Austin Chesterfield Clarke, novelist, short-story writer, journalist (born 26 July 1934 in St. James, Barbados; died 26 June 2016 in Toronto, ON).
Austin Chesterfield Clarke, novelist, short-story writer, journalist (born 26 July 1934 in St. James, Barbados; died 26 June 2016 in Toronto, ON). Clarke arrived in Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto but subsequently ventured into employment in various fields, including journalism. In due course, he turned increasingly to fiction, grist for his work being provided primarily by his interactions with West Indian immigrants, his own experiences as a black in Canada, and his familiarity with colonial and post-colonial Barbadian society. His first published novel, The Survivors of the Crossing (1964), dealt with the life of blacks on a Barbadian plantation and was quickly followed by Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965), which again focused on the West Indian peasant and sought to restore him "to his true and original status of personality." Next came Clarke's trilogy - The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973) and The Bigger Light (1975) - which was set in Toronto and offered the first comprehensive treatment in fiction of the complexities and ambiguities of black, West Indian immigrant life in Canada. Clarke also wrote short stories, his first published collection being When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971). This work appeared shortly after the start of a series of appointments as visiting lecturer at such institutions as Yale University (1968-70), Duke University (1971-72) and the University of Texas (1973), which enabled Clarke to interact with black American intellectuals, artists and activists and in turn led him to a greater interest in the black experience in North America, specifically to such themes as black marginalization, the emasculation of the black male and the question of black identity.
After the distractions of his designation as the Cultural Attaché of Barbados in Washington in 1973 and as Acting General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados in 1975, he returned to his writing, his experiences in Barbados inspiring the novel The Prime Minister (1977), which highlighted the moral bankruptcy of politicians and political leaders in neo-colonial Barbados. Clarke followed this work up in 1979-82 with a long series of articles in the Barbadian newspaper The Nation on various dimensions of Barbadian life. His next major work was a scintillating autobiography, Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack (1980), a satire of the main institutions of the Barbados of his youth, which won the 1980 Casa de las Americas Literary Prize. This was followed by two short-story collections - When Women Rule (1985) and Nine Men Who Laughed (1986) - which dealt mainly with black immigrants and by the novel Proud Empires (1986), which again explored life in neo-colonial Barbadian society. Clarke's writing career faltered briefly on his appointment in 1988 to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, but when he finally returned to his writing in 1992 his journalistic interests were apparent in Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth (1992) and In This City (1992), two tracts on racial issues written with some balance and moderation. He also wrote A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon (1994). His main published work in the early 1990s, however, was another collection of stories, There Are No Elders (1993).
In recent years, Clarke's career has soared. He published The Origin of Waves (1997), for which he won the 1998 Rogers Communication Writers Trust Prize, and another novel, The Question (1999). In 1999, he was again honoured for his work, this time with the W.O. Mitchell Prize. Clarke has also ventured into another genre, as evidenced by Pigtails n' Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food, a Barbadian Memoir (1999), which cleverly wedded local recipes with political, social and historical commentaries, and Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir (2004). He also re-issued some of his stories in a new collection, Choosing the Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke (2004). His crowning achievement, however, was the publication of his Joycean tome The Polished Hoe (2002), for which he was awarded the prestigious Giller Prize for fiction (2002), the 16th Annual Trillium Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Best Book Award for Canada and the Caribbean region (2003) and the Commonwealth Writers Award for best book.
“We are all lost,” a preacher shouts from a car radio at a son and mother in the title story of Choosing His Coffin, a collection of 20 of Austin Clarke’s best short stories. The two are driving in search of a cemetery, in which the mother plans to buy plots for her comatose husband and, eventually, herself. The son’s internalized, half-sarcastic response: “I feel I am lost. In this Monday morning traffic, I know I am lost. My mother accepts being lost.”
One of the central ironies of Austin Clarke’s career must certainly be that he came from Barbados, 48 years ago, to a country from which, as is widely half-joked, artists often have to leave to become successful. Someone might have told him, Canada is not the place to find yourself, especially if you are a writer.
The poet George Elliott Clarke calls Austin Clarke’s stories “Horatio Alger burlesques in which striving West Indian male immigrants often achieve a middle-class lifestyle and respectability, but at the price of losing their authenticity, their ‘roots’ culture, or, if partially Americanized, their blackness.” While touching on the truth (everything in Clarke’s stories is exaggerated, theatrical), the critical tone of this summary is far too dismissive and limiting. What does it mean in Canada, where the majority of Clarke’s stories are set, to be authentic? As we see in Choosing His Coffin, Clarke’s oeuvre is exactly an exploration of that question.
“I was trying to make her see that the defence of my present predicament and the future was to be found in my ability to remember the past.” So runs the logic, in the story “The Discipline,” of a Bajan-Canadian immigrant accused of breaking his teenage son’s ribs. There is no question as to his guilt, yet Clarke engages our sympathies by showing how, faced with sterile, impersonal laws in Canada, the father is cut off from an idyllic, rural past.
In two other stories, “The Man” and “A Slow Death,” two loners – an eccentric collector and a grieving widower – are presented in portraits of doomed antisocial obsession. “A Short Drive,” which finds a Bajan-Canadian in the deep American south unknowingly in the arms of a transvestite, traces the process of a mask unveiling a mask unveiling a mask to expose a place where no one really belongs.
A comedy of courtship, “The Motor Car” details a man’s journey from Barbados to Toronto where he is undone by material greed in his quest for a Plymouth Galaxie. “If the Bough Breaks” takes us into a Toronto hair parlour to witness a comedy of bickering housewives shattered by the horror of rape. The masterful “Griff!” presents a snob so in denial of his Bajan heritage that he exercises a contorted, and ultimately grisly and sociopathic, bigotry against fellow immigrants who have not, like himself, come to Toronto via England.
These are indeed stories of people striving toward, or functioning within, the middle class. But then, so are the fictions of Alice Munro, Dennis Bock, Madeleine Thien, Mordecai Richler, Nino Ricci, and hundreds more. Canada after all is, for most, a land of immigrants. Austin Clarke’s stories turn on catastrophe – children are brutalized, spouses die, houses burn, fortunes are lost. These catastrophes often come as exactly the opposite of the “price of [lost] authenticity” suggested by George Elliott Clarke.
Austin Clarke doesn’t so easily let his characters shake off their pasts. But while his characters are black, the catastrophes are universal and human. These stories, or versions of them, could happen to just about any Canadian. What does it mean to be authentic in Canada? As Clarke shows, foremost it means to be human, and for most it means to be an immigrant. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Another irony of Clarke’s career is that, amongst the wide range of his talents – his alternately explosive and razor-sharp facility for dialogue, the joyful musicality of his prose, his deadly sense of satire, his raucous and startling plots, his hilarious characters and caricatures – at the centre of all this is his remarkable feeling for place. He is one of only a handful of writers who captures with perfect mournfulness the hollow grittiness of Toronto’s downtown streets. Conversely, like the young Mordecai Richler writing in Paris about Montreal, Clarke’s fictive remembrances of Barbados are elegiac and Elysian.
That last is a comparison too delicious. How do you find yourself in a place like Canada? There’s a question Richler could certainly expound on! After 48 years, 10 novels, seven short-story and four non-fiction collections, a Giller Prize and the Caribbean and Canadian regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, it’s also a question that remains the nub, and the rub, of Austin Clarke’s writing.