Quill and Quire

Austin Clarke

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After the Giller

Success once eluded Austin Clarke. Now it feels deserved

Austin Clarke sweeps through the atrium of the Grand Hotel in downtown Toronto. The wool jacket cast loosely over his shoulders billows out behind him like a cape. It is 6:15 and he is late. In the bar, the formally attired staff flock about him like friendly penguins. “Good evening, Mr. Clarke.” “This table, Mr. Clarke?” “Your usual?” A dry martini materializes before him. He takes a sip and sinks with a pleasant sigh into the wingback chair.

Austin ClarkeSince last November, when Clarke, 68, won the Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe, he has been in great demand. He has just come from the photographer’s studio, he explains. Earlier he was the guest of a seniors’ class at George Brown College that is studying his work: “Very flattering.” Afterward, he was taken to lunch at the college’s cooking school: “It was delicious,” says Clarke, himself an accomplished cook. A few weeks ago he visited Trinidad, Jamaica, and his native Barbados for the Caribbean launch of his book. In June, Clarke will deliver a keynote address at BookExpo Canada.

For dinner we are seated on the terrace, which, in late March, is closed in and heated. The room is dim and strung with white lights. Out of the quiet, a feminine cry: “Austin! Is that you?” A tall, blond woman scurries over. “My neighbour,” Clarke says, making introductions. The woman hovers solicitously: “Now, don’t forget, Austin. You are coming with us this weekend. You will travel in our car.” She smiles brightly before reluctantly turning away.

The waitress serves a dish made specially for Clarke: pasta and shrimp, sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and garnished with parsley, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. There is plenty, so we share. We drink Amarone from goblets as deep as bowls. “Cheers,” says Austin Clarke, lifting his glass.

Winning the Giller Prize, Canada’s top award for fiction, has transformed Clarke into a bona fide literary star, though he claims not to be fascinated by celebrity: “I am aware of all the flattering appendages that go along with celebrity and I sometimes wallow in them, and sometimes take them with a grain of salt,” he says.

He is waxing philosophical, but anyone can see how happy he is, how thrilled he continues to be. He received word of another boost in early March when The Polished Hoe won the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book in Canada and the Caribbean.

The novel is set in the 1950s on the West Indian island of Bimshire (a fictional version of Barbados), where Mary Mathilda, the privileged black mistress of a cruel plantation manager, confesses to a brutal crime. The plot consists of a conversation, the long involved statement given by Mary to the police officer. It delves into Mary’s past and into the dark history of racial oppression on the island and around the world.

Clarke has been plugging away, valiantly, for nearly 40 years. This is his 10th novel. He has six collections of short stories. In 1997, his novel The Origin of Waves won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. All of his books examine, with pathos and humour, the condition of the West Indian at home and in Canada. Tonight he makes the most un-Canadian of admissions: he feels his success is deserved.

“For many years I wondered why my work had received such scant attention,” he says. “Not only because I imagined the literary quality of my books, but because I was aware of the amount of work I had put into my writing.”

For Clarke, the most important thing about the Giller is the critical acknowledgment it bestows: “I would be a fool to say that the Giller is meaningless,” he says. “It is important insofar as legitimacy might be given to ideas I have been talking about for years.”

In structure, The Polished Hoe shares the jazzy modernity of African-Americans like John Edgar Wideman (The Cattle Killing), Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon), and the young upstart Colson Whitehead (John Henry Days). Clarke reproduces a vernacular, replete with calypsos and singing games, that shapes and embodies black experience. Many of the reviews that greeted the novel were exuberant. In the Toronto Star, critic Shaun Smith described the book as an unqualified masterpiece, “a novel of Biblical proportions and Homeric grandeur.” Tim McNamara in the Edmonton Journal compared the work to Faulkner. Even reviewers who expressed reservations about the book’s improvisational style – T.F. Rigelhof, for instance, in The Globe and Mail – heralded The Polished Hoe as a major accomplishment. Readers have responded. The book has sold 30,000 copies in Canada.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Giller. The morning of the ceremony The Globe and Mail held a mock jury, praising Clarke’s use of the vernacular, but panning what they described as the book’s non-existent structure. In their opinion, a win for Clarke was a long shot. It was what occurred after his Giller win, however, that gave Clarke pause: That’s when a number of influential critics went on record naming Guy Vanderhaeghe’s novel The Last Crossing as the best book of the year. Vanderhaeghe had been left off the shortlists of both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Awards, and many critics had expressed their consternation. Still, the near unison of these remarks, in the first flush of Clarke’s Giller win, felt like a public slap. What bothered Clarke, most of all, were implications in some literary circles that he had won because he was black. He felt there were those out to demean his accomplishment by turning it into an act of affirmative action. Clarke was “annoyed and depressed.”

“I was disappointed by some of the remarks made by some of the so-called literary gurus of this city and country…. I felt their comments were bordering on an unspeakable attitude. It was alarming. But then, of course, it was not alarming, because I have lived here too long to be alarmed,” says Clarke.

“The point is, if these critics are unwilling to accept the verdict of the first jury [for the Giller Prize], are they then willing to accept the verdict of the second?” He is referring, of course, to his Commonwealth win.

These are fighting words from a man whom we are accustomed to viewing as part of the literary establishment. Certainly, there is no other black Canadian author who has been so heartily embraced as Austin Clarke – not the amiable George Elliott Clarke, not the bewitching Dionne Brand, not even the erudite André Alexis.

But tonight I am hearing echoes of an earlier Clarke, the “rabble-rouser” (his words) of the 1960s and ’70s, whom the Toronto Star once described as the angriest black man in Canada. He was a figure of his times, a product of the independence movements sweeping Africa and the Caribbean. He was stirred by the civil rights revolution to the south where he went for a while to teach at Duke and Yale. He wrote stinging articles indicting racism in Toronto. He was managing editor of Contrast, the outspoken organ of Toronto’s black community. He struggled against apartheid, picketing city stores that sold South African goods. His volatility extended to his early career. He thought publishers “a damn lot of fools,” and was not afraid to say so.

Clarke has mellowed with age. But the embers of the hot young rebel smoulder still. “I have felt for a long time,” says Clarke, “that there was a reservation so far as what I would call the natural acceptance of literature that could not be determined to be Canadian, although naturally nowadays, it is Canadian. How do you define a Canadian writer? Is a Canadian writer a person who is born here, and whose family goes back two or three generations, and whose sensibilities are so Canadian that he has got to write about Canadians. And if he writes about Canadians, are we subliminally saying that his characters have got to be white?

The Polished Hoe is a Canadian novel,” he continues. “It is not a book about Barbados so much as it is a book about people in this country who are from Barbados and who are reflecting back two or three generations. It is true we don’t have sugarcane plantations or slave plantations today in Canada. But when slavery was raging throughout the world, it was not absent from the Canadian psyche.”

We are finishing up our meal, savouring the last of the wine. We agree to pursue the conversation the next afternoon at his home around the corner. Clarke wonders if perhaps he has said too much. But the next day he is even more vociferous.

“How about [Rohinton] Mistry?” Clarke demands. We are sitting in his office on the second floor. Pale gold sunlight is filtering through a window overlooking the street. “There is an argument,” he says, “that Mistry is not a Canadian author because his books are not set in Canada. But Mistry could in fact be writing about members of the South Asian population who are scattered throughout this country in significant numbers. And not only in significant numbers, but in politically significant numbers. They are premiers. They are ministers in government.

“I’m saying you could walk along Parliament near Bloor,” he adds, “walk along some street in Mississauga – you could go out in Vancouver – and see the people represented in Mistry’s prose. And these people are only one step removed from [India].” It is precisely because Mistry has absorbed the ethos of the multicultural Canadian society, continues Clarke, that he is considered a Canadian writer.

Today Clarke is wearing a navy tracksuit with J-A-M-A-I-C-A stitched in large letters across the back. He ran track in his youth and his movements remain light and agile. He bounds out to the kitchen and brings me back tea in a bone china cup. He rests it on the pages of the dictionary lying open on his desk. There is nowhere else to put it. Every horizontal surface is piled with reading material or rows of photographs. There is absolutely no bare wall in the living room or office. Where bookshelves leave off, framed paintings, posters, and clippings begin. Everyone Clarke has ever loved or admired is represented here, as is his every achievement. There are pictures of his three daughters and Betty, his ex-wife, and his mother who is in her mid-eighties and resides in the United States. I see Norman Mailer, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, The Honorable Barbara McDougall. There is the glorious cover from The Polished Hoe, and, over his desk, the Globe’s splendid caricature of the Giller nominees. The atmosphere is saturated in meaning. Clarke is surrounded by all of his life.

Clarke cannot offer me food, for, as usual, he has little on hand. Though he loves to cook, it is rare that he eats more than one meal per day. Earlier this afternoon an appreciative student took Clarke out for lunch. He will not eat again until tomorrow, or the day after. He began fasting regularly in the 1960s on the advice of a friend, Malcolm X.

Students play a significant role in Clarke’s life. They are forever calling up for advice, treating him to thank-you dinners. He has just wrapped up a stint as writer-in-residence at the Metro Toronto Reference Library where he helped would-be writers polish their manuscripts. He is the inspiration behind McGill Street, a journal founded several years ago by a group of Humber College students who met regularly at his McGill Street home. More recently, he helped establish Pagitica with former members of his summer writing class from the Taddle Creek workshop at the University of Toronto. In 1999 Clarke was awarded the W.O. Mitchell prize in recognition of his extensive body of work and his commitment to young writers.

Since winning the Giller, however, Clarke has not had a moment to commit to his own writing. Put plainly, he has rarely picked up a pen. He is hoping to resume work on a second memoir that starts off where the first, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, concluded. It will begin with his arrival at Trinity College in Canada in 1955, and follow Clarke’s life through to the present day. He has been working on a novel called More, which he abandoned in the 1970s. He got a good start on it last autumn, but then he won the Giller Prize.

Clarke also has a collection of selected stories being published in May called Choosing His Own Coffin. The title entry is one of a handful of new pieces included in the book. It is a humorous, fictionalized account of a trip he made to New Jersey to help his mother purchase a burial plot for her dying husband (Clarke’s stepfather). In the story the mother’s anxiety about mortality makes her susceptible to fainting spells. But Clarke harbours no such fears: “I have never put too much stress on the consideration of my mortality,” he says. “I’m more disposed to consider my immortality. My mortality will take care of itself and of me.

“But if I had a way of handling my immortality, I would lay down the foundation to make sure I would be remembered. Many times I have considered writing my own obituary, but only a revisionist version.”

Clarke has no plans to retire. He feels he has at least four big novels left in him. He would also like to experiment with a book of longer stories. Besides, why should he slow down now? His Giller win promises increased critical interest, wider audiences, and, after 40 long years, decent advances: “Let’s just say,” says Clarke, “that the Giller and its name cannot be underestimated. Whereas I am not disposed to alerting either creditors or income tax agents as to my predisposition to settle accounts, I can say that one consequence of having won the Giller is a refreshing monetary re-evaluation of my work.”

The other consequence is Clarke’s heightened celebrity, which carries with it the pleasure of being recognized and therefore welcomed wherever he goes. This is important, says Clarke, because a writer needs to get out.

“Being a writer restricts you into a room and that can be very depressing – it usually is depressing – and you need some release from that environment.

“And what better release,” says Clarke, “than to come out of your cocoon and see real people. And then, of course, in the act of seeing these real people, and interacting with these real people, is the determination to go back into your little corner and create.”