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Olive Senior, Irvine Welsh - Rock stars of the lit world

Sunday, May 5, 2013
Jamaican poet and author Olive Senior at NGC Bocas Lit Fest 2013. Photos courtesy Maria Nunes/NGC Bocas Lit Fest

If literature festivals were like rock concerts, then the headliners of the 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest were definitely Jamaican poet and fiction writer Olive Senior and Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh.


Like at any rock concert, there were floods of fans jostling to hear their favourite writer at the one-on-one sessions held with each author at the annual festival, which took place at the National Library, Port-of-Spain, from April 25-28.


Both one-on-one sessions were held on April 26, the second day of the festival. Each lasted for just over an hour, and consisted of a short reading from each writer’s work, and then the author fielded questions from their interviewer and from the audience.


Welsh was paired with popular T&T Guardian columnist BC Pires, whose excitement at getting Welsh into his clutches was palpable. He began the session by quoting one of Welsh’s recent satirical tweets after Margaret Thatcher’s death, and asked Welsh, tongue-in-cheek, if he felt that Thatcher’s politics were ultimately responsible for the success of Welsh’s first novel, Trainspotting and its recently released prequel, Skag Boys.


Both novels are set in 1980s Scotland, where the effect of Thatcherism on poverty was felt deeply. The novelist responded in kind, intimating that Thatcher had even been so kind as to die just as Skag Boys was published.


“It would have been nice if she could have held on for the paperback,” he quipped.


Welsh writes his novels largely in a working class Scottish dialect, brimming with obscenities, neither of which has diminished the work’s global popularity.


This makes his work interestingly comparable to Caribbean fiction, which also grapples with the use of regional dialects derived from several colonial and original languages. And his work, which explores the really mucky undersides of life, is very universal in its themes.


“My mission as a writer is to look at how people f--k up. What are the decisions they made that allow them to fail?” he told Pires.


Welsh read first from Trainspotting, a funny scene where the heroin-addicted protagonists steal a collection box full of cash and can’t open it; throw in a bird-crazy mother who tries to force her addict son to go cold turkey by locking him out onto a freezing balcony, a police chase and arrest, and the novelist had the audience chuckling throughout.


Pires upped the ante, though, when he pressed his own copy of the author’s fourth novel Glue on Welsh and asked him to read a specific passage. The author obliged, but reluctantly. And as the audience cringed through the scene of the brutal torture of two dogs, we understood why. Apparently, the passage had made Pires burst out laughing when one of the characters refers to what they’re doing as a “beach barbecue.” This writer must agree to disagree with Mr Pires’ ideas about what constitutes humour.


Connection between the reader, writer


A few hours earlier, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Literatures in English Department head Dr Michael Bucknor interviewed Olive Senior and managed to avoid any similarly uncomfortable moments.


After reading from her 2012 novel Dancing Lessons—“I wanted to write a book to say that no matter what your age, you can change”—Senior spoke about being influenced by the oral and musical culture of rural Jamaica, as well as by the colonial British education of her era. She struggled to finish stories as a young writer, she said, until she allowed her character to speak in her own voice, that of a little country girl who speaks Jamaican patois.


“I use children a lot as a writer because it gives you double vision; the child sees things that the child doesn’t understand but the reader does. And I like the idea of challenging authority,” she said mischievously.


Although her short stories and collections of poetry are popularly used in Caribbean classrooms, Senior said she has no interest in being a commercial writer. Still, she’s conscious that, “I write for a reader, I don’t write for myself. For me, the Caribbean space is a place of resonance. When I read here, you’re responding to me,” she said, gesturing out into the audience. “You’re meeting me halfway.”


And in the spirit of that connection between the writer and the reader, Senior graciously consented to read Meditation on Yellow in response to a shy audience request. The scores of Sixth Form students in attendance whooped their approval.


The poem is in two parts, both a response to colonial attitudes; but one is a re-imagination of life from the very beginning of colonisation and the other is a more contemporary response. Senior described it as “my very favourite thing I’ve ever written, ever,” and a large cross-section of the audience concurred.


“You cannot reverse/Bob Marley wailing/ making me feel/so mellow/in that Caribbean yellow/ at three o’clock/any day now.”


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