Selection Committee Citation
"Olive Senior truly exemplifies the writing life. She left her native Jamaica in 1989, intending to take a year off to write. That year became two, and then three, and now she has been living in Toronto, supporting herself with her writing, for 26 years. Since her first book of short stories, Summer Lightning and Other Stories, came out in 1986 — winning her first Commonwealth Writers Prize — she has explored her own Caribbean roots and the lingering effect of colonialism on modern Caribbean society. Her stories are rich and compassionate, and beneath their straightforward surfaces lurk the darker hints of what one critic has termed 'the complex seduction of the victim after colonization.'
One of the jurors remarked that a single line in Olive Senior’s novel, Dancing Lessons — 'For it is only in other people’s gaze that we see ourselves, isn’t it' — 'changed my perspective on life, and I never forgot it.'
In all her books, however, from her collection of poems, Shell, shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award, to books of stories, such as The Discerner of Hearts and The Pain Tree, Olive Senior has examined the subtle roles of race and class in the world’s ever-shifting hierarchies. By bringing to light the complex and sometimes opposing effects of colonialism on the lives of the colonized, for example, her work is now at the centre of one of the most vital debates in Canadian literature.
Through her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Olive Senior is devoted to ensuring that the voices of women, especially those of the Caribbean diaspora, have continued to be heard. 'I’ve been meandering across borders all my life,' she has said, and that cross-cultural perspective is what gives her work its refreshing, eye-opening, life-changing relevance."
—2019 Matt Cohen Award Committee (Patsy Aldana, Graeme Gibson, Wayne Grady, and Don Oravec)