August 2018, I spent a northern hemisphere summer in Toronto, Canada visiting family and friends while soaking up the heat. Born in Jamaica, I had grown up in Toronto since my teenage days, so my return there always feels like a homecoming, even though on every visit, familiar landmarks continue to recede at a rapid rate.
Toronto is one of the most multicultural and multiracial cities in the world, which includes a huge first, second and third generation West Indian community. So heading out my front door of a morning, I see many faces that have the look and feel of me, enlivening the fragile roots living away from one’s birthplace can foster. And, the flavour and food of the Caribbean is in evidence everywhere - from the simplicity of picking up a pattie or roti at the corner store to enjoying saltfish and ackee, rice and peas, jerk chicken, oxtail soup, curry goat and red stripe beer in many restaurants. There are also Caribbean film festivals, art exhibitions, music gigs all part of the lead up to the highly anticipated Caribana street festival that takes place every year in August.
During my stay, I was delighted and honoured to have lunch with Olive Senior, the Jamaican poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer who is based in Toronto and Shivaun Hearne, the youngest daughter of John Hearne (1926-1994), the Jamaican novelist and short story writer.
We met at the Art Square Café & Gallery, a crepe place on busy Dundas Street in the heart of downtown Toronto, just across the road from the magnificent Art Gallery of Ontario and the lively and vibrant Chinatown. Over assorted crepes, we spent a leisurely afternoon talking about books and writing including Senior's most recent non-fiction book: Dying To Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, which was published by the University of West Indies Press in September, 2014 – one hundred years after the opening of the Panama Canal.
West Indians have always left their tiny islands, travelling far looking for work, ways to better themselves. Senior takes us back, to the years between 1850-1914 and the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal when a massive number of West Indians lost their lives working on these projects, the lucky ones survived, made their fortunes and went home, while some stayed and became citizens of Panama.
Drawing on primary and secondary sources, Senior gives us a detailed account of not only the men, but also the women who travelled to Panama; the type of work they did; the conditions they lived under, and what happened when they returned home or stayed on in Panama. It’s a fascinating, in-depth read supported by numerous photographs and has led to many people discovering images of long lost relatives and reading their stories.
It was the first time I met Shivaun Hearne, who edited Olive’s book and who manages editorial and production for the University of the West Indies Press. It was totally engaging to hear about the massive research and edit job that was involved and how encouraging it was when the book was shortlisted for the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winning the non-fiction category.
Shivaun is also an author in her own right and has written a literary biography - John Hearne’s Life and fiction: A Critical Biographical Study. It’s an examination of her father’s life and work and is the reworking of her MA thesis originally completed in 1999, four years after her father’s death. A labour of love, the biography was published 14 years later, in 2013, by the Caribbean Quarterly, University of the West Indies. John Hearne was one of the first wave of West Indian writers to achieve international recognition in the 1950s and the first Jamaican author published by Faber and Faber. He was a contemporary of V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Roger Mais, Andrew Salkey and Samuel Selvon.
In taking a biographical approach to her father’s writing, Shivaun has provided an indispensible context for a more comprehensive understanding about his work and his evolution as an artist. For any serious student of Caribbean literature or any reader seeking a broader understanding in relation to the culture of the region in the early days of independence: John Hearne’s Life and fiction: A Critical Biographical Study is essential reading. There’s a great review by F.S.J. Ledgister: I am looking for a hero
For a first-time novelist, it was stimulating to swap stories and to hear about the familiar agony and ecstasy one experiences throughout not only the writing and research, but the publication process as well. By the end of lunch, still slightly in awe of these two fabulous women, I walked away filling nourished and buoyed to continue on my own creative journey and looking forward to meeting up again, on another sunny day in Toronto.