Understanding Place and Language in Olive Senior's "Gardening in the Tropics"

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Understanding Place and Language in Olive Senior’s “Gardening in the Tropics”


“On a hilltop, at that, you find yourself

drowning, a movement of ebbing

and flowing. You recognize early

(or too late) that you failed to detach

From that mooring.

Always, cruelty of choice.

Here’s the knife.




  • Olive Senior, “Leaving Home”, Over the Roofs of the World

Gardening in the Tropics exploded onto the literary scene from the pen of Jamaican novelist and poet Olive Senior in 1994. A collection of poems, paralleling the Tropical Garden and landscape with European tropes of an Edenic garden, Gardening in the Tropics covers a wide range of themes, inclusive of which are displacement, loss of personal, national and cultural identity, and a response to colonial and imperial oppression. Her exploration of these themes is however layered and multi-dimensional. In addition to being filled of threads of post-colonialism, her literature also surrounds a fixation on migration and the African diaspora- the historical movement of Africans and their descendants throughout the world. This is consequent of Senior’s migration to Canada during the 1970’s where much of her works were written. From this remote location, she was able to garner a different perspective on Caribbean life and society, and in essence reconcile a Caribbean past with a North American present (Stouck, 2005). Gardening in the Tropics is also centred on the recurrent motifs of gardening and cultivation, especially within the context of a distinctly Caribbean garden plot.  Senior’s intension is for gardening to be used as a source of identity, recognition of which is only achieved through the unearthing of a deeply buried past. The problem, however, is that with a history as conflicting as that of the West Indies, even when unearthing our past, there comes the question of “how do we respond to this past?”. An even more frightening perspective on this history, as Senior highlights too, is that for too many of us, a usable and identifiable past illusive- firstly because we have been robbed of it by our colonizers, and secondly because we have mixed with so many different races that at some point along the line, the knowledge our truest origins disappeared. This creates an identity crisis, which according to Theo d’ Haen is the problem characteristic of all post-colonial literatures.        

“Inherent in this definition [of post-colonial literatures] is the realization of an identity crisis; an unease, a discomfort even, with one’s own cultures, a being held hostage by two cultures and yet, not belonging to either.”

(D' Haen, 1993)

 Not being able to locate this beginning, this real identity therefore becomes extremely problematic because we become susceptible to assuming an alien identity, that is not ours, and believing, because we know nothing contrary, that this foreign culture is ours to adapt. It is because of this kind of cultural assimilation which is taking place throughout the West Indies that Olive Senior feels the need to exhume the past and lay it bare for fellow West Indians to understand and appreciate.

Arguably, when we compare the content and thematic exploration of Gardening in the Tropics with that of Senior’s earlier works, we see an obvious progression from one to the other. Her previous poetic works Talking of Trees and Over the Roofs of the World seem to be more about Senior’s personal search for identity- where it has taken her and what she unearthed. In Gardening in the Tropics however, Senior seemingly exposes what she discovered in her search for cultural and national identity, and allows now the voices of all who have been formerly voiceless to comment on it. In doing this, these marginalized personas are given the chance to speak in their own language and express for themselves what colonization has done to them. For too long, others have expressed this for them, without their consent, and more often than not have not been able to aptly describe the lasting emotional and psychological effects of colonial oppression. Senior is now equipping them with the knowledge of their history and the language to tell this untold story. Thus much of the ambivalence reflected in these poems mirrors the society, and those individuals who must now be undertaking a tiring and tumultuous identity search similar to the one Senior embarked on herself. It is in her presentation of these conflicted individuals in society that we are able to note ambivalences that may still exist in Caribbean people.

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In assessing this ambivalence to place and language, we must examine the act of gardening in post-colonial theory, which is an ambiguous act in and of itself. Christopher Bongie and Peter Hallward argue that while it seeks to “eliminate oppressive hierarchies of identity, concepts of nation, race, and ethnicity, rooted in colonial history continue to be essential in delineating and preserving difference.” (Stouck, 2005) Simply put, gardening tends to expose tentative, fertile and painful truths about the cross cultural exchanges of the past. However, in asserting ourselves as Caribbean “gardeners”, we must embrace these truths as our identity markers. Among ...

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***** 5 STARS This is an excellent, beautifully written essay. Complex topics are thoughtfully and intelligently explored. Evidence of research is shown by inclusion of numerous critical voices, other poets (Nichols) and writers (Rhys) are cross referenced. A thoughtful and intelligent essay which does at times sacrifice conventional close analysis of the language of the poems in order to explore the bigger picture of displacement and colonialism.