Colonialism and Imperialism in Olive Senior’s “Summer Lightning”

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Olive Marjorie Senior, born in 1941 in Trelawny, Jamaica, is a Jamaican poet and short story writer currently living in Canada. She is regarded as a distinctive voice in West Indian literature, having explored issues as cultural nationalism, identity, class stratification, and the oppressive impact of religion on women and the poor. Her portraits of the lives of Jamaican children and women struggling to transcend ethnic, class, and gender roles are viewed as notable literary achievements of West Indian fiction.

I have chosen this writer because many of Senior’s stories are concerned with issues of ethnicity and identity. Very important is the fact that Senior denounces the role of Christianity in Jamaica as a pillar of colonial culture, in that it has influenced the education of the people. Before emancipation, African slaves were denied education; being religious people, they looked for comfort in their native cults such as Myalism, Voodoo, Shango etc.These religious practices were soon suppressed by the missionaries who arrived to convert the heathens to Christianity; although on the one hand this process brought some relief because the word of God taught them that they were not the only ones who had been oppressed, they could not deny the fact that the Jesus in the religious pictures was white.

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So, if whites were His children on earth, God also perpetuated the social inferiority of blacks.In her book on Jamaican culture, A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (1984), Senior claims that «the Church of England was the church of the ruling class and planters and therefore supported the institution of slavery». Consequently, they began to search back to the African roots, for instance to Kumina. The Revivalist and Kumina cults, together with Rastafarianism, remain, however, minor religions, and in the post-emancipation era Christianity has been embraced by an overwhelming majority.

Religion has always been of considerable importance in educational processes.I also consider that Senior uses language in order to critiques the imperialism past and present by escaping from the “literary imprisonment” of Standard English, the language of the colonizer. Olive Senior’s use of Jamaican Creole proves that she has always maintained a special relation with her homeland. She has often used Creole in her narratives, not only for comic purposes, but also to draw a realistic portrait of rural Jamaican society and to question the supremacy of British culture and values in favour of an indigenous mode of expression with strong links with Africa.

Code-switching between Jamaican Creole – although transformed in order to be understood by readers – and Standard English reflects the shift between the two households where Senior spent her childhood: her parents’ house in Trelawny Parish, a rural area near Montego Bay, and her well-off relatives’ house in Kingston. This language shift is common in Jamaica – as in all the other islands in the Caribbean – where Standard English is the official language in schools, media and public administration, while people switch to Creole in all informal situations.The fact that in Senior’s Summer Lightning (1986) the Creole-speaking characters are of humble origins and that the Creole-speaking Narrator is often a child could reinforce the notion of the vernacular as a lower linguistic medium, used by speakers who cannot master Standard English. Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986), Senior’s first collection of short fiction, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize; it consists of ten short stories set in rural Jamaican communities, utilizes Jamaican Creole, and has as focus the perspective of poor, rural children.

What I consider very interesting in what concerns this collection of short stories is that Senior uses child protagonists in order to highlight and criticize some aspects of the society they grow in, and the destructive quality these have on the innocent universe the children live in. Each story focuses on the lives of children from different economical and social backgrounds in Jamaica, each one experiencing a different form of conflict as they face a critical stage of their development.Most of the stories are written in Jamaican dialect which is rich and colourful, allowing the reader a great insight into rural Jamaica. Senior illustrates the idea that children are capable of experiencing emotions similar to those of the adults and that their views should be taken in consideration.

Childhood is a powerful trope through which the personal and social legacies of Jamaica’s colonial history are expressed. Being symbols of innocence, purity and vulnerability, children can be easily dominated and convinced to believe whatever we want them to believe.Therefore, children can be seen as representing the Other, the colonized, the subordinated one. In the short story “Summer Lightning”, told in Standard English by a third person Narrator, we find a typical example of “Jamaican household” of a boy’s aunt and uncle from the very beginning of the story; from very beginning, the main characters are also introduced: the boy, the old man, the boy’s uncle, aunt and Brother Justice (later Bro.

Justice), a Rastafarian; this last mentioned character is the boy’s only friend and the only human being who has access to his imaginary world.Senior’s choice of a Rastafarian as the boy’s lifeline can be read as an indication of a new path towards the shaping of an autonomous identity for the boy, against the alien atmosphere of his uncle and aunt’s house. What I consider intriguing is the fact that Bro. Justice is the only character who has a name in this story –and a very significant name.

Bro Justice’s rebellion against the social conventions inherited from the colonizer is evident in his drastic change after a symbolic forty days and forty nights’ disappearance, and his refusal to address the boy’s aunt as “maam” and “mistress”.The boy’s attention is diverted from Bro Justice with the arrival of a mysterious guest, described only as an “old man”, who came to stay with this family for a few weeks each year. Every time he came, he was given the garden room, which, unfortunately, also represented a private space for the boy. The young protagonist, in fact, being deprived of the warmth of a real child-oriented family, mitigated his loneliness by his imagination, which helped him create a world of his own during the afternoons spent in the garden room, the only space where he felt safe during thunderstorms.

Even his parents were excluded from this world. In this room, he could escape from reality, creating there a special universe in a different dimension, where he was the master of it all and he could control everything; he knew that, no matter how hard the real world was, “as long as he had this room he could always be happy because he could enjoy the freedom to explore secret places inside him”. When this space was occupied by the old man, the boy’s personal safe world started to fall apart.The guest slowly began to intrude the boy’s world, trying to dominate him indirectly, giving him presents and awakening his interest.

The man was aware of the fact that, being young, innocent and vulnerable, the boy provided a ‘fertile ground’ for dominance. The relation the old man had with the boy is similar to the relation between the colonizer and the colonized; colonial system perceived colonies as providers of the raw materials for the burgeoning economies of the colonial powers.Although the child was fascinated by the guest and considered him nice, he also felt there was something strange about him. The old man’s dominance also gave the boy a sense of identification.

Meanwhile, Bro. Justice began to feel lonely because the boy stopped listening to him and became more interested about their guest. Bro. Justice also noticed that the old man watched the child the same strange way he had used to watch him too when he was younger; he even talked to the boy’s aunt and tried to warn her about the man’s dirty intentions; the readers may think that he was a paedophile.

Bro. Justice also became very careful and always on the watch. All this concern and preoccupation for his cousin’s unhealthy relation with the old man instil the suspicion in the reader that the man might be a paedophile. Dangers of this kind are unfortunately not unusual in households where the parentless child is sometimes left at the mercy of people with no scruples.

Bro. Justice’s concern for the boy’s fate proves the fact that he deserves his name.Through the figure of this character, fragments of Rastafarian belief and tradition are introduced; one example is when Bro. Justice tells his cousin that lightening serves Jah (God) to identify the liars.

The Rastafari movement or Rasta is a religious movement that arose in a Christian culture in Jamaica in the 1930s. The name Rastafari is taken from Ras Tafari, the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie I, composed of Ras (literally “Head”), and Haile Selassie’s pre-regnal given name, Tafari.Rastafari are generally distinguished for asserting the doctrine that Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, is another incarnation of the Christian God, called Jah. Most see Haile Selassie I as Jah or Jah Rastafari, who is the second coming of Jesus Christ onto the Earth, but others simply consider him God’s chosen king on earth.

The Rastafarian movement encompasses themes such as the spiritual use of cannabis and the rejection of western society, called Babylon.It proclaims Africa as the original birthplace of mankind, and embraces various Afrocentric social and political aspirations, such as the socio-political views and teachings of Jamaican publicist, organizer, and black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who was also often regarded as a prophet. Through Rastafarianism, Jamaicans reclaim their African ancestry, a heritage systematically under slavery and in European colonist ideologies. Rastas might also wish to claim back, through their behaviour, parts of lost identities that Jamaican slaves lost while being transferred as slaves from Africa to Jamaica.

They are well aware of the connections between language and power, so they eradicate the personal pronoun ‘me’ and insist on ‘I’. The short story Summer Lightning, although written in Standard English, also provides an example, in Bro Justice’s speech, of the influence of Rastafarianism on Jamaican Creole: “When Jah want to search I out Jah send the lightning to see right through I. ” Deconstructing the English language is one of the means Rastas have in hand in order to fight against oppressive colonial power which even silenced their own language.As a matter of fact, one of the most serious problems Caribbean countries have faced since “independence” has been how to come to terms with the scars left by slavery and a past of colonization, and how to express a cultural identity which has been inevitably influenced by the culture of the oppressor.

What I consider strange, considering the fact that Rastafari was born out of oppression and denigration of the colonized, is the fact that this religious movement is also based on patriarchal relations. This reality is also reflected in “Summer lightening”, where the relationship between Bro.Justice and the boy’s aunt wasn’t very good; the aunt both feared and respected Bro. Justice.

Maybe this is related to the fact that this religion posed a big problem for Jamaican women who also wanted to reclaim lost pieces of identity, to regain what was rightfully theirs, to empower Afriacan-Jamaicans, but again risked oppression, this time from their own people. It may also be possible that the boy’s aunt felt both fear and respect because of the unknown symbolised by Rastafarianism, which was a new movement at that time.As the story goes on, tension accumulates, and when, one day, the old man threateningly approaches the boy in the garden room, the open ending leaves the reader with the doubt whether a sexual molestation will actually occur or Bro Justice – whose help the boy silently hopes for – will interfere to protect him. Senior’s depictions of family relationships in this story are, as Richard F.

Patteson observes in his “The fiction of Olive Senior: traditional society and the wider world”, “actually subtle attacks on systems of power dynamics analogous to those underlying colonialism itself”.Conclusion The struggle with the deconstruction of the Other (the colonized), present in ”Summer Lightning”, still goes on today. In order to deconstruct a system of stereotypes and prejudice that has been going on for such a long period of time takes ages. And although we may think that the postmodern world of today is in a post-state of mind relating to colonialism, the struggle still goes on oppressing many peoples that are not white, male etc.

The question of struggle for equality becomes the question of identity and the problem of not fitting in a frame idealised identity. nialism in Oli

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