Jamaican-Canadian writer Olive Senior wishes grads a ‘happy adventuring’   

York University Chancellor Gregory Sorbara, Olive Senior, and York University Provost & Vice-President Academic, Lisa Philipps

By Alysia Burdi

During the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies convocation morning ceremony, held on June 15, Olive Senior, an award-winning Canadian writer and public intellectual of Jamaican heritage received an honorary doctor of laws from York University.  

Senior addressed convocation sharing one lesson she learned early in life that has sustained her throughout life. 

“Like others in this room, perhaps, I was not born with a silver spoon or with very much, really,” she said. “I had no plan and didn’t know what to expect of life. I grew up in a mountain village on the island of Jamaica – at that time still a colonial state. We were more or less self-sufficient as small farming communities were at that time, but with little in the way of opportunity. I didn’t get many presents. But I had one gift, the gift that all children are born with but which many, unfortunately, lose along the way. That is, the gift of curiosity.” 

Honorary doctors of laws recipient Olive Senior addressing convocation

Curiosity, as Senior explained it, is an attribute that is innate. “We are born surveying the world, but we often lose the gift in the process of being claimed by and inducted into the world.”  

Senior said her curiosity has continued to allow her to ask questions and seek answers. It is the engine that has driven her life and her work.

Senior is among a rare group of Caribbean Canadian women writers whose consistent and abundant output is widely read around the world. She has mastered multiple genres – fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry. Her work has been translated into French and Spanish and forms an essential part of any university curriculum dealing with Caribbean or postcolonial literature.

Recalling her life as not a simple journey, but a challenging adventure, Senior made reference to her first role model, the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. Carroll’s iconic story has been loved and enjoyed by generations of children, with the curious, quick-witted Alice at its heart who falls down a rabbit hole and in a surrealistic series of adventures confronting a world seemingly turned upside down.

“A world that does not make immediate sense, but is a puzzle that has to be unravelled. A world increasingly like our own,” said Senior. 

What resonated with Senior at a young age was following the journey of Alice, a young protagonist her age trying to make sense of things, including her own identity crisis. 

“This activist stance had an indelible effect on me as a child, so much so it became the template for how I have proceeded both in life and in art. Everything I have ever written comes from a confrontation with something that is a puzzle to me, something that I need to unravel. It may be a short poem or a heavily researched book about, for instance, my grandfather’s generation that built the Panama Canal or an Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage that I tackled, single-handedly over many years. Each of the nearly 1,000 entries was a response to my wanting to punch through the darkness of the unknown and open up to myself and others truth and light,” said Senior.  

In her literary work, largely rooted in the Black Atlantic space, Senior has unearthed historical truths long hidden. She noted that “for only by making sense of the world can one find oneself.” 

Senior added a stubborn curiosity is the main ingredient to confront the unknown and pave the way through, because only through curiosity can lives truly be enriched, make for better citizenship, better workers, parents, leaders and influencers.  

“We should never let go of that desire to find things out for ourselves, to feed our imaginations, to know. Only by continuing with the quest can we nourish ourselves and enhance our world, create a life that is more just, equitable and humane for everyone,” she said.   

Senior asked graduates to consider “who are the leaders in this new world but the very people who are most curious, the most willing to explore and investigate, the ones who use their imagination.” 

She told students they are “standing on the edge of a new world” and to let go of some certainties and embrace the “other side.” She explained, “University has equipped you with the tools to acquire knowledge; I hope that among your tools will be a reawakening also of the child in you, the one eager to explore, to challenge and to ask questions; that will awaken the spirit of adventure needed to journey down this rabbit hole. Nothing has prepared us for the moment, but we can seize it with courage and curiosity.” 

In closing, Senior quoted her childhood role model. “As Alice says, ‘It is no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’ And I might add: The world was also different then… happy adventuring.”