The following was originally presented as a tribute at the Annual West Indian Literature Conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica, October 5, 2016 by Dr. Michael A. Bucknor, Associate Professor, Department of Literatures in English, Mona Campus, University of the West Indies.
All he wanted to do was type!
On May 9, 2016, I visited Austin Clarke at the St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Prior to my visit, I had serendipitously come into contact with Rinaldo Walcott, whom I had planned to e-mail to find out how he was doing because the news trickling down to Jamaica through friends in Canada was that he was not doing well. Several months earlier (September 2015), I had gone to Canada to deliver a paper at McMaster University. The lecture was sponsored by the McMaster University Library and the Department of English and Cultural Studies, because the Austin Clarke archives had been the bedrock of that research project. Austin was delighted to be invited to the talk, and had indicated to me he was attending.
His short e-mail of August 26, 2015 said: “Dear Michael, I hope to attend your lecture on September 15th. Good luck with your lecture! As man, Austin.” In April of that year, I attended the Trinidad and Tobago Bocas Literary Festival in order to see Austin who was scheduled to be present, but again ill-health prevented him from attending. So, through that contact with Rinaldo on April 27, 2016, while he was in the Bahamas, I learnt Austin was in Room 64 on the 14th Floor of St Mike’s on Shuter and Victoria.
This trip to Canada was to visit the Austin Clarke archives, and I had scheduled lunch with poet, Olive Senior, and tea with my former student, Ronald Cummings, in Toronto that day. Olive, after lunch, kindly escorted me to St. Michael’s, and I went up to the 14th floor and found Austin easily. His room had a few pictures and news reports on the walls identifying him as a significant Caribbean/Canadian writer. I went in the room and stood beside his bed. His eyes were bright, even as he laboured to breathe. I was not sure if I should engage him in conversation, but after a few silent moments of me just smiling sheepishly at him, I said, a little hesitantly, “I have come all the way from Kingston to see you.” He smiled more broadly and said, “Do you know one Professor Michael Bucknor, who is the Head of the English Department at UWI in Jamaica?” I had to lean in close to him to hear him clearly. Then I said, “I am he!” and he repeated the answer “I am he” with a smile.
To this day, I was not clear whether he had recognized me from the start and was having fun at my expense or that he associated Kingston with me. Then he started to move his fingers on the flat control board for the television as if he were typing and I thought even here in this state, all he wanted to do was type—all he wanted to do was write.
On his last visit to Kingston, early 2002, I was designated to host Austin, who had been specially invited as Visiting Writer to the Mona Campus. He conducted writing workshops, had a reading, visited my class “West Indian Special Author Seminar: Austin Clarke,” donated parts of the manuscript of The Polished Hoe to me and to the UWI Library, and did an interview for the Campus Radio. In that interview he reported that the first time his Jamaican wife “cussed” some good Jamaican “bad words” to him was when he told her, he wanted to take up writing as a full-time career. And since he made that decision sometime in the late 1950s/early 1960s, he continued to write and publish for a half a century. At the age 80, he published his most recent memoir ’Membering which was longlisted for the OCM Bocas and the RBC Taylor Prizes. From Survivors of the Crossing in 1964 to ’Membering in 2015, Clarke was writing and publishing for over 50 years. This in itself is a milestone—this longevity indicates his dedication to his craft and his commitment to archiving the lives of Black Barbadians, Caribbean Canadians and African and Caribbean Americans.
On May 26, 2016 I arrived in London, where I was scheduled to give a paper on Clarke, only to receive news of his passing. That day I reflected on my earliest encounters with Clarke. I was an MPhil Student at UWI Mona in 1991-1992, and attending my first conference, which was the 1992, West Indian Literature Conference in Guyana. Like Pat Saunders who spoke from the floor of the 2016 West Indian Literature Conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica, about the way in which the West Indian Literature Conference influenced her professional life, there is a story here about how this 1992 conference eventually directed my scholarly life. I was due to leave Jamaica for Canada that summer and heard a paper on “Exile in West Indian literature” that featured Austin Clarke. I realized that some of the issues being discussed in that paper I might be facing soon, and my interest was piqued.
That summer, I met Clarke when I was co-opted into helping with the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies conference in Jamaica. I met him again at the University of Western Ontario, where I organized a reading series dubbed “Other Voices” for the Black Students Association; we invited Austin Clarke to be a presenter and from there a friendship developed.
My last special time with him was in 2011, when I visited Toronto and interviewed him in two marathon sessions of four hours on each of two days. His body was shaky; he was shuffling as he walked (and I was amazed at how age had altered this athlete, this “running fool” from Barbados, as he described himself in Growing up Stupid Under the Union Jack). Yet, his mind was so sharp and his memory was so strong and he was still so excited about writing new projects. He gave me a copy of More that had just come out after over 40 years of trying to place it and shared with me his first collection of poems, Where the Sun Shines Best, and showing me the scene before his house where a homeless man was killed—this homicide, the inspiration for the collection. He was generous and accommodating, in good humour and delightful company. When he became tired, I roamed through his ceiling high bookcases in his house full of books.
Clarke was no doubt a complicated and sometimes controversial figure, but his commanding corpus of writings that is rich with inventive Barbadian dialect and that documented the lives of the Black disapora from Barbados, Canada, and America is a true legacy for Caribbean Literature. In addition, his institution-building role for the reception of non-white Canadian writers in Canada, his race activism, his pioneering work on Black studies programmes in the American academy, his role as a diplomat, his media work in both Canada and Barbados, and his enthusiastic support of young writers have made him a significant Caribbean writer of our times. The unforgettable image of his fingers on an imaginary type-writing that day in May 2016 will remain a lasting memory for me of a man who all he wanted to do was write. May his soul rest in peace.
Michael A. Bucknor is an Associate Professor, Head of the Department of Literatures in English and the Public Orator of the Mona Campus, University of the West Indies. He is also co-editor with Alison Donnell of The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, carries out research on Austin Clarke, Caribbean-Canadian writing, postcolonial literatures and theory, diaspora studies, masculinities and popular culture. He serves on the editorial boards of Caribbean Quarterly, Issues in Critical Investigation, and Lucayos, and has been an editor of the Journal of West Indian Literature and Postcolonial Text. He is working on a book-length manuscript entitled Transnational Circuits of Cultural Production: Austin Clarke, Caribbean-Canadian Writing and the African Diaspora.