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 these truths is that “gardening”, the very means by which we seek to liberate ourselves, is the source and site of our subjugation. The native Amerindians and West Africans were enslaved to serve as labourers on tobacco farms, sugar and coffee estates, and later on, after emancipation, the freed slave returns to work for little to nothing on the banana plantations. It is almost as if the more the Caribbean gardener digs, the more frightening the truth and the greater his/ her resentment of colonization becomes. Senior channels this resentment through the speaker of “Meditation on Yellow”, whose mood progresses from subtle sarcasm, in describing the innocence of the island Arawaks, to anger and frustration, when describing the eventual violent resistance of the African slaves. Interestingly, Senior allows the language of the speaker to tell the story as there is very little of the poet’s own voice. In absolute frustration, the speaker proclaims:
“I've been slaving in the cane rows
for your sugar
I've been ripening coffee beans
for you morning break
I've been dallying on the docks
loading your bananas
I've been toiling in orange groves
for your marmalade
I've been peeling ginger
for your relish
I've been chopping cocoa pods
for your chocolate bars
I've been mining aluminium
for your foil
-Meditation on Yellow (Senior, 2005)
Here, the speaker totally removes herself from any connection with the land, because it has been become a weapon, rather than an aid to the speaker. The movement from cane rows to mining shows the massive expanse of time for which she has been physically oppressed. Notice also the lack of possession on the part of the speaker as in all cases, only the person in power benefits from the fruits of her labour. However, she regains her love for the land that was originally hers with the assertion of “you cannot take away/ the sun dropping by for a chat/ I want to feel/ you cannot stop/ Yellow Macca bursting through/ the soil reminding us/ of what’s buried there” (Senior, 2005). Once the speaker reclaims the land, she conquers her identity and asserts her refusal to be dominated any further.
Olive Senior thus emphasizes the need for us to understand that our identity lies in regional space. Because of our history, that of years of working this land, it is who we are. Rather than deny it, we must embrace the complexities our cultivation will reveal to us, as this is the only means through which we will achieve the lasting liberation we desire.
Marlene Phillip (1989) asserts “English for women writers from the Caribbean can be both a ‘mother tongue’ and a ‘foreign language/ l’anguish’”. It is perhaps for this reason that many of Senior’s personas in her poems speak both Creole and Standard English, flawlessly switching between the two. This highlights the key difference between the “father tongue” and the “mother tongue”. The “father-tongue” (Standard English) is laced with patriarchal myths and is not language but ‘l’anguish’ for the persona. The “mother tongue” (Creole or Patois) becomes the language of the persona as it enables self-expression to a greater extent than Standard English. In allowing the speakers to express themselves in patois, she is able to portray a diverse range of characters from a reminiscent child to scolding grandmother.
This discourse on language in this instance is in the choice of the writer. Creole had to be incorporated as we the readers would not get a full appreciation and understanding of voice of the speaker. In fact, in “Tropic Love”, the absence of any Creole in the entire poem may potentially mislead the reader with regard to the context of the poem. From what the woman says to her lover “Love me and my family or leave me/ to sit by the roadside to sell,/ by the riverside taking in washing,/ by milady's fire cooking for my living” we may assume she is of a lower class, as these jobs are usually undertaken by domestic workers. However, as is seen in “Hurricane Story, 1988” for example, Senior usually uses Creole to highlight the social context and class of the speaker. Perhaps it is that Senior crafted this poem in such a way as to highlight the importance of language in the identification of place and identity, reminding us that “accurate rendition of truth requires authenticity of language” (Campbell & Frickey, 1998). Readers are left to surmise the real location of this conversation as it would be suitable in either a lower class or middle class setting. If it is a lower class setting, we wonder why she refrained from using the “cuss-cuss” voice, as she does in poems such as “Hurricane Story, 1944”, as a child criticizes her father’s love for flashy things. Then again, could this be her aim? That our language should transcend the social boundaries to which we restrict ourselves?
Ambivalence then is provoked within us, who have been conditioned into accepting colonial language as “right” and “proper”, and associating it with only certain types of people. In order to break this kind of mentality, rather than demean and look down upon Creole, it is for us to embrace it, not just as the dialect of the people and of informal speech, but as a language of freedom, meant to be as exalted and as recognized as the language of the colonizer. It is necessary therefore for us to know both Standard English and Creole, since you cannot dismantle and dissolve the patriarchal myths that accompany the father tongue if you are not able to understand what those myths mean. Grace Nichols, a Guyanese novelist and poet, in her poem “Epilogue” explores the importance of shaping this new language that we may claim as our own “I have crossed an ocean/ I have lost my tongue/ From the root of the old one/ A new one has sprung.”
As Senior approaches the subject of migration and displacement, her tone becomes nostalgic and reflective as she ponders a renewed identity crisis upon dislocation away from her motherland. “Meditation on Red” stands out from the collection as it holds a distinctly more personal significance for Senior than the other poems as we are able to see more of her voice rather than that of another persona. Written as a kind of epitaph in memory of fellow diasporic writer Jean Rhys, “Meditation on Red” stresses the difficulties women face when writing as a part of the African and Afro- Caribbean diaspora. Olive Senior establishes a connection between herself and Rhys not only because they both eventually migrated from the West Indies, but also because they shared similar racial mix and thus had similar experiences of alienation and discrimination upon leaving the Caribbean. Both women faced the crisis of figuring out where exactly they belonged if they were too light-skinned to be accepted by lower class West Indians who felt they could not relate to them, but on the other hand not light enough in comparison to white North Americans and Europeans to be accepted.
Travelling, dislocation and displacement feature as important motifs in this poem. Within the context in which they are used, they indicate a sense of aimlessness, longing and in a sense exile. Senior implies that she was able to clarify much of her identity issues through the help of the works of Rhys. She states:
I'm as divided
as you were
by that sea.
be able to
find my way
for that craft
is so seaworthy
than you'd ever been”
-Meditation on Red (Senior, 2005)
Gardening for the diasporic writers provides a means of expatriation and reconnecting with their lost home. According to (Stouck, 2005) “Senior writes on the ways in which gardening can become a form of relating to a new place or of establishing identity through understanding the place of origin…” . They are able to recover what they lost in the process of relocating to a new place, and are less susceptible to assuming an unknown foreign identity. Through gardening and cultivating of writers such as Senior and Rhys, the women of the African and Afro- Caribbean diaspora are able to retain their cultural identities irrespective of where they settle. Gardening is able to cure feelings of nostalgia and through their gardening these writers in turn inspire more women in the diaspora to begin their own gardening.
As a post-colonial diasporic writer, the act of gardening is essential to Olive Senior’s discourse on place and language. She must unearth centuries of buried practices, traditions and cultures, and in the process determine those keys elements which define her personal identity. It is a deeply therapeutic and cathartic process, but on the other hand it represents a struggle to understand one’s place and furthermore, to effectively express what one feels for this place. These cultivated works aim to merge the pre-colonial past with the colonial experience, to create a truthful account of our lived experiences that is unlike the falsehoods that have been created about us for centuries. Their objective is to disrupt the continuance of an identity crisis. They disclose the absolute truth of distinction between who we were, and what colonization made us, so that we understand the genesis of our language and culture, and that it is our regional space that will determine this cultural identity.
Gardening in the Tropics, as a post-colonial work of fiction from diasporic writer fulfils this purpose and promotes confidence in cultural identity, irrespective of place and language. Senior stretches the boundaries of the genre of poetry through her careful manipulation of the voice, context and language of these poems, crafting them in ways that totally defy pre-conceived notions of how not just poetry is supposed to sound, but how it looks. She obliterates all kinds of limits and the end results are that of poems unconventionally compiled, which detail a definitely unconventional message.
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Lendon, H. (2005, March). Home is Where the Heart Lies: Nostalgia in the Work of Contemporary Diasporic Caribbean Women Poets. Retrieved November 17, 2011, from www.uow.edu.au/content/groups/public/@web/.../uow019513.pdf
Mahendran, M. (2001, September 1). Re-imagining the Caribbean garden in Jamaica Kincaid's My Garden (Book), Olive Senior's Gardening in the Tropics and Dionne Brnad's In Another Place, Not Here. Retrieved November 16, 2011, from http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/opendissertations/5846
Phillip, M. N. (1989). Discourse on the Logic of Language. In M. N. Phillip, She Tries Her Tognue: Her Silence Softly Breaks (p. 56). Charlottetown: P. E. I.
Senior, O. (2001). Talk Yuh Talk. (K. Dawes, Interviewer)
Senior, O. (2005). Gardening in the Tropics. Toronto: Insomniac Press.
Stouck, J. (2005, December 1). Gardening in the diaspora: place and identity in Olive Senior's poetry. Retrieved September 24, 2011, from www.goliath.ecnext.com: http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-5066551/Gardening-in-the-diaspora-place.html
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
***** 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.