In an illuminating prose portrait of his friend of 40 years, author Barry Callaghan writes that Austin Clarke is “an island man who’s ended up inland, a sunshine man who has ended up in snow country.” Callaghan’s essay, coming at the end of They Never Told Me, perfectly sums up the challenge of Clarke’s new collection by quoting from Derek Wallcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa”: “how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give?”
Wallcott’s dilemma continues to be one of the biggest issues in post-colonial literature. It is the reason Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o stopped writing in English, choosing instead to craft his literary treasures in Gikuyu, limiting his audience in an effort to build an authentic African literature. The choice between adopting the language of the colonizer and writing in the dialect of one’s own people becomes especially problematic in the case of a Canadian immigrant hailing from the Caribbean, but it’s a problem that Clarke solves nicely.
“Galaxie,” the first story in They Never Told Me, introduces readers to the comically hot-headed Calvin, an immigrant from Barbados, who has come to Canada in search of material grandeur: “Canada now gone straight to his head long time and with a king o’ power, so that when the airplane start up Calvin imagine that he own the whole blasted plane along with the white ladies who tell him, ‘Good morning, sir.’” The story’s narrative style may shock unseasoned ears and those unfamiliar with the nuances of Caribbean-English dialects. Yet the choice to write in this voice serves to boost the authenticity of the experience. Perhaps the placement of this story (and the one that follows it at the beginning of the collection) was intended to thwart readers lacking the patience to commiserate with Clarke’s marginalized characters.
They Never Told Me is much more than a collection of stories; it’s a howl of dissidence – voices connected in their isolation, some shouting for attention, others muted by grief. Each piece is a confrontation; toge-ther they form a series of pleas for acknow-ledgement, for recognition of lives lived, hopes thwarted, pain suffered.