Austin Clarke has died. My family and I have lost a dear and constant friend. English literature has lost an unstoppable talent.
Clarke died of cancer in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto on June 26. He would have been 85 on July 26. Born in the St. James parish of Barbados and sent to Combermere School, Austin Chesterfield Clarke, known as Tom, was a mother-raised boy who quickly excelled in school, earning top marks and outpacing his classmates as a barefoot runner and long jumper. At Harrison College, he was earmarked for the higher education, which for young Barbadian men at the time meant emigrating to the U.K. or the U.S. Clarke earned admission to the London School of Economics and to Oxford; he was also accepted into black universities in the U.S.
But at the Coleridge-Parry Secondary School for Boys where Clarke was teaching, he was denied study leave. When another teacher advised him to look into study in Canada, Clarke applied to McGill University and was admitted. But on the flight that took him to Montreal he had this niggling thought – why was he enrolling in a university in a French-speaking province? Clarke stayed on the plane and got off in Toronto, where he applied the next day to the University of Toronto. He became a student of Trinity College, where the stone buildings and student garb of suits and robes gave him the sensation of an Oxbridge life.
He lived in a UofT dormitory and paid his school fees through serving in the Trinity dining hall and working summer jobs that included faking experience to be hired by a land surveyor. On more than one occasion, for lack of a transit fare, he walked the distance from work in Scarborough to the St. George campus.
Clarke’s writing talent had been underplayed in Barbados, where he once said, “To be an artist at that time had the very sneaky, negative implication that you were gay. Men did not play with paint and pencils and did not write poetry.”
But he soon distinguished himself in Trinity College literary publications. He earned a prose prize of $30 on one occasion. By then he had proposed to Betty Reynolds, an accomplished nurse whom he’d met in his first summer in Toronto. The prize money bought a bottle of rum and mix to serve at their engagement party.
It was Betty, mother of his daughters Loretta and Janice, who made it possible for Austin to spend more time on writing. She went to work and he became a stay-at-home dad. But his early working years were tough times for a young father. He did the Christmas rush in the post office and other menial and morale-destroying tasks. He was a natural as a journalist though and bluffed his way into a job as a reporter in Timmins, Ontario, a long wintry train ride north.
Back in Toronto, Clarke parlayed his storytelling gifts into a freelance career. At the CBC he became a regular radio contributor, most notably landing an interview with Malcolm X in New York – after promising his producers he’d get a sit-down with James Baldwin. CBC literary producer Robert Weaver recognized Clarke’s talent and helped him get his first short stories published, but when Austin sent him a poem, Weaver advised him to “stick to prose.” His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1964, was set in a sugar cane plantation just before Independence in Barbados. (Because Clarke felt he would appear too much a late bloomer with this first book, he pushed his birth date forward by three years.) Among Thistles and Thorns, his first story collection, came out the following year.
Clarke, inspired by Caribbean writers published before him, notably Sam Selvon and George Lamming, at first wrote the Barbadian experience. But soon he was carving out new territory for Canadian fiction, with stories of “Wessindindians” such as the immigrant in “The Motor Car”, whose big dream is to own a Ford Galaxie, or the title character in “The Green Hornet.”
It wasn’t until The Origin of Waves (M&S, 1997) that Clarke hit his stride as a novelist. The book, a chronicle of two Barbadian men on a walk through Toronto revisiting their shared memories, earned him Cuba’s Casa de las Américas prize. With The Polished Hoe (Thomas Allen, 2002), Clarke really captured the poetry of the Bajan dialect. It is a big sprawling tale from the times of slavery on forward, told through the eyes of an indelible woman protagonist, Mary-Mathilda. He won the 2002 Giller Prize, the Trillium Prize and the Regional Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for The Polished Hoe, which was translated into several languages and even won an award in Italian.
It was only after 2002 that Clarke could earn a living off his writing alone. Up until then, he always needed a supplementary income. His early interest in the civil rights movement and African American life earned him spots at Duke University and Yale as a lecturer in the new field of Black Studies. Nothing if not adaptable ̶ and self-inventive – Clarke turned to politics in the 1970s, running as a Progressive Conservative for an impossible-to-win provincial seat. He scored more votes in York South than any PC had earned before. Later he held appointments as a cultural attaché in the Barbadian embassy in Washington DC, then, in 1975, as general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s Barbados station. His experience there gave him the material for The Prime Minister (General Publishing, 1977). Other positions, on the Ontario Film Review Board and on the federal Immigration and Refugee Board, brought the only dry spells in the life of this highly prolific author.
In the last years of his life, Clarke turned to poetry and proved Robert Weaver wrong. A long narrative poem published by Guernica in 2013, Where the Sun Shines Best, was nominated for a Governor General’s literary award. The valedictory poem is based on an incident in Moss Park, across the street from Clarke’s home in what he called “the ghetto” in which soldiers killed a homeless man.
From 2000 forward, the honours poured in. Clarke was admitted to the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, granted honorary doctorates by York University and three other universities and won many awards for his writing, including the 2015 Harbourfront Festival Prize. The honour that no doubt meant the most to him was his meeting with Queen Elizabeth after he won the Commonwealth prize. Judging from the photograph that hung in his living room, it was a moment that she enjoyed as much as he did.
Raconteur, host, excellent cook, a public speaker beyond compare, a generous literary mentor, Austin Clarke was many things to many people. His books and broadcasts ensure that he’ll be with us for a long time to come.
He is survived by Betty Clarke and their daughters Loretta and Janice, his daughters Darcy Ballantyne and Jordan Clarke, his Barbadian siblings and cousins and his many close friends in Canada and abroad.
Toronto Star photo by Colin McConnell