A stirring passage in Olive Senior’s haunting first novel, Dancing Lessons, depicts the wordless, mesmerizing courtship of Gertrude, the story’s heroine. Gertrude, a lonely, emotionally neglected teenager, is being raised by her grandmother and aunt just outside Kingston, Jamaica. The family are light-skinned blacks, members of a respected country clan that prizes their fair complexion above all. They are so cold and uncommunicative that several years elapse before Gertrude even realizes she is the illegitimate daughter of the shellshocked veteran who wanders in and out of their lives. Gertrude is the product of his scandalous affair with a dark-skinned woman, who passes away when she is small. Gertrude is lonely the rest of her life.
As a teenager, Gertrude’s primary pleasure comes from her weekly jaunts to the local store where she spends her meagre pocket money on mouth-watering sweets. One day she notices a man eyeing her from across the street. She recognizes him as her father’s distant cousin. Sam Samphire’s penetrating gaze suffuses her body with heat. After that, he appears most weeks, although they never exchange a word and their eyes barely meet. One day he arrives on horseback, sweeps her off her feet and gallops them off to a new life. She is 15 years old.
This romantic scene echoes the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Taken as a whole, however, Dancing Lessons, which recounts all of Gertrude’s long, arduous existence, emanates a gothic air. This is the first novel I have read that represents the life of a Jamaican woman with such dark fidelity to the island’s crippling history. Dancing Lessons may be aptly compared to the novels of Antigua’s Jamaica Kincaid, especially The Autobiography of My Mother. Both Kincaid and Senior illuminate the theme of child abandonment central to Caribbean life; and both examine the black woman’s quest to know and accept without the reassuring mirror of a mother’s love.
Olive Senior received the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1987 for her story collection Summer Lightning. She went on to delight readers with collections such as Discerner of Hearts, which showcased her inimitable ability to convey character through voice. Senior is also a glorious poet. Her collection Over the Roofs of the World earned a nomination for a Governor General’s Award in 2005. Gardening in the Tropics contains “Meditation on Yellow,” one of her best-loved poems—a sumptuous, extended, witty rendition of Caribbean history from the perspective of its oppressed peoples. Jamaican history is a major preoccupation for Senior, particularly as it manifests in the lives of Jamaican women. In Dancing Lessons, Gertrude’s running stream of consciousness weaves us through a devastated family history, the catastrophic consequences of the island’s slave past.
The life Sam sweeps Gertrude away to proves to be as lonely as the one she leaves behind. An inveterate womanizer, Sam is soon staying out all night. Meanwhile, the couple can barely scrape enough together to feed their growing family. When a wealthy white pastor and his wife offer to give their daughter Celia a comfortable home and good schools, Gertrude and Sam hand her over. Celia is only six or seven, but she never comes home again, and the decision to send her away ultimately destroys the family.
The Autobiography of My Mother is Jamaica Kincaid’s fictional biography of her mother’s life. And it is likely that Dancing Lessons’ Gertrude is in part a fictionalized representation of the life of Senior’s mother, and Celia, perhaps, representative of Senior herself. The author was born in what is known as the “cockpit country” in Jamaica in 1941, the seventh of ten children belonging to a poor farmer and his wife. Like Celia, Senior was sent to live with wealthy people—in Senior’s case, relatives with property. She felt lonely and alienated in her new, fancy home. It was a far cry from the modest dwellings in the isolated rural village where Senior had run about barefoot. Senior frequently draws upon this period of her life to illuminate the difficult choices Jamaican parents often make. But never before has her depiction of the Jamaican dilemma felt so painfully intimate.
In Dancing Lessons, Celia’s departure from the family devastates her three younger siblings and so does the sudden disappearance of Sam, who abandons Gertrude to move in with another woman. The loss of their sister and father traumatizes the three younger children. But a bitter Gertrude neglects to explain to them what has happened.
Didn’t I of all people know the awfully destructive power of silence? Yet I silenced my own children with a look, forced their own words back inside them with a hand raised to strike. For I hit them, O yes, and don’t tell me anything now about child abuse and cruelty. What did people like us know?
The silence, sadness and confusion of this family wrench the reader’s heart. Yet Gertrude has no idea how to communicate, or how to mother, or how to express love. It is to Senior’s credit that the emotions she arouses in the reader are as complicated as Gertrude herself.
It is almost a relief to know that Gertrude develops into an unsympathetic old woman, a true curmudgeon, insecure, yes, but feisty as well. At the retirement home she pilfers pens and mangoes. She is reprimanded for accosting an unsuspecting resident and coercing him to dance. She invents cruel nicknames for her wealthy, fair-skinned housemates, whom she believes only accept her because her daughter is wealthy and fair-skinned too.
Class and colour are the pernicious facts that have always defined Gertrude’s life. As a child she despises her crinkly hair and muddy eyes and fleshy nose, so different from the features of her father, grandmother and aunt. “To this day,” says Gertrude, “I have no idea if as a child I was really ugly or beautiful, for I had no one to tell me.” Of course, her black mother might have taught her to love herself, and to see herself as beautiful. But her black mother is dead. For Senior, as for Kincaid, the absent black mother represents the absent black Africa and the challenges of coming to accept oneself without the validation of one’s culture.
Dancing Lessons sways between Gertrude’s sober past and her brightening present. It contains some downright hilarious scenes, as when a Rastafarian cabbie takes Gertrude on a wild taxi ride through Kingston. But for the most part Senior eschews the standard Jamaican laughs. Omitted as well are the bevy of “strong” maternal presences that bound back from misfortune and endure like Mother Earth. Senior replaces those idealistic icons with historically damaged women whose absent mother and distant fathers prevent them from properly growing up.