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Austin Clarke, Giller winner and civil rights leader, dead at 81


Austin Clarke, the Toronto-based author who travelled to Canada from his native Barbados and went on to win numerous literary awards, died on the morning of June 26, at the age of 81.

Clarke came to Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. His career saw him work as a broadcasting executive, editor, author, civil rights leader, and would-be politician, running as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the 1977 Ontario provincial election. His first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, was published in 1964.

“He was a figure of his times, a product of the independence movements sweeping Africa and the Caribbean,” Donna Bailey Nurse wrote in Q&Q in 2003 after Clarke won the Giller Prize for his novel The Polished Hoe, the story of a woman who confesses to the murder of a plantation owner many years earlier. “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 wrote nearly a dozen novels, as well as numerous short-story and poetry collections. He also released several memoirs, the most recent of which, ‘Membering, was published in 2015 by Dundurn Press. Along with the Giller Prize, Clarke won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall, the Trillium Book Award, the W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize, and the Toronto Book Award. He was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1998.

In her Q&Q profile, Nurse recounted the “public slap” Clarke felt after his Giller win by what he felt was the implication of some critics that he had won because he was black. “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.”

A longer obituary is forthcoming.