by Lenora, the young female narrator of “Ballad”. Her text is the result of her rebellion against the monological reception it was given by her teacher whose duty it is to instil the Anglo-Saxon cultural values. Because she had chosen Rilla –a disreputable woman from the community– as a character for her composition instead of a character in the English books on the curriculum, her paper was torn up. In view of this, she decided to write/tell another story for readers with whom she shared cultural values as she implies by addressing them via the inclusive pronoun “we”. Among these cultural values she places Jamaican English and the oral style, and she channels the latter into the written text while recounting the traumatic process of being confronted to a world fissured by communication and behavioural code chasms. Her childhood was fraught with tensions about her mixed roots and her options for development were presented to her as tied to race and language. Her situation was one in which she was marginalized in her family home because she was the least fair one and a step-daughter. In her everyday life she was exposed to the oral tradition where a demand for full comprehension of Patwa was made, but she had to speak Standard English at school. She thus had to confront the subdued, refined voice expected of her as someone committed to acceptable language and behaviour, to the loud outbursts associated with vulgarity, and she was required to reject Patwa as unfit for written communication. Between the two poles she meandered awkwardly, but Rilla inspired her. She was fascinated by Rilla’s physical vitality which completely contrasted with the intellectual development offered to her. In addition, at Rilla’s home she was central, not peripheral, and there she found solace, could heal her wounds, and find appropriate advice in order to grow harmoniously without sacrificing anything of her identity. So when Rilla died, she found herself an orphan and decided to write/tell a ballad in Rilla’s memory so that she could continue the process of re-membering. Intersecting the codes of scribal discourse with the codes of orality is her way of exploring the possibilities of reconciling the options she has been left with.

  • 24  “Ballad”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 109.

15For all this, transgressing the canon proves quite challenging. When she admits, “Now it look like I gone and spoil this ballad story for this is not the way I want to tell it at all. The part about Miss Rilla dying is the end part and it really should start at the beginning”24, she implicitly hints at a feeling of guilt due to the fact that she has lost rational control over the linearity of her text and that, wrought out by Rilla’s death, she has let the story unfold in loops and swoops, and repeat her own sense of loss and desolation. Unconsciously, she has structured her text according to the traditional oral features of eulogy, and also of delaying climax because only at the very end of her ballad does she reveal the culminating point in the upheavals of Rilla’s life, namely her responsibility in the murder of Jiveman, her official lover, by Bigger, her lover on the side. Having crossed the boundaries between written composition as a fixed system of values, and oral story telling practices characterized by mutability, she nonetheless remains unsure of the validity of her counter-discursive approach to the world which requires that her ballad be read through texts which differ from the canonized ones. She is in the position of the budding Caribbean writer facing the possibilities, but also the conflicts, inherent in creative writing.

16In her fiction, Olive Senior manages to wonderfully integrate the varieties of influences to which Caribbean people have been exposed and she strikes a complicated note of her own in the intricate geometry of two modes of story-telling. The spoken word does not contrast with the written word; on the contrary, it is part and parcel of the fabric of the written text where it serves the purpose of introducing a counter-discourse to balance the authorized discourse. The knot that Olive Senior thus ties with the written and the spoken word mirrors the cross-cultural element in the Caribbean space and contributes to its reflection in the world outside it.

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1  If not otherwise specified, the pronoun “he” shall be used to mean “the narrator”.

2  “Zig-Zag”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart Inc. (Toronto, 1995), p.182.

3  “Ballad”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman (Harlow, 1986), p. 108.

4  “The Tenantry of Birds”, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories, p.46.

5  “Ascot”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 28.

6  Rolling Calf appears as a calf with red fiery eyes and clanking chains. It both rolls and roars, and is regarded as a “restless spirit” and is believed to be the duppy of people who lived dishonest lives. (Dictionary of Caribbean Usage, Richard Allsop, Ed. Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 52)

7  Ascot”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 31.

8  “Zig-Zag”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, p. 181.

9  The Christian name sounds ironical insofar as it carries kinship to Dorcas, the Christian woman of Joppa celebrated in the early church for her good works, and who was resuscitated by Peter.

10  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 68.

11  Duppy stories are part of Jamaican folklore. “The ‘duppy’ is believed to be the spirit of someone who was wicked in life or who was not accorded proper memorials or who has unfinished business on earth and so has stayed around to haunt the living.” (Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage, p.164.) In Katie’s story, the signs of a duppy story are the following: (i) it happened near a river (ii) the “shadow” echoes the “shadow” side of the human personality that spirits are said to represent, and the woman’s “two-headed” baby attests that she was possessed as one can tell a duppy is near by a feeling of the head “growing big” (iii) the word “buck” echoes the well known expression “Bull buck and duppy conquerer”, which describes the worst spirit.

12  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 68.

13  “ The Tenantry of Birds”, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories, p. 46.

14 Ibid, p. 49.

15  “Confirmation Day”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 81.

16  The song goes:
One two three four
Colon man a come
With him a watch chain
A lick him belly
Bam Bam Bam
Ask him for the time
And he look upon the sun

17  “ Discerner of Hearts”, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories, pp. 32-33.

18  “ Kumina is based on the Central African belief in each person possessing a dual soul: the personal spirit |…] and the individual’s shadow. […] During ceremonies, the spirits are summoned by songs and drumbeats to enter and possess the Kumina dancers. […] To summon the spirits for assistance is the purpose of a kumina ceremony.” (Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage, p. 271).

19 Summer Lightning and Other Stories.

20  “Do Angels Wear Brassieres ?”, p. 74.

21 Ibid., p. 76.

22  “ Mad Fish”, p. 9.

23 Ibid, p. 4.

24  “Ballad”, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 109.

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Marie-Annick Montout, "The Intrinsic written quality of the spoken word in olive senior's short fiction", Journal of the Short Story in English, 47, autumn 2006, 167-176.

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Marie-Annick Montout, « The intrinsic written quality of the spoken word in Olive Senior's short fiction »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 47 | Autumn 2006, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2008, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL :

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Marie-Annick Montout

Marie-Annick Montout is a senior lecturer at the University of Angers where she mostly teaches translation. She has passed the Agrégation competition and she has written her thesis on Olive Senior’s collections of short stories. She specializes in Caribbean literature in general, and in English Caribbean literature in particular, with an interest in translation strategies for Caribbean texts.

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