Clarke, Austin C. 1934–
Austin C. Clarke 1934–
Novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist Austin Clarke has sometimes been hailed as Canada’s first multicultural writer. A native of Barbados, Clarke arrived in Toronto in the 1950s and began a career in journalism soon afterward that included time as managing editor of Contrast, the city’s flagship black newspaper. At the same time, he wrote a number of well-received novels that portrayed the life of Caribbean transplants such as himself to the northernmost cities of North America. “For more than three decades, Clarke, in oracular style, has delineated the blend of vigour and resilience that informs the experience of the exiled West Indian,” declared Globe and Mail writer Donna Nurse.
Clarke was born in the town of St. James in 1934. At the time, Barbados was a colonial possession of Britain, with a large population of English who worked there as civil servants or owned large plantations on which Barbadians worked. Clarke’s father was an artist, and his mother worked as a hotel laundress. As a youth, he excelled in school and was accepted at Combermere, the top school in Barbados and considered the first step toward a career in the civil service— the best financial opportunity toward which a Barbadian might aspire on the island. He then went on to Harrison College, the leading post-secondary school on the island, from which every prime minister of Barbados had graduated. For a time in the early 1950s, Clarke taught school, but realized his opportunities were limited. He dreamed of studying in England, and applied to and was accepted at both Oxford University and the London School of Economics; his financial circumstances, however, would not permit it, and so he decided to go to Canada instead.
Arriving in Montreal in 1955, Clarke first attended McGill University, and then relocated to Toronto to study economics and politics at Trinity College. He found work as a journalist in Timmins and Kirkland Lake, Ontario, then worked as a freelance producer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) after 1963. That same year, he caused a minor stir with an article he wrote for Maclean’s, the country’s leading weekly, titled “A Black Man Talks about Race Prejudice in White Canada.” In it, Clarke “wrote about his inability to find a decent job and of being routinely snubbed by waitresses and sales clerks in favour of white customers,” the same magazine reported 36 years later. The notoriety helped land him a publisher for his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, which appeared the following year. The work follows the story of Rufus, who works on a sugar plantation in Barbados that is owned by wealthy whites; Rufus leads workers in labor action against owners, but the plantation owners and the island’s middle-class blacks band together to quell it.
Clarke’s first collection of short stories, Amongst Thistles and Thorns, appeared in 1965. One of the tales recounts the adventures of a nine-year-old boy who runs away from home and finds his birth father, who tells him fantastical stories about a black mecca in America, New York City’s Harlem. Clarke himself had
At a Glance…
Born on July 26, 1934, in St James, Barbados; became Canadian citizen, 1985; son of Kenneth Trothan and Gladys Clarke; married Trinity Collego (divorced); married Betty Joyce Reynolds, 1957; children: Janice, Loretta, Jordan (a.k.a. Mphahlele). Education: Attended McGill University, c. 1955, and the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, c. 1956–59.
Career: Teacher, Barbados, c. 1952–55; newspaper reporter, Ontario, 1959–60; Canadian Broadcasting Corp., producer and freelance broadcaster, beginning 1963; Barbados Embassy, Washington, DC, cultural and press attaché, 1974–76; Caribbean Broadcasting Corp., Barbados, general manager, 1975–76; freelance journalist for Toronto Globe and Mail and CBC; Yale University, Hoyt fellow, 1968, visiting professor of Afro-American literature and creative writing, 1968–71; Brandeis Univ., Jacob Ziskind Professor of Literature, 1968–69; Williams College, Margaret Bundy Scott Visiting Professor of Literature, 1971; Duke Univ., lecturer, 1971–72; Univ. of Texas, visiting professor, 1973–74; Concordia Univ., Quebec, writer in residence, 1977; Univ. of Western Ontario, writer in residence, 1978; Contrast, managing editor.
Member: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, member, 1988-; Writers Guild; Writers’ Union of Canada, founding member; Yale Club.
Awards: President’s Medal for best story, Univ. of Western Ontario, 1966; Belmont Short Story Award, 1965; Canada Council, senior arts fellow, 1968, 1970, 1974, grant, 1977; Indiana Univ. School of Letters, fellow, 1969; Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Literary Prize, 1980; Toronto Arts Award, 1993; Toronto Pride Achievement Award, 1995; W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize, Writers’ Trust of Canada, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent —Phyllis Westberg, Harold Ober Associates, 425 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017.
traveled there in the early 1960s to make a documentary film for the CBC on Black Muslim leader Malcolm X before his assassination. Clarke was fascinated by Harlem, and had long been a fan of Langston Hughes, considered the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest literary figure. “Harlem is two cities,” he told the Globe and Mail. “One gets the degradation, which is quite literally on the street. But one also gets a very serious consciousness.”
Clarke’s own emerging literary reputation led to stints as a guest professor at Yale, Brandeis, and Duke universities. Such new experiences made him more politically active in Toronto, and he organized a number of protests in the city. As managing editor of Contrast, a newspaper devoted to Toronto’s black community, he served as mentor to younger generation of writers. The Globe and Mail’s Donna Nurse talked to many who knew Clarke in those days, and reported that “he broadened the horizons for Toronto blacks, encouraging them to use their numbers to influence city politics.” He continued to write, publishing short stories in volumes such as 197 l’s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, and launched a literary journal titled McGill Street.
In 1974 Clarke was made the cultural attaché of the Barbados Embassy to the United States, and returned to Barbados briefly in 1975 when he was named general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation. That same year, he finished the last in what became his best-known literary effort, the “Toronto trilogy” novels depicting life for West Indian immigrants in the city over a generation. The first of the books was The Meeting Point, which appeared in 1967, followed by Storm of Fortune six years later. Written in the Barbadian dialect, both novels center upon Bernice Leach, a housekeeper for affluent family in Toronto, and her friends in the West Indian émigré community. Their struggles to preserve their culture while assimilating into a sometimes hostile North American urban world provide the focus of the works.
The third novel from the Toronto trilogy, The Bigger Light, was published in 1975 and presents a larger cast of characters, many of whom have achieved some measure of professional success. In particular the novel follows the story of Boysie and Dots, a married couple. Boysie is a well-to-do business owner, but has lost the romantic connection to his wife, as well as a more spiritual one to his Caribbean heritage; he searches for the “Bigger Light” of the title. The works would pass into the canon of Canadian multicultural fiction a generation later, and some felt they should be added to the school curriculum. “I look upon Clarke as the first person to have the guts to completely and unequivocally write about black people in Canada—and to understand that this material merited several novels,” author Lawrence Hill told the Globe and Mail.
Clarke’s experiences in running the television network in Barbados inspired the follies presented in his 1977 novel, The Prime Minister, set in unnamed tropical nation plagued by political corruption. He has also authored several volumes of quasi-memoirs, among them Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), whose narrator is Tom, a young man who wins entry into the elite Comber mere School. Islanders remind him that this is an honor, for the school is run by a former officer of the British army.
Clarke’s first novel in a number of years was The Origin of Waves, which appeared in 1997. The work begins when two older men, once boyhood friends in Barbados, meet again by chance on a Toronto street in the middle of a snowstorm. They go into a bar for a drink, and begin reminiscing about the last fifty years of their lives. “The book contains some of Clarke’s best writing ever,” stated Maclean’s critic John Bemrose. “His evocation of the Barbadian beaches where the two friends once sat daydreaming, watching the great combers that arrive out of a distance from which the promise of their young lives seems to be beckoning, is exquisite and moving.”
Clarke also authored Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir, published in 1999. Each chapter is a recipe of a native Caribbean dish, and anchored by his own recollections of how his mother or other female relatives prepared it. Ham hocks, souse—whose ingredients include pig snout and ears—Breadfruit Cou-Cou, a cornmeal/okra mush, and the fried dough known as Bakes are some of the dishes offered. Clarke notes that such cuisine was really slave food, and writes of each and its relation to native Barbadian culture. The chapters were deemed “lively stories that show this gifted writer at his best” by Laura Shapiro, writing in the New York Times Book Review. “A discourse on cooking pork chops, for instance, comes with a memorable account of the vivid social and economic rituals set in motion whenever a woman decided to have a pig butchered.”
Other reviews of Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit were positive, though many made note of the fact that concise measurements for the recipes were often lacking. But such cuisines had a largely intuitive cooking style, and instead Clarke’s chapters “illustrate how slave cooks drew the most flavor out of the simplest staples,” noted Booklist contributor Mark Knoblauch. “Clarke deftly captures the way his mother and other women talked about food and treated cooking,” remarked a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and called certain passages “charming. Clarke’s voice deserves to be savored.”
For many years, Clarke avoided becoming citizen of Canada, for he was still dismayed by the subtle racism he experienced. He finally did so in 1985, and was asked three years later to join the country’s Immigration and Refugee Board, which sets policy and hears individual cases. He noted that the mix of the civil servant and the writer in his professional life was not an entirely unusual one. As he told Maclean’s, there is no “separation between literature and politics. They are one and the same.”
The Survivors of the Crossing (novel), McClelland & Stewart, 1964.
Amongst Thistles and Thorns (stories), McClelland & Stewart, 1965.
The Meeting Point (novel), Macmillan, 1967, Little, Brown, 1972.
When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (short stories), Anansi, 1971, revised edition, Little, Brown, 1973.
Storm of Fortune (novel), Little, Brown, 1973.
The Bigger Light (novel), Little, Brown, 1975.
The Prime Minister (novel), General Publishing, 1977.
Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack: A Memoir, McClelland & Stewart, 1980.
When Women Rule (short stories), McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
Nine Men Who Laughed (short stories), Penguin, 1986.
The Confused Bewilderment of Martin Luther King & the Idea of Non-Violence as a Political Tactic (nonfiction), Watkins, 1986.
Proud Empires, Gollancz, 1986, Viking-Penguin, 1988.
In This City (short stories), Exile Editions, 1992.
There Are No Elders (short stories), Exile Editions, 1993.
A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon (short stories), Exile Editions, 1994.
The Origin of Waves (novel), McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir, New Press, 1999, also published as Pigtails ’n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food, Random House Canada, 1999.
The Question (short stories), M&S, 1999.
Booklist, February 15, 2000, p. 1067.
Canadian Forum, August 1999, p. 39.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 8, 1997, p. C1.
Library Journal, February 1, 2000, p. 96.
Maclean’s, April 21, 1997, p. 62; June 14, 1999, p. 62.
New York Times Book Review, April 9, 2000, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 2000, p. 92.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001.
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