“There Were No Elders. Only Old Men”: Aging and Misogyny in Austin Clarke’s Later Fiction

by Camille Isaacs

Camille Isaacs is Assistant Professor of English at OCAD University specializing in postcolonial, Caribbean, and postcolonial literatures. She is the author of Austin Clarke: Essays on His Works (Guernica, 2013). Her research is focused in the Black Atlantic region, everything from the Black British idiom, to West Indian literature, to the burgeoning Black Canadian literature. She is especially interested in how identity shifts between ethnic and racial markers, particularly for Blacks in North America. Her most current work considers the use of Gothic in the Canadian diasporic writing of Rawi Hage, the feasibility of transnationalism for Blacks in Interwar Europe, and links between the New Negro and other modernist, indigenous movements.

In a recent article in The Guardian newspaper, writer Jonathan McAloon asks if male writers can avoid misogyny. The central question he poses is, “how does one write about misogyny without perpetuating it?” It is a question that has been shadowing Austin Clarke’s work for decades. In 1994, Stella Algoo-Baksh, describing the collection When Women Rule, writes that “Clarke’s derogatory and opprobrious depiction of women and the dangers they represent to men may well tempt the reader to see him as a misogynist.”  Similarly, Daniel Coleman, in a 1998 chapter on masculinity focusing on Joshua Miller-Corbaine from the short-story collection Nine Men Who Laughed, writes that “Joshua does not function as a guide to a new masculinity. Simultaneously a producer and a product of capitalist phallocentrism, he perpetuates the system of misogyny that founds his very livelihood.” Although Clarke credits the many women in his extended household for raising him and teaching him, his oeuvre highlights repeated episodes of male characters displaying, “revulsion coexisting with attraction,” as it relates to the women in their lives, a trait David Gilmore, a professor of anthropology, sees as defining many misogynists. He writes: “It seems that wherever we find misogyny, we also find its diametric opposite in equal measure.”

In a literary career spanning more than 50 years, Clarke has been essential in characterizing the Black population to itself and to the wider Canadian society; however, old patterns and tropes repeat themselves, suggesting Clarke’s characters have not moved beyond limited constructions of gender. In his last poetry collection, In Your Crib (2015), an unnamed youth who hopes to use his Mercedes-Benz to attract women, much as Calvin did in “The Motor Car” (1971), written more than 40 years earlier. The aging poet who regards the youth out of his window fails to see himself in the youth that he criticizes. Clarke’s depictions of women, similarly, have evolved only slightly over the course of his career. His latter aging female protagonists are slightly more contemporary versions of his earlier ones. Idora, the struggling mother of the novel More (2008), is a reincarnation of a Bernice or Dots from the Toronto trilogy (published 1967-1975). Mary-Mathilda of The Polished Hoe revisits the female inhabitants of the Barbadian sugarcane plantation of The Survivors of the Crossing, one of his earliest published novels. What hasn’t evolved in Clarke’s writing are depictions of complete women, happy and content without men or children in their lives. Aging male characters in Clarke’s work fail to take on what Emily Wentzell calls “composite masculinities” as they age; and these rigid gender constructions lead to concomitant restrictions in his older female protagonists as well.

Clarke updates the language used to describe women in his last poetry collection, but does not change the nature of the discourse.

Yet, I wonder if “misogyny” is too strong a word to describe Clarke’s opus. Certainly Clarke’s aim was not to perpetuate feelings of enmity towards women in his work. And in his last collection of poetry, we see the aging poet, staring out his window, wondering if his “immorality of loud silence” and the invisibility of the “lens” through which he saw the youth (and I would add women) is somehow responsible for the rudderless place the youth finds himself in. This limited self-criticism, however, gestures toward an enhanced self-knowledge that we did not truly get to see emerge in Clarke’s work, as this was his last piece of fiction.

Instead, there are several new episodes that echo older ones, leading to misogynistic patterns repeated by the youth, or as the aging poet says, “teaching new dogs old tricks.” In “The Motor Car,” Barbadian Calvin saves up his money for a Galaxie motor car, in which he imagines driving around the West Indian neighbourhood in Toronto, so that everyone could admire him with the “Canadian thing”—she is never named—in the passenger seat. Clarke updates the language used to describe women in his last poetry collection, but does not change the nature of the discourse. The aging poet criticizes the youth for the way he treats women: “woman and wife became ‘hos’; lady labelled ‘bitch,’” and, “For who had the most of these ‘bitches,’ are the very ones who grew up to drive machines ’factured by Germans. Calling them ‘Rides,’”—and the “ride” here refers to both the car and the woman. And just as Calvin does, the youth crashes his motor car, albeit without a “Canadian thing” inside. The aging poet does wonder if the lack of guidance the elders offered the youth is somehow to blame for the repeated patterns: “And you, leaderless, guided only by my silence / mixed with the two-timing urgency of dusk, must walk this next journey by yourself: / with no Elder, no old man, even, Alone. No wisdom / falling out of the skies and the Heavens / to guide you.” This lack of guidance offered the youth is precisely the lost opportunity that could have moved him beyond the objectification of women. Gilmore cites education as key in changing men’s and boys’ attitudes toward women: “The solution, rather, is for elders to alert young men and boys to the nature of their many levels of ambivalence toward women, to raise their consciousness about the duality of their feelings, not only toward women, but toward all things that are important to them.” Instead, the old man hides behind his window, saying his “puny words,” had he offered them, were insufficient.

Ironically, Clarke has often had women at the centre of his work, which would seem to belie their peripheral status. The importance of characters such as Bernice, Dots, Idora, and Mary-Mathilda does not render them more “complex” than earlier ones. As Clarke’s work emerged from the 1970s, we certainly encounter successful women characters of all races; but this success often comes at a very high cost in their lives. These are women who are financially stable, but either morally bankrupt or capitalist pawns, and still needing men or children to complete them. Clemmie, from the short story “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto” (1971) has made it financially, but is still lonely. She says, “A woman in my position—I have a nice job, I makes a decent wage, and I have a small piece o’ land back in Barbados and Canadian Savings Bonds up here—a woman in my position in life should be stepping out with a man who is proud to have walking beside o’ him! I should have a regular man.” The mother in “They’re not Coming Back” (1993) has a successful job and has jettisoned her cheating husband. But her success has forced her to give up her children to that husband: “The new house was now full of their absence … And the fact that they were not here tonight, welcoming her, as they did every other night, with complaints about the school day and each other, filled her with anxiety.” The word “fear” shows up repeatedly in his later work. And when we do encounter a successful, complete woman, Clarke depicts her as mannish, and thereby emasculating the men with whom she comes into contact. In the short story “The Discipline,” a Bay-Street lawyer is described as “dressed like a man in a three-piece suit. The back of her head, the sweep of her hair make me feel her strength and her force, and I think of her as a man.” That there are so few successful, happy, secure women in his work is a telling commentary on his perceived lens of having women rely on either men, money, or things to be complete.

Clarke’s ambivalence towards women highlights the precarious position in which he places his female protagonists.

In his short-story collection, When Women Rule (1985), we see Clarke engaging with these ideas of women being erroneously held responsible for the emasculation of the men in their lives, and he claims he titled the collection as he did because he recognized that the women are “deliciously in the background and their influence is not particularly recognized by the men.” But he also writes in “The West Indian Immigrant in Canada” that,

the black woman has been permitted, through the various exigencies of white racism, to puncture the white society in her role and in her function of servant, maid, cook, hospital nurse, school teacher and so on. This has brought out a subconscious awareness on her part of superiority over her man. The black woman, in certain cases, has flaunted this advantage over her man, in such ways as to crystallize the previous inferiority feelings instilled in his consciousness by the larger society.

By “deliciously” placing women in the background, blaming them for men’s emasculation, failing to recognize the entirety of their existences, Clarke perpetuates their diminished status. And Gilmore has written that it is exactly these ambivalent feelings towards women that is the basis of misogyny: “Misogyny stems from unresolved inner conflicts in men,” and “a series of multilayered ambivalences in men lies at the heart of the misogyny affliction.”

Clarke’s ambivalence towards women highlights the precarious position in which he places his female protagonists. Idora and Mary-Mathilda are his final female protagonists and had the potential to show the evolution of his thinking; however, both women continue to be viewed through the lens of men, incomplete in and of themselves. Idora says, “It is all right, she thinks, even on a Sunday morning, on the way to church, to think about sex. Sex is such a natural thing. Sex is life. Is blood.” Yet Clarke cannot conceive of that sex life without a partner, and a lesbian relationship occurs only if a man is not available. Clarke has Idora flirt with the idea of relationship with her best friend, Josephine, a relationship they [or he] cannot quite articulate: “And they clasped their arms, for comfort, for explanation, for the greater bond, the greater love, the purer love that two women sometimes share, round each other.” Unfortunately, this example of menless women falling into convenient affairs is a trope he explored in the 1970s, with Dots and Bernice in the Toronto trilogy. After Dots and Boysie lose touch with each other in the pursuit of more money and property, Bernice and Dots engage in a careless affair. Despite the 40 years between these novels, Clarke seemingly cannot conceive of women content without men, or women willingly choosing to be in a lesbian relationship.

If Clarke had chosen to give one of his female protagonists agency over her sexuality, surely it would not have been with that protagonist’s own father.

It might be tempting however, to view Mary-Mathilda and her mother as moving beyond this male-dominated sexuality by asserting agency over their sex lives, in Mary-Mathilda deciding with whom she will share her bed and in her mother encouraging what Jennifer Springer calls “survival pimping.” Springer argues that,

in Clarke’s narrative, the actions of Mary and her mother, Ma, serve as a political instrument and authoritative voice on the struggles of black women in their attempts to challenge sexual stereotypes while producing a counter-discourse to traditional representations of womanhood through their complex participation in survival pimping and sex work.

Mary-Mathilda becomes the long-term mistress of Mr. Bellfeels, thereby engaging in sex work where she determines to assert her sexuality with the most powerful man in the parish, rather than with any other man who could take her in the canefields when he chooses. Springer says,

Ma reclaims her own body and that of Mary when she chooses to pimp her daughter in order to secure for her a ‘better life,’ one where Mary lives in the plantation great house rather than serve there or work in the neighboring fields … Ma teaches her daughter to tap into her sexual agency, a new understanding of the body, and the varying purposes it can potentially serve—including but not limited to pleasure and economic stability.

But this interpretation of “sexual agency” still privileges men. As Ma says, “Mr. Bellfeels took her, as his right, in his natural arrogance of ownership, as a part of the intricate ritual and arrangement of life on the Plantation.” If Clarke had chosen to give one of his female protagonists agency over her sexuality, surely it would not have been with that protagonist’s own father, a point Mary-Mathilda admits in refusing to call it an “affair”: “no, not affair, for it could not be called that, since there was no bargaining power on her part.” This is not sexual agency, but rape and incest. Mary-Mathilda’s position is not that far removed from the other female plantation workers shown in The Survivors of the Crossing, published nearly 40 years earlier. And I see in this repeated trope a lack of recognition on Clarke’s part, as with the aging poet in his collection, In Your Crib, of history repeating itself and continued limited constructions of gender and sexuality.

But surely in acknowledging fault or neglect, Clarke has his aged poet move toward some type of reconciliation, which we, his readers, may have to enact.

These limited gender roles arise, in part, from a confused conflation of woman as parent and woman as lover and/or wife. The expected dependence on one (woman as parent) can lead to resentment when that dependence continues into adulthood (woman as partner), a point with which Algoo-Baksh concurs:

Perhaps, too, the negative image of women and their influence presented in When Women Rule is inspired in part by Clarke’s own emotional troubles, not yet sufficiently digested and absorbed into art. It is also likely that Clarke is exorcizing the sense of dependency on women that he has accumulated through years of reliance on the major women in his life—his grandmother, his mother, and his wife.

A telling example is the way Clarke similarly describes mother and lover figures in his writing. The following quotation is from an autobiographical piece published in 2014, called “Her Hair is Plaited Tight”:

She sits like a queen. Thick around the hips. Solid around her breasts. Thick and strong down to her long fingernails. And with her eyes closed. You see her silent, taciturn, like a woman sitting dead in a wooden straight-back chair. But her mighty chest—her “bosom” is the word that she uses—her bosom tells you just the opposite. She is alive.

On first reading, I thought Clarke was describing a love interest, but it turns out the piece is about his mother and details a letter she receives telling her about his father’s impending death in the almshouse. In another short story, “A Short Drive” (1992), a young West Indian professor working at Yale falls into a dance with a drag queen, unbeknownst to him. The dancer’s body reminds him of his mother:

It was like a mother knowing before the expression of pain is made, taking her child in the safety of her breast and bosom. I sank deep and comfortable in the billows of her love; as her arms wrapped my smaller body in embrace so much like my mother’s, that I felt I could fall off into a sweet slumber and surrender myself to her.

Rather than a kind of Freudian Oedipal love transposed from the mother figure onto a lover, Clarke’s writing evinces feelings of glorification of, and dependence on, one female figure often leads to a confused glorification and dependence on other female figures.

Clarke may or may not have recognized the repeated tropes he uses in his work, but the aged writer in his last poetry collection seems to offer up a recounting of his faults: “I am a man, old of age and disappointment / for the years that passed me by.” “I do not have the gift of words / put down in certain rhyme and rhythm, to guide your hand.” And he describes his own treatment of the Black youth of the city as “neglect,” and I would add women to this apology. But surely in acknowledging fault or neglect, Clarke has his aged poet move toward some type of reconciliation, which we, his readers, may have to enact. While the poet does not consider himself among the “elders,” merely an “old man,” his work can function as a lesson for his readers, and for the youth that he did very much want to reach. The poet’s final reckoning, he believes, will be with a higher power: “I will have this discussion, face-to-face, with God / whose heart is larger and much softer / than your compassion.”

Perhaps in attempting to depict his characters’ misogyny (or his own?), Clarke unwittingly perpetuated it. Jonathan McAloon, whose question opened this paper, does not provide any ready answers about how males can improve their writing about gender. However, he does call for an “open discussion.” And I think it is this call for open critique that Clarke’s work deserves, not further neglect, which the aged poet calls “unforgivable.” The poet’s last entreaty asks us to pay attention to what he says, perhaps not what he does:

let me now, as an old man,
rest my heavy, last request:
listen.

 


Camille Isaacs is Assistant Professor of English at OCAD University specializing in postcolonial, Caribbean, and postcolonial literatures. She is the author of Austin Clarke: Essays on His Works (Guernica, 2013). Her research is focused in the Black Atlantic region, everything from the Black British idiom, to West Indian literature, to the burgeoning Black Canadian literature. She is especially interested in how identity shifts between ethnic and racial markers, particularly for Blacks in North America. Her most current work considers the use of Gothic in the Canadian diasporic writing of Rawi Hage, the feasibility of transnationalism for Blacks in Interwar Europe, and links between the New Negro and other modernist, indigenous movements.

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