“The wordshop of the kitchen”: Impressions of Austin Clarke and Paule Marshall

by Asha Varadharajan

Asha Varadharajan is Associate Professor of English at Queen's University in Canada.  She is the author of Exotic Parodies: Subjectivity in Adorno, Said, and SpivakHer writing and public speaking encompass the biopolitics of citizenship and human rights, the globalization of culture, the conjunction of religion and violence, and the politics of representation in media and visual cultures. The most fun she has had lately was while writing her entry on Eric Idle for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Asha remains a Luddite at heart and a misfit in a digital universe. She loves Legally Blonde, finds Game of Thrones patently absurd, and remains a colonial lackey of British television. She is still obsessing about the damage Alanis Morrissette did to the word “ironic.”

Happenstance

Austin Clarke’s writings are belated and still fugitive presences on my bookshelves. I have read his Barbadian and “Amurcan” (Clarke’s appellation for American) contemporaries, George Lamming and Paule Marshall, respectively, with more care and attention. All three share a simultaneously fractious and poignant relation to Barbados, the place Marshall’s father described as “some poor-behind little village buried in a sea of canes,” a place he deemed hidden from and forgotten by God. Marshall’s parents migrated from Barbados, but she was born in Brooklyn, New York. She often composes her novels in Barbados and Grenada, and “returns” to Barbados in her short fiction which features characters and settings from her “native” land. Her reputation, however, is that of an American author, with complex relations to both the African-American and Caribbean literary traditions. This essay forges a serendipitous link between Marshall’s Triangular Road: A Memoir (2009), her short story, “Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” and Clarke’s Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), a bid to see what their unaccustomed juxtaposition might elicit. Both Clarke and Marshall write from their respective locations in Canada and the US, thus fashioning Barbados in the light of an unsentimental nostalgia.

Diasporic life and consciousness tend to be imagined as a series of leavings, as embarking upon the new and the unknown, or as thresholds between a receding past and an uncertain future rather than conceived of as vivid, if ambiguous, returns to one’s origins. I chose Growing Up Stupid deliberately, because it recounts a life when Canada “was a blur on [his] consciousness” rather than Clarke’s customary habitat. Marshall’s Triangular Road, as its title suggests, straddles Africa, America, and the Caribbean uneasily; however, it too narrates a voyage in rather than a voyage out, weaving in and out of history and memory as Clarke does.

My inspiration for teasing out unsuspected affinities between Clarke and Marshall was Marshall’s essay “From the Poets in the Kitchen.” In it, she pays tribute to women as “unknown bards” in whose everyday speech she discovered beauty, poetry, and wisdom. This world, in which women were ubiquitous and men largely absent or distant, parallels that of Clarke’s boyhood: men are cruel, inadequate, feckless, exploited, isolated, or dead. Clarke associates adult men with “the smear of illegitimacy,” the fear of abandonment and penury, the weakness for rum and the brutal or preening exercise of authority, but women command love and awe. My curiosity was piqued by this strange bond between a male (often perceived as misogynist) writer, and a female one who self-consciously dropped the feminine ending, “e” in her preferred pronunciation of her first name, Paule, in order to announce herself as the heir to a male poet, Paul Dunbar. How did they come to have so much in common? And what should I make of the significant differences in their retelling of “Bajan” body and spirit, geography and history, skin and identity? As Clarke muses in Growing Up Stupid, everybody has style, and the eloquence with which Marshall and Clarke exploit and transfigure the quotidian gives it both power and dignity.

Clarke punctuates the grandeur of this ritual violence with the inexplicable and frequent deaths of Barbadian men and boys.

Some days ago, I came upon a hardbound copy of Clarke’s More in a second-hand bookshop selling for the princely sum of one dollar. I rushed in gleefully waving my five dollar bill but the shopkeeper didn’t have change and couldn’t be bothered to get it, so she handed the book back to me, carelessly indicating I could have it for free. Her gesture and my initial pleasure at picking up a bargain gave me pause—surely the book should have been worth, well, more? I hope this essay is in some small fashion the more that Clarke’s and Marshall’s protagonists seek but don’t always find.

 

 

“Bright as shite” (Clarke)

Paule Marshall remarks on her mother’s and the latter’s friends’ penchant for “the antonym, the contradiction, the linking of opposites” so that “they gave one as much weight and importance as the other.” Marshall’s sense that such a fragile reconciliation of opposites reflected these women’s “very conception of reality” encapsulates the world of Growing Up Stupid, too. Clarke, however (as Marshall knows writers do) sketches his world all the while “stretching, shading, deepening” the meaning of the compound of beautiful and ugly it connotes.

One has only to recall Clarke’s searing description of the flogging he and his classmates receive from their headmaster “with the pre-soaked, pee-soaked fan belt from his wife’s sewing machine” accompanied by the “profundo of his voice” raised in harmony with the rest of the school “like a choir of a cathedral” to recognize both the unsettling character of this dualism and its beauty. The exhaustion of the boys is counterpointed by the headmaster’s perspiring black skin “jewelled with beads” as his violence finally comes to an end. If the book was simply peppered with such scenes of discipline and punishment, it might have become tedious. Clarke interrupts this tedium with the puckish attempts of the boys to replace the vicious bamboo rods with tamarind ones to soften the blow and with their dreams of vengeance with “bull-pistle” whips of their own while they wash faeces from their legs and pants after yet another flogging. Moreover, Clarke punctuates the grandeur of this ritual violence with the inexplicable and frequent deaths of Barbadian men and boys. Some are lost at sea during the war, a boy trampled by a horse during the races is promptly forgotten when the next race begins, and the boy who boasts he can swim “like a shark and a half” is “drowned the first week of the next vacation.” Clarke renders the arbitrary and unjust fates of these men and boys as routine as the predictable violence of colonial education. He thus peoples the “streets which kicked up the dust of these men’s former cocky independence” while establishing the framework within which what his and Marshall’s mother call “cutting and contriving”—surviving—acquires meaning.

 

“furious with the father I continued helplessly to love” (Marshall)

Clarke asserts that the women never speak of the men until after they are dead and even then, fitfully. His own father appears only as the man who stained the white of his mother’s wedding dress and consigned him to the fate of a “bastard,” and his stepfather, despite being an industrious man and the one who enables Clarke’s mother to realize her dream of living in her own home, remains a shadowy figure in Clarke’s narrative. Hidden among the pages of Clarke’s memoir are glimpses of passionate and self-indulgent and even indolent Barbadian men, an indolence and recklessness born of “the pain and regret at becoming a man too soon.” The prospect of hard labour in the cane fields and quarries, of functioning as the “bread-winner … when there was little bread,” or of eking out a living as a poorly paid and unsuitably clad civil servant goes a long way towards explaining Sam Burke, Paule Marshall’s fascinating and elusive father.

Marshall’s yearning for the father she loved but could not forgive prompts her to open Triangular Road with her abiding affection and respect for Langston Hughes.

Burke is a stowaway and illegal alien who abandons life under the harsh glare of the sun in the canefields of Barbados and Cuba because both have been transformed, as Marshall writes, into “a sugar bowl to sweeten England’s tea.” He arrives in Brooklyn and sweeps Marshall’s mother, Adriana, off her feet. Burke never quite makes his peace with the “ignominy” of dreary labour while “the holy grail of his true calling continu[es] to elude him.” Burke’s natty attire, his haughty refusal to stoop to what the world is willing to offer, his irrepressible charm and “antic” disposition, the hymns he bursts into to drown out his wife’s scolding, his pleasure in women’s bodies, and the tenderness with which he cooks his young daughter a soft boiled egg the taste of which remains unforgettable, make him a man who turns life into art, living it with all the flair and bravado he can muster. Marshall’s description of herself in Adriana’s accusatory tones as “Hard-ears!”, “Willful!”, and “Own-ways!” establishes her as her father’s daughter, deaf to her mother’s “Xanthippe”-like shrillness.

I surmise that Marshall’s yearning for the father she loved but could not forgive prompts her to open Triangular Road with her abiding affection and respect for Langston Hughes, also a dapper dreamer with a taste for the good life and a habit of surprising her with thoughtful postcards and whimsical gifts. The difference, of course, is that this mentor-father amounted to something, fulfilling his dream rather than being condemned, like Burke, to defer it. At least in Growing Up Stupid, Clarke makes no mention of any such benevolent father-figures (as opposed to brutalizing ones), except for his Latin master Sleepy Smith who taught them “who they were” encouraging them to dream “dreams of reality” and to wear their pips “with pride and dignity.” This mention of Smith is so fleeting, however, that it sticks out in Clarke’s memoir that is otherwise steeped in the “honeyed” voices and “soft, satin” bodies of women.

 

“Soully-gals” (Marshall)

The fusion of “soul: spirit” with the “body, flesh, the visible self” (Marshall) animates the disturbing, irreverent, and sensuous scenes in Clarke’s memoir that feature the labouring, nurturing, and desirable bodies of women. Marshall certainly focuses on women selling their domestic labour to White households for a pittance before coming home to cook and clean for their families in turn. However, her emphasis on the economic continuities of life on the islands and in Brooklyn, where their race, sex, poverty, and foreignness render Bajans even more invisible than their African-American counterparts, lacks the texture of Clarke’s depictions of female lives irradiated by labour as it does the pleasure, spectacle, and transport the bounty of female bodies offers. In contrast, Marshall’s young womanhood is dogged by Adriana’s fears of her becoming a “little wring-tail” [concubine] revealing the luxury afforded Clarke of observing everything from budding to Oedipal female sexuality.

I understand why Clarke’s representation of female sexuality and religiosity and the violence implicit in both may be perceived as stereotypical or sexist, but I think such a view misses his appreciation for what Marshall would describe as “scandalous” and “independent” women who “[take their] pleasure at will.” The scene in which Sister Thomas seduces the young Clarke—it remains ambiguous whether this is simply an ecstatic moment of spiritual possession—induces unease, no doubt, because her predatory desire is fulfilled with such artlessness, but is also a comic rendering of the laying on of hands that makes healing synonymous with orgasm. The “catfight” that no doubt draws the ire of sensitive readers is also leavened by its function as a ritual catharsis of sorts, exposing secrets that bind a community even closer together in their new-found knowledge, while reducing men and boys capable of looking at women to being unworthy of touching them. Because Clarke also depicts the constraints upon female existence such as illiteracy, bent backs, and ragged knees, these luscious, expressive and uncontainable bodies could be seen as the equivalent of the “spoken word” that Marshall insists is the “only weapon at [the] command” of the women she knows.

 

“encountering a past that is not past” (Christina Sharpe)

Clarke and Marshall (en)gender a surprising reversal of expectations. Clarke appeals to the senses while Marshall, at least in this work, is more cerebral than visceral, writing with restraint and subtlety rather than exuberance. This may be the consequence of the delicate negotiation of proximity and distance in both works. Marshall describes how the women remember Barbados as “Poor—poor but sweet.” The makeshift existence of the poor in Barbados parallels the slipperiness of self-worth in America and, as Marshall explains, the talk of women “[restores] them to a sense of themselves.” Their memories of Barbados, however, are not hers, which is why her journey requires her to reconstruct a public past to which she can lay claim rather than encounter a private ancestry to which she can pledge fealty.

For Clarke, growing up Barbadian but educated in English history and manners, requires him to make that history ‘a part of [him].’

Growing Up Stupid dwells on details that make memory and experience coalesce: the sweat that takes “its wet awful-smelling toll” on Sister Christopher’s body, the “greasy and delicious” food his mother cooks, the coachmen dressed up like “fat cockroaches,” the squirming, wriggly centipedes that terrorize them, the saving of always too-tight shoes for special occasions, the year it takes to pay off four rolls of cloth, the interminable and painstaking copying of Latin texts and translations. The inglorious everyday is the source of Barbados’ sweetness, and yet those details don’t add up to a picture of abjection and deprivation—one leaves Clarke’s memoir brimming with choice morsels of phrases, rather than a world emptied of meaning and hope.

In Marshall’s search for her origins, for a kinship denied her by the father who disowns his past, she claims as her “progenitors” “‘the incorrigibles in Barbados” “who had somehow withstood the whipping post and the pillory,” as well as the “negroes” “led off to centuries of John Henry work,” Olaudah Equiano, and the drowned victims of the Zong massacre. Her writing acquires the sensory quality of Clarke’s in describing the condition of the chattel cargo that landed in Richmond, Virginia—the “stench, the running sores, the caked shit”—letting her imagination do the work of observation. Marshall assumes the burden of a history she did not experience, abstracts from a past she discovers but does not know, and situates herself in the afterlives of slavery. These afterlives are manifested both in the irony and insouciance of her Jewish editor eagerly anticipating her visit to the slave plantation and in her invention of a historical and aesthetic legacy of militants and poets to which she can belong comfortably. For Clarke, on the contrary, growing up Barbadian but educated in English history and manners, requires him to make that history “a part of [him].” The “beauty and shame and sensuality” of life in Barbados become “the history and civilization of [his] village.” In other words, Clarke memorializes the past while Marshall re-visions it.

This is nostalgia with a sting in its tail, however. Marshall’s task is that of excavating and re-membering a history buried in dusty tomes that nobody ever reads in her university library, absent from the education she received in schools, ignored by libraries where she is embarrassed to ask for “Negro” writers, and denied by those who live in Virginia. That Marshall delivered these lectures in 2005 tells its own tale of America’s successes in coming to terms with its past.

Two moments in Growing Up Stupid are lodged in my memory: first, the narrator-Clarke witnesses a White boy kissing a black dog, a sight which makes him throw up. The narrator informs us that the boys believed dogs were taught by White owners to eat Black boys alive. This explains the fear fuelling his nausea but the nausea is also fuelled by his unconscious identification with the black dog fawning on its White owner for which it is rewarded with a kiss. Second, we learn that the posh neighbourhood in Barbados, Belleville, shines white and bright because of black hands that scrub and polish, change diapers and slap white bottoms, and induce white orgasms “through love or through rape.” Clarke’s description of Belleville as “the place against which we measured our misery, and our mobility” expands the implications of the shocking equivalence he establishes between rape and love in a colonial environment. The cruel Black headmaster who always wears white, Marshall’s character Mr. Watson who spends his life-savings earned in America to build a “replica of a white planter’s great house” in Barbados (a “colonial showpiece” in which he would have been forbidden to step foot in his youth), and the “lucky clear-skinned few” who could ride through cane fields in which a field woman could “give up her body in order to keep her job and feed her children,” are painful reminders of how history and tyranny repeat themselves and “the slime of poverty” leaves “the people living in the castles of their skins.” Such deprivation fosters imitation of one’s betters, thus ruining one’s chances of both freedom from want and freedom from slavery.

Clarke’s bleak humour casts doubt on not only the clarity of the past but even its visibility just as Marshall abandons historical facts for the modest truths of fiction at the end of Triangular Road.

But if Belleville was an inescapable “reference point” for Barbadians’ misery, its magnificence is also theirs “to conquer.” A fine sentiment on Clarke’s part, perhaps, but Marshall remains uncertain at the end of her voyage that guilt, shame, and sorrow can be transcended or that her visit to parts of the Caribbean and Africa truly constitutes a gesture of reclamation, reconciliation, and forgiveness that redeems her American present. Clarke’s mood is more hopeful in that the past sustains rather than torments him as he embarks upon the new phase of his life in Canada.

 

“an insistence on existing” (Sharpe)

I want to end on a speculative note. Both Clarke and Marshall have the gift of transforming physical death into figurative life, of resuscitating social death in the loving arms of remembrance, and of turning memoir into “a window onto social and historical processes,” as Saidiya Hartman puts it. But their fictions also contain compelling meditations on what eludes the imagination and recedes from memory, what haunts and mocks their efforts, what continues to blind them, and what is stubbornly absent once love loses its fervour and releases its hold.

In an enigmatic disquisition on perspective in Growing Up Stupid, the narrator-Clarke comments wryly that “the chattel house is merely a section of the plantation house.” Clarke’s bleak humour casts doubt on not only the clarity of the past but even its visibility, just as Marshall abandons historical facts for the modest truths of fiction at the end of Triangular Road. The emphasis on repetition rather than transcendence, and upon obscurity rather than illumination, recalls the ambiguity of Toni Morrison’s rueful conclusion in Beloved, “[slavery] was not a story to pass on.”

Marshall’s “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam” is the counterpart to Clarke’s radical uncertainty, tracing the contours of her grandmother whose face is “stark and fleshless as a death-mask” and whose countenance is “distorted by an ancient abstract sorrow.” Marshall’s characterization transforms her grandmother into darkness visible, and all her appearances occur in the play of sunlight and darkness, one blinding and the other impenetrable. While it is tempting to imagine Da-Duh as an indomitable presence, this is the story of her inevitable defeat by a self-immolating colonial past and of her trampling by the “thunderous tread” of machines and skyscrapers in the diasporic present. The narrator lives not in the wake of her life but in the shadow of her death, unable to restore the vibrancy of the tropical landscape in art or revive it in memory. The title of the story connotes a letter to an absent and silent addressee followed immediately by the words “in Memoriam,” already mourning the figure whom affection cannot embrace or resurrect. Even Clarke’s resort to tangible details such as wet lips and a toothless smile to fix his grandmother in loving memory appears as an afterthought in a portrait composed largely in the subjunctive mood. Marshall’s world is infinitely diminished by the memory of Da-Duh while Clarke’s “poor and foolish” grandmother is elevated in the world’s eyes by the Latinate love he expresses: “Miriam amo.”

These works raise the question of whether and how fiction can or might remember, atone for, abide with what Sharpe calls “subjected lives,” invite vulnerability but resist abjection, and invoke love.

Acknowledgements: Michael Bucknor and Lisa Brown suggested I compare Growing Up Stupid and Triangular Road.

 


Asha Varadharajan is Associate Professor of English at Queen's University in Canada.  She is the author of Exotic Parodies: Subjectivity in Adorno, Said, and SpivakHer writing and public speaking encompass the biopolitics of citizenship and human rights, the globalization of culture, the conjunction of religion and violence, and the politics of representation in media and visual cultures. The most fun she has had lately was while writing her entry on Eric Idle for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Asha remains a Luddite at heart and a misfit in a digital universe. She loves Legally Blonde, finds Game of Thrones patently absurd, and remains a colonial lackey of British television. She is still obsessing about the damage Alanis Morrissette did to the word “ironic.”

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