- IntroductionCelebrating Austin Clarke—the Man and the Body of His Work
"Singular," Rinaldo Walcott termed Austin Clarke in his eulogy at Clarke's funeral on July 8, 2016. Walcott invoked Clarke's keen and implacable intelligence, his insistent elegance, his deliberate sartorial precision, his capacity for martinis and ideas, and his famous sociality. Both the man and the body of work he left us are unparalleled. The man is gone, but the largesse of his other body, to invoke Walcott's eulogy again, remains with us, and it is fair to say that we have only begun to appreciate its significance. Clarke's writing career, which began with Survivors of the Crossing in 1964, included 11 novels, 8 short story collections, 6 memoirs, an autobiographical cookbook and 2 volumes of poetry. He received many honours, among them the W. O. Mitchell Prize (1999) for mentoring writers; the Giller Prize (2002) and Commonwealth Writers' Prize (2003) for The Polished Hoe; the Toronto Book Award for More (2009); and the Harbourfront Festival Prize (2012) for his body of work. In 1998 he was awarded the Order of Canada.
For many of us who read, and think with and through Black Canadian literature, Clarke provided much of the initial language, the early imagery and motifs we used to demarcate Caribbean immigrant and Black people's experiences as a constituent product of Canadian life. Michael Bucknor (2015) rightly identifies Clarke's multiple roles as fiction writer, journalist, Black activist, and mentor as essential to the recording of Black Canadian social histories and the development of Black Canadian literature. Clarke's "activism and journalism on issues of race," Bucknor argues, not only spotlighted "racial injustice in the public domain," but also created "a space for the greater acceptance of the creative writing of people of color in Canada" (217). From his earliest novels set in the Caribbean to the stories of Caribbean immigrant life in Toronto published in the 1970s and 1980s and later portraits of the raw inequities of Canadian racism, Clarke's work narrated a history of the desires and disappointments of Black life across the Americas, and unveiled the agents of terror arrayed against its possibilities. Criticism of his work that focuses on the fact that significant portions of it are set in the Caribbean (including debates about whether he should have won the Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe) obscures the ways in which Black experiences travel across and are mediated by multiple borders. Indeed, by writing Blackness in Canada through "the variegated flows" of Black Atlantic [End Page 11] experiences (212), Clarke succeeded in subverting a longing for national loyalty and cheap multicultural platitudes even as he narrated the brutal specificity of place.
Clarke's trenchant literary voice and evocative (even if sometimes flawed) characters provided an important template for subsequent generations of writers to study, rework and contest. His portraits of the impact of racism on Black masculinity, and his ability to capture the subtle cadences—inflections, rhythms and sound—of Caribbean speech and to use these languages to shape a uniquely Black Canadian perspective and translate the prejudices deeply embedded in Canadian cultural, social and political institutions were, indeed, singular. The impact of the body of work Clarke has left as his greatest gift resonates now, and will resonate much longer after his passing, because Black Canada is still in formation and the histories of Black people's lives in diaspora are circular and repeating. Black people in Canada, says Beckford, are still "living amongst thistles and thorns: the prickly pain of violence, segregation, subordination, and exploitation…colonial forms of oppression are even more entrenched in practice now, even if they materialize in subtler forms" (2017). Even for those of us who recognize and deeply respect Clarke's influence but are torn by his representation of female characters, there are lessons to be learned, contemplations we cannot avoid.
Yet, despite Clarke's clear influence and cultural relevance, the institution of "Canadian Literature" has been ambivalent toward one of its most significant writers. Its imaginary was unprepared, in its own foundational days in the 1960s, and even later when it...