Austin Clarke: Sail on, Prince of Tides

Austin Clarke, 1931-2016

Photo Copyright © by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

Yesterday, June 26, 2016, Bajan-Canadian novelist Austin “Tom” Clarke passed away in Toronto.  He was 84.  Perhaps the best known African-Canadian writer and certainly the pre-eminent Barbadian novelist, Clarke’s work over the last 50-plus years included short stories, journalism, novels, memoir, and poetry.  His two last published works were the memoir ’Membering (2015) and the poetry collection In Your Crib (2013).  Clarke’s work was characterized by tremendous humour, stylish nation language, wide-ranging interests (among them music, sports, politics, history, literature, race, class, and cooking), resilient characters, and a formidable commitment to the kinds of issues that mattered to social realists like himself.  ArtsEtc remembers Austin by reprinting an interview Robert Edison Sandiford conducted with him beachside in Barbados upon the release of his newest novel at the time, The Origin of Waves, almost 20 years ago.  The interview first appeared in the Nation newspaper’s Sunday Sun April 19, 1998, as "The Prince of Tides," then in Sandiford’s memoir, Sand for Snow: A Caribbean-Canadian Chronicle (2003).

 

The moment he calls for cou-cou, you know he has been here before, is a regular.  It’s morning; lunch isn’t for another hour and a half.  But the waitress working behind the bar informs him the cook was preparing some “in case he passed by.”

The cornmeal-and-okra delicacy isn’t ready yet.  He studies the menu, considers his options.  He consults his lady friend.  They decide on the Big Bajan Breakfast.

Austin Clarke (“Tom” to friends) reaches for an ashtray and lights up a Cartier.  Dressed in white slacks, a tropical blue shirt and dark, round shades, he looks like a man on holiday.

“It has become a favourite,” he says of the establishment, Pebbles Beach Bar & Restaurant, located on Graves End Beach on the outskirts of Bridgetown.  The sound of the surf is soothing.  “This is the beach I used to come to when I was growing up.”

Instead of a rendez-vous at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus, where he and his lady friend, Rosamaria Plevano, a translator, have been staying, we come here so she can swim while we talk.

Clarke orders a coffee; ignoring the three sachets of sugar on the side, he drinks it black.

“But I never went too far often because I can’t swim, you see,” he says, getting back to the sea.  “I would have to steal away from my mother.”

At 66, still a son of the soil even though he has spent almost 45 years in Canada, Clarke knows something about time and tide.

The title of his latest book is The Origin of Waves.  It is the story of two Barbadians, John and Tim, once close childhood friends, who meet by chance in a Toronto snowstorm at Christmastime and spend an evening in a bar catching up on the last 50 years of each other’s life.

Praised as Clarke’s finest novel, it recently won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.  “The last time I was here was in '94, during the elections,” he says.  He was working hard for the Democratic Labour Party then.  “I’m here, I would say, on a vacation, really, although I came to do a lecture [‘Nation, Language, and Literature’].  So there’s less anxiety than the last.  And this is the first time I’ve felt like a tourist, because normally I would be staying with friends.”

Be that as it may, the success of The Origin of Waves no doubt has contributed to this laid-back attitude.

“It’s a good feeling that this book has done so well.  I didn’t expect it.”  Actually, Clarke put aside The Polished Hoe, another book he had started but stalled on, to write this one.  After working for the past few years as a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board in Toronto, The Origin of Waves became an effort to prove to himself he still had what it took to write a good book.

“All I wanted was to have the book accepted for publication,” he says.  “I really thought it would be a preparation for the other book.”

The Origin of Waves is now in its fourth printing.  For the first time in his writing career, Clarke has been sent on a promotional tour by his publishers, McClelland & Stewart. 

As a result of all the attention, one of his memoirs, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), and his Toronto Trilogy, The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973), and The Bigger Light (1975), will be reissued this July. 

Some critics have called the themes Clarke embraces in The Origin of Waves more “universal” than in those books.  He has his own theory as to why his first novel in ten years has had such an enthusiastic reception.

“Most of my previous books, I think, have been misunderstood.  My previous books dealt with Barbadians in Canada.”  This, he explains, makes his work political.  Unfortunately, people also assume he only treats issues of race and not the human condition.

“I think the difference,” he continues, “is that this book does not at all deal with that [political aspect].  So that the reader then has to relax and accept what the book is dealing with, which is simply very close friendship, nostalgia, and personal, I suppose, and psychological frustration.”

Clarke is grateful for his good fortune—not that he takes it for granted.  As the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once suggested, writing doesn’t get any easier with age; the most a long-time practitioner can hope for is a greater understanding of what he or she has been doing through the years.

“You still have to question the usefulness of time spent writing.  You have still to wonder whether the point you are making is a worthwhile point,” Clarke adds.  “You have to consider the fashion and the trends in writing.”

At this junction, breakfast is served: a huge, white plate of fried eggs, bakes, plantain, fishcakes, flying fish, watermelon, and cucumber.

 “It’s been a long time since I had a traditional Bajan breakfast,” says Clarke, pushing his plate toward Rosamaria, entreating her to eat.  She nibbles on the fruit then heads for the beach.  Moving along, talk turns to the work of other writers.  When asked about successors, he straightens up in his seat.

Clarke’s air is professorial.  He doesn’t really talk to you, rather at you, but never above or down to you.  His shades only heighten the impression.

“I’ll give you two positions.  One is the position of these writers who feel that they will overtake me,” he says.  “That’s fine, if they’re going to write better work than me….  I assure them that I will be writing when I die.  The second position is my own.  I consider them to be competitors, and I’ve told them so.”

Clarke admits to tensions among black writers in Canada.  “You really are writing for glory, if you can call it that—attention.  But there’s enough attention available that all of us can get a little bit.”  He has deep respect for Barbadian-born journalist Cecil Foster and the poet Dionne Brand, formerly of Trinidad.

If there is something that bothers him in Canada—more precisely, in Toronto, his adopted city—it is the current habit of East-Indian writers from the [Caribbean] region to segregate themselves.  He insists Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, a friend and mentor who spent the last years of his life in Calgary, would never have considered himself anything other than West Indian or Canadian, and not, say, an Indo-Caribbean who happened to be living in Canada.

Regarding his own peccadilloes, however, Clarke is cagey.  To him, character is fate and his forte.  Consequently, traditional plotting remains somewhat elusive.

Clarke breaks to point out the sea.  Rosamaria has swum out farther than makes him comfortable.  I ask is she knows that old Bajan proverb about the sea having no backdoor.  He nods gravely.  “But, being Italian, she doesn’t listen,” he says.

He comes back to the conversation.  “Of course, I cannot admit to having any weaknesses.  I may not admit to having any strengths.”

Clarke, quite simply, is fascinated with language, what it can do.  The raves for The Origin of Waves aside, his personal best is The Meeting Point.  His story collection When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971) ranks as his favourite.

Upcoming is Pig Tails 'n' Breadfruit, a book on “ways of cooking”—the “real” stories behind recipes like bakes (balls of fried batter my own mother calls “Bajan pancakes”)—that was inspired by the social commentary columns he wrote in nation language for the Nation newspaper in Barbados.  It is to be published by Random House Canada in January next year.

Following that will be more novels.  Already finished is The Question, which is “essentially about the way words are used by men and women to communicate.”

It may sound arrogant, but Clarke believes he has yet to receive his due.  “No,” he says unequivocally.  His reasoning has less to do with ego than with necessity.  “To say that means you may as well stop writing.”  And that, obviously, is something he is not at all prepared to do.

April 19, 1998

[UPDATED: June 30, 2016]