OLIVE SENIOR, WHO WON the 1987 Commonwealth Writers Prize, is likely to be an award contender once again with her new book of short stories. Discerner of Hearts is the work of a confident, mature writer, one who fully "inhabits" her material and moves with fluid ease between the rural and urban diction of her Caribbean homeland.
"Zig Zag," the title of the affecting novella that concludes Senior's third short story collection, refers to the unruly hair cascading from the head of Sadie, the story's young protagonist, but the term might also describe the way the author's own life has criss-crossed cultures, distances, and genres of writing.
Perhaps best known for her first book of short stories, Summer Lightning, the Commonwealth Writers Prize- winner, Senior is also the author of two books of poetry (Talking of Trees, 1986, and Gardening in the Tropics, 1994) and a 1989 story collection, Arrival of the Snake-Woman. In addition, she's written three books of non-fiction: The Message Is Change, about the 1972 Jamaican general elections; a reference book, A-Z of Jamaican Heritage; and Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean (199 1), which combines "formal academic research with women's own narratives."
Especially for North American readers unfamiliar with the racial and social conflicts in the region they regard primarily as a site for winter-vacation escapades, the nine stories in Discerner of Hearts might be seen as the fictional continuation of that project. Drawing on her own childhood spent moving between "the two extremes [rural poverty and urban wealth] of a continuum based on race, color and class in Jamaica," Senior's stories provocatively trace the nuanced tensions between modem and traditional culture, between different shades of Jamaicans, and between employers and their servants. These stories are not sociology or psychology, but they draw their material subtly and acutely from both realms.
For instance, in the collection's title story, Senior probes class differences by presenting the emotional life of a servant named Cissy, as seen through the eyes of a child named Theresa Randolph. The middle sister in an upper- middle-class family, Theresa has a special bond with Cissy, who started working for the Randolphs at 14, just before Theresa was born. Theresa is Cissy's confidante and her protegee; she is closer to Cissy than she is to her mother or sisters. Through the dramas of Cissy's life -- her reliance on folk medicine, her passion for the womanizing Fonso Tomlinson, her desire to have a baby with him before people begin to think she is a "mule" -Theresa begins to comprehend realities beyond those purveyed by her educated, urban parents, who have turned their backs on all the "country" ways.
When Theresa questions Cissy's reliance upon the "Blackartman" Mr. Burnham's remedies to help her lure Fonso the duality of Jamaican society is clear:
"What's a balmyard, Cissy?"
"Where people go for healing."
"What is healing?"
"What people need when they have sickness."
"Why don't they go to Dr. Carter?"
"There is sick, and then again there is sick."
"But Mr. Burnham isn't a doctor."
"There is doctor and there is doctor."
Theresa knows that "when Cissy carried on like that," it was no use pressing her. But ultimately, the young girl's love for Cissy forces her to overcome her fears and get Mr. Burnham's help to defeat the "bad obeah" afflicting Cissy. In her quest, Theresa discovers a gentle "discerner of hearts" who understands her unhappy position as the shy, plain sister caught between her two beautiful, compliant siblings.
Aside from the economic and social legacy of a colonial history, racially defined "beauty" is one of the great determinants in the lives of Senior's characters. Women's fate, especially, is determined by having the "right" skin colour and hair; light skin and straight hair, not "nayga hair and darkened skin," are coveted in this time before "black is beautiful."
In Senior's stories we meet characters crushed by the past -- men like Uncle, in "'Me Case Against the Queen," who never recovers from a sojourn in England and shames his family by not "keeping his madness at home," and Isabella Francina Myrtella Jones in "You Think I Mad, Miss?" whose bag-lady soliloquy affronts upwardly mobile "facety" Jamaicans despite its pure street poetry -but we also meet indomitable spirits like Miss Evadney, whose pride and independence keep her faith in her "chocho vine" strong despite her disrespectful ganja-growing neighbours.
To paraphrase Cissy, "Mere is writer and there is writer." Evocative, honest and wonderfully nuanced, these are indeed stories by one discerning in both head and heart.