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Austin C(hesterfield) Clarke Biography

Austin C. Clarke comments:

Nationality: Barbadian. Born: Barbados, 1934. Education: Combermere Boys' School, Barbados; Harrison's College, Barbados; Trinity College, University of Toronto. Career: Reporter in Timmins and Kirkland Lake, Ontario, 1959-60; since 1963, freelance producer and broadcaster, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto; scriptwriter, Educational Television, Toronto; Ziskind Professor of Literature, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1968-69; Hoyt Fellow, 1968, and visiting lecturer, 1969, 1970, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; fellow, Indiana University School of Letters, Bloomington, 1969; Margaret Bundy Scott Visiting Professor of Literature, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1971; lecturer, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1971-72; visiting professor, University of Texas, Austin, 1973-74; cultural and press attaché, Embassy of Barbados, Washington, D.C., 1974-76; writer-in-residence, Concordia University, Montreal, 1977. General manager, Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, St. Michael, Barbados, 1975-76. Member, Board of Trustees, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 1970-75; vice-chair, Ontario Board of Censors, 1983-85. Since 1988 member, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Awards: Belmont Short Story award, 1965; University of Western Ontario President's medal, 1966; Canada Council senior arts fellowship, 1967, 1970, and grant, 1977; Casa de las Americas prize, 1980; Toronto Arts award, for writing, 1993; Toronto Pride Achievement award, for writing, 1995. Agent: Phyllis Westberg, Harold Ober Associates, 425 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.



The Survivors of the Crossing. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, andLondon, Heinemann, 1964.

Amongst Thistles and Thorns. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, andLondon, Heinemann, 1965.

The Meeting Point. Toronto, Macmillan, and London, Heinemann, 1967; Boston, Little Brown, 1972.

Storm of Fortune. Boston, Little Brown, 1973.

The Bigger Light. Boston, Little Brown, 1975.

The Prime Minister. Toronto, General, 1977; London, Routledge, 1978.

Proud Empires. London, Gollancz, 1986.

The Origin of Waves. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1997.

The Question. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1999.

Short Stories

When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks. Toronto, Anansi, 1971; revised edition, Boston, Little Brown, 1973.

When Women Rule. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Nine Men Who Laughed. Markham, Ontario, and New York, Penguin, 1986.

In This City. Toronto, Exile Editions, 1992.

There Are No Elders. Toronto, Exile Editions, 1994.


The Confused Bewilderment of Martin Luther King and the Idea of Non-Violence as a Political Tactic. Burlington, Ontario, Watkins, 1968.

Growing Up Stupid under the Union Jack: A Memoir. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon. Toronto, Exile Editions, 1994.

The Austin Clarke Reader, edited by Barry Callaghan. Toronto, ExileEditions, 1996.

Pigtails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food. Toronto, RandomHouse Canada, 1999; New York, New Press, 2000.


Manuscript Collection:

McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

Critical Studies:

"The West Indian Novel in North America: A Study of Austin Clarke," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (Leeds), July 1970, and El Dorado and Paradise: Canada and the Caribbean in Austin Clarke's Fiction, Centre for Social and Humanistic Studies, University of Western Ontario, 1989, both by Lloyd W. Brown; interview with Graeme Gibson, in Eleven Canadian Novelists, Toronto, Anansi, 1974; "An Assessment of Austin Clarke, West Indian-Canadian Novelist" by Keith Henry in CLA Journal (Atlanta), vol. 29, no. 1, 1985; Austin C. Clarke: A Biography by Stella Algoo-Baksh, University of West Indies Press, 1994.

Whenever I am asked to give a statement about my work I find it difficult to do. All I can say in these situations is that I try to write about a group of people, West Indian immigrants (to Canada), whose life interests me because of the remarkable problems of readjustment, and the other problems of ordinary living. The psychological implications of this kind of life are what make my work interesting and I hope relevant to the larger condition of preservation. The themes are usually those of adjustment, as I have said, but this adjustment is artistically rendered in the inter-relationship of the two predominant groups of which I write: the host Jewish-Anglo Saxon group, and the black group (West Indian and expatriate black American).

* * *

As the West Indian population has surged in Canada over the past two decades, so too has West Indian writing in Canada flourished. On the whole, West Indian literature in Canada is dominated by the familiar themes of exile, return, colonialism, dislocation, and otherness. However, these themes are complicated by the West Indian's response to Canada's much-touted ideal of a cultural mosaic—the notion that the country is, or ought to be, a harmonious aggregation of distinctive cultures which maintain their distinctiveness while blending with each other to create a diversified cultural whole. But for West Indians the ideal of a cultural mosaic is not quite as simple as it sounds to those who espouse it. Given the usual disadvantages of being black in a predominantly white society, West Indians must choose between being integrated into a strange culture—at the cost of their cultural uniqueness and racial integrity—or being so dedicated to maintaining their black, West Indian identity that they risk being cultural and economic outsiders in their adopted homeland. As Rinaldo Walcott has observed in Black Like Who, "To be black and 'at home' in Canada is to both belong and not belong," and it is from this "in-between" space that Canada's most enduring West Indian author, Austin Clarke, writes.

These Canadian issues are not the major concern in Clarke's earliest novels. Published a decade after Clarke's arrival in Canada, The Survivors of the Crossing and Amongst Thistles and Thorns are set in Barbados and explore the twin evils of colonial self-hatred and Caribbean poverty. The Prime Minister is centered on the experiences of a West Indian writer, John Moore, who has returned to Barbados, to a government appointment after 20 years in Canada, mirroring Clarke's own return to Barbados in 1975 as the manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Company. Significantly, like Clarke, Moore does not stay in Barbados: he returns to his Canadian home after discovering to his mortification that he no longer has a real place in Barbados.

Moore's experiences can be viewed as paradigmatic of West Indians including Clarke himself, now living and writing in Canada. After almost half a century in Canada, it is logical enough that the Canadian presence dominates Clarke's fiction as a whole. His first collection of short stories includes works that take a close look at Canada as the West Indians' El Dorado. In "They Heard a Ringing of Bells" a group of West Indians discuss their experiences as immigrants—delighting in the sense of being released from Caribbean poverty while lambasting the hostility and indifference of white Canada to the West Indian presence. "Waiting for the Postman to Knock" is less ambivalent, more openly hostile to the adopted homeland. The heroine is one of the most typical and enduring symbols of West Indian life in Canada—the lonely and isolated West Indian domestic servant who feels equally exploited by her white employer and by her West Indian lover (if she is lucky enough to find a lover). For other West Indians in Clarke's short fiction, the problems of loneliness are compounded by racial self-hatred, especially in the lives of those who are achieving some degree of economic success at the cost of their racial pride or cultural integrity ("Four Stations in His Circle" and "The Motor Car").

These related themes of loneliness, self-hatred, and cultural exclusion are the main concerns of Clarke's Canadian trilogy, The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light. The three works center on the lives of a group of West Indians in Toronto—especially Bernice Leach, her sister Estelle, Boysie Cumberbatch, his wife Dots, and Henry White. The Meeting Point concentrates on Bernice's experiences as a maid in the home of the wealthy Burrmann family, and emphasizes the usual themes of sexual loneliness, cultural isolation, and the sense of economic exploitation.

Storm of Fortune shifts the focus to Estelle and her somewhat uneven struggle to gain a toehold in Canada. The novel also traces the failures of Henry White and his subsequent death, and, most important of all, it depicts the gradual emergence of Boysie Cumberbatch, from shiftless bon vivant to ambitious small businessman with his own janitorial company. His success story is continued in The Bigger Light, which, despite some uneven writing, remains Clarke's most ambitious novel to date. Having devoted much of the preceding novels to the failures and half-successes in the West Indian community, Clarke concentrates here on a successful man, but one whose economic successes have not protected him from emotional failure (the gradual breakdown of his marriage and his increasing isolation from his less fortunate West Indian friends). And in fact his success as a Canadian businessman, in the Anglo-Saxon mould, has had the effect of encouraging a certain snobbery and a marked reserve towards matters of cultural and racial significance. In short he becomes increasingly hostile towards the issue of racial identity.

But in spite of his extreme and increasing isolation in the novel, Boysie is not an entire failure as a human being. His very isolation becomes a catalyst for a certain perceptiveness, which allows him to recognize the real nature of his choices, and the limitations of the world in which he has chosen to live. And as a consequence he remains the typical Clarke protagonist, one whose failures—economic and moral—are counterbalanced by a persistent ability to perceive their own lives, without self-deception or self-pity, as they really are. Given the persistent hostilities of the world in which they live, this kind of honest self-awareness is the most important quality of all—and Clarke invariably presents and invites judgments on his characters on the basis of their ability to achieve such an awareness.

These themes of isolation and self-conflict have increasingly been integrated with the issue of Canadian society and Canadian identity in Clarke's more recent writing. Canada is no longer a temporary (and deeply resented) resting-place for immigrants with a strong sense of transience. Clarke's fictional world, in his second collection of short stories, When Women Rule, is firmly located in the much-touted Canadian ideal of social mosaic. These are stories about immigrants from Europe (Italians, "displaced" Central and Eastern Europeans), as well as from the Caribbean. They are almost all about middle-aged men whose familiar anxieties about aging, sexual relationships, and socioeconomic success are interwoven with pervasive uncertainties about the directions of Canadian society: the disruptive and challenging presence of "newer" immigrants, urban changes in metropolitan Canada, and the unsettling implications of female equality. And in one story, "Give It a Shot," these fears are shared even by a born-and-bred "Anglo-Canadian." Indeed, it is the central irony of this collection that the very idea of a Canadian mosaic, with its implicit promise of social harmony and individual success, binds Clarke's diverse Canadians together by virtue of its failure, rather than its fulfillment, in their lives. Failure, however, as Clarke makes clear in his next short story collection Nine Men Who Laughed, not only stems from discrimination and displacement, but also is complicated by the selfish materialism, social alienation, and urban isolation increasingly common in modern life.

It is noteworthy that Clarke's Canadian themes actually reify the most central and universal of all his themes—alienation. In their alienation from society, family, and even from their once-youthful selves, his middle-aged protagonists are the familiar isolates of much 20th-century fiction, ranging—in Clarke's work—from the canefields of Barbados to the chic boutiques and working-class bars of modern Toronto. By way of emphasizing Clarke's insistence on the universality of alienation, it is only necessary to move from When Women Rule to his autobiography, Growing Up Stupid under the Union Jack. The title is no mere whimsy. The imperial reference sets the cultural theme—boyhood and adolescence in colonial Barbados. But the key word here is "stupid." It suggests the naiveté, the stunted self-consciousness of the (well educated) colonial, a culturally ingrained, institutionally enforced ignorance of one's history, society, and ethnicity. And, drawing on the Caribbean connotations of "stupid/tchupidness," it connotes absurdity as well as mental dullness. The colonial situation is the essence of the absurd because it both causes and symbolizes the condition of being isolated from one's self, one's cultural and personal roots. To be a colonial is therefore to be both the unique product of a concrete, specific process—colonial culture—and another archetype of 20th-century alienation. "Tchupidness" is simultaneously a Caribbean condition and a universal experience. Yet even as Clarke explores this "tchupidness," and the absurdity of the colonial condition, he personally refuses to accept these as immutable or fixed.

An albeit unsuccessful Conservative candidate in 1977's Ontario provincial election, Clarke nevertheless affirmed his status as full participant in Canadian society, solidified by his decision in 1981 to become a citizen. Between 1988 and 1993 Clarke served on the Immigration Board of Canada, and in 1992 published a political pamphlet, Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth, which condemned the Toronto police force. A fierce social critic of preventable "tchupidness," Clarke has used both his writing and the public ear it has earned to call into question governmental policies that perpetuate certain inequalities in Canadian society.

After leaving the series of government appointments he fulfilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Clarke has returned to writing full-time, producing what many believe to be his strongest work to date. In 1997 The Origin of Waves gained national acclaim for its subtle, sophisticated treatment of the conversation two men, reunited in a Toronto snowstorm forty years after their childhood in the Caribbean. As the two attempt to "catch-up" on the lost years, they also must come to terms with certain events of their youth, and their own diverse personalities. The conversation is permeated by the spoken and the unspoken, and the lies, evasions, and contradictions that inevitably plague any attempt to explain and justify one's life to another. In a literary twist, Canada, while a source of alienation and betrayal, also becomes the space from which the two can reconsider the meaning of their childhood and the dynamic of their childhood friendship and experiences.

Clarke's latest novel, The Question, returns to the themes of friendship, betrayal, and imagining the other across the differences and distances that sometimes define our daily life. At its center is a judge at the immigration and refugee hearings whose own inability to distinguish between fact and fiction in his personal life must inevitably be reflected in his work, where he must determine the worthiness of applicants, based on what he perceives to be their need or veracity. In tandem with the publication of these increasingly introspective works on the nature of life in a transnational, fractured world, Clarke has also once more returned to the territory of his own youth, with Pigtails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food. The process of remembering the recipes of his youth, and the roots, rituals, and familial activities associated with them leads Clarke into a complex but always compelling and readable analysis of the meaning of food in Barbadian culture. In 1998 Clarke's long time contributions to Canadian writing and culture at large were recognized as he was made a member of the Order of Canada, the highest form of recognition by the Canadian government.

—Lloyd W. Brown

, updated by

Jennifer Harris

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