On Austin Clarke’s Style

“Manners Maketh Man”
–Gladys Clarke’s mantra for her son, Austin, throughout his life

“Come to terms with me, I will not come to terms with you.”
—Aimé Cesaire, Return to My Native Land

 

When a writer leaves us, we are left only with fragments to draw upon, pore over, and reassess to hold onto some aspect of his being. In the wake of the writer’s absence, words become talismanic, echoing a past made present, and animating memories with the tenuous power of narrative. A manuscript’s numerous editions, crossed out sections, and marginal notes of self-doubt and admonishment bespeak the thankless hours and exhausting labour spent revising, rewriting, and reshaping a work. Letters of rejection and disappointment, intermingled with rare accolades and notes of acknowledgement mark the milestones of a career built on perseverance. Unpublished works offer a glimpse of a writer struggling to be heard and find a place in a literary landscape largely indifferent to his plight. We assemble these fragments in the hope of retaining the voice of the writer after their passing, of finding some solace in their loss, in conjuring their voice long after the writer has gone.

In the case of Austin Clarke, the fragments that comprise ‘Membering Austin Clarke give voice to his style as a writer, a public intellectual, and a man. We envision this collection as a tribute to Austin, a mapping of his work, a proclamation of the singular import of his writing, a refusal to leave his work unexamined and untroubled, and a measure of his contributions to Canadian literary culture. This collection includes scholarly critique, personal reflections, biographical sketches, poetic responses to Clarke’s work, interviews with Clarke, and previously-unpublished works from Clarke himself. The fragmentary form of this collection, speaking in various modes, across multiple genres, and with numerous lines of connection between the pieces, are themselves a tribute to Clarke’s own fragmentary style.

This project began as a discussion between myself and three editors at The Puritan literary journal, André Forget, E. Martin Nolan, and Tyler Willis, on an April evening in Toronto in 2016. I had spent a few enjoyable, martini-laden evenings with Austin, and he was always gracious and generous with his time; we chatted about his writing, about history, politics, and life more generally. He insisted on buying the dinner and drinks for “the young professor” (I was a graduate student, but who was I to argue). Inevitably, at the end of the night, when I crawled into a taxi, he explained that he would have a nightcap and then do some writing. I believed him.

Austin was, if nothing else, a man of style: he attended to his appearance with the same care and craft as his language. Every word was tailored and every paragraph measured against the cut of the larger work. His hand-written manuscripts are calligraphic works of art. Austin mastered the selfie before we had a term for it: his earliest author photograph shows him in a resplendent blazer, his body framed in cigarette smoke and his face frozen in a downcast, contemplative gaze. Later, he would match a grey pinstripe suit with circular, proto-Warby Parker glasses and silk kerchief. When he met the Queen, Austin combined stylishly coiffed dreadlocks with a blue suit and the tie of his alma mater, Harrison College. Style.

If ever the man or his prose appeared casual or easy, you simply weren’t looking closely: sartorial, culinary, and literary style and splendour were equally important in Austin’s world. As Katherine McKittrick’s reflections on Austin’s bookshelves reveal, the very space of his home reflected his authorial style of free association and hybrid form. Even his daily routine demanded a style: he typically woke late, spent the day reading and researching, ate nothing until dinner, had his dinner with martinis at the Grand Hotel, returned home and wrote until the sun came up. The poet and spoken word artist Clifton Joseph tells a story about Austin in which, after a night of drinking with some young writers and “retiring” two large bottles of rum, he poured Joseph into a taxi. As Clifton climbed into the cab, Austin said, “Now Clifton, a writer would go home and write.” Clifton, barely able to stand, let alone write, said “Write WHAT Austin?!”

There was nothing simple about Austin’s style: he treated a morning trip to Kensington Market—“the Jewish market” (Clarke More 194) —with the same sense of grandeur and occasion as a book launch or dinner with dignitaries. One did not simply shop for “ingreasements” (Clarke More 196); such outings required a pressed suit, shined Bally shoes, an engraved pocket watch, and the day’s Globe and Mail for the streetcar ride. As Asha Varadharajan notes in her interpretation of Clarke’s work, “everybody has style,” but some have more than others. Like his characters who drive Mercedes-Benz cars, smoke Gauloise cigarettes, drink Jamaican White rum, listen to Coltrane, and wear tailored suits and silk shirts, Clarke’s style was a way of asserting a certain mode of masculine self-assurance. Possessing the proper objects and affects of style is a strong defence against Black invisibility in Canada or the regular accusation that Black men don’t belong here.

Austin’s attention to style was not mere masculine performance—although it was certainly that. Style, for Austin, was also a rebuke to Canada, particularly the Canadian cultural establishment, for their misunderstanding and misreading of who he was. Just as they misread Austin, treating his skin colour as the key sign of his character, they also misread his work, misunderstanding it as a realist or sociological account of Black life in Canada. His writing has never been singularly realist, nor has it ever been reportage: it is a polyvocal, hybridizing, experimental, introspective, satirical, patriarchal, offensive, provocative and—at times—outraged artistic reflection on life in Canada. His work demands a stylistic account.

The opening of his final novel, More (2008), is exemplary of this hybrid, fragmentary, and transitive style. It begins with a description of the protagonist, Idora Morrison, as she awakens:

Coming out of the dream, the bells are ringing, and she holds her breath, trying to find out the reason of the bells … she turns to lie on her back, and this makes her look up into the dark ceiling, and then all around her with the eye of a periscope … she is coming out of the reverie of the clutching embrace “that man” has her in and the sounds of the bells of St. James’s … and in her mind she crosses Queen Street, then a small street, Barton … then a bigger street, Richmond, then Adelaide, and she walks through a small park … she enters the huge, studded, brown stained main door of the Cathedral and, sits down … and forgets her life, forgets her son, forgets “that man”, forgets the Island where she was born, and had left thirty years ago, as an indentured servant, a “domestic” … for “the loneliness, the loneliness, the loneliness,” as she would complain to her friend Josephine; and to her son, BJ … and now she hears the … Cathedral bells, and tries to decide what time it is, but as she is still lying on her stomach, she cannot tell if the three digits on her alarm clock, 7.36, refer to nighttime or daytime. (1-4)

The opening sentence of More spans four pages, evoking the memories, dreams, ambitions, disappointments, and regrets that structure Idora’s life. The mobility of her stream of consciousness, sliding from one faded memory to another, finds its parallel in her fantasy of movement from her basement apartment (which is actually Austin’s own basement) to St. James’s Cathedral (where Austin is buried). At the end of the passage, we learn that Idora has not actually moved anywhere; her travels are a fantasy and she remains sitting in the dark basement apartment, unable to tell if it is night or day.

This passage contains many of the signatory elements of Clarke’s work: an intense working through of the past and the narration of memory, the inescapable clutch of the demons of history, a gesture towards emancipatory hope, a love of the language and ritual of Christianity, existential longing, the fear of violence committed against young Black men, the desire to move and reinvent oneself, and the disappointment in the actualization of such reinvention. These threads are sewn together as part of a chain of equivalencies that grammatically and imaginatively string together the bells, that man, her son, the space of Toronto, the domestic immigration scheme, the coldness of Canada, the Cathedral, and, finally, Idora. The doubled nature of affect and emotion in Clarke’s work is evinced in the mixed feeling of cloying entrapment and warmth in “that clutching embrace,” in the possibility of a “breathless” awakening, and in the simple pleasure of a moment in which one is allowed to forget “the loneliness, the loneliness, the loneliness.” This passage is exemplary in that it weaves together these dispersed and discontinuous fragments via the organizing logic of Idora’s memories and fantasies all while Fanon, Du Bois, Brathwaite, and other Black intellectuals resonate in the background. All that in the first sentence of the book.

Of course, an account of Austin’s style would be completely inadequate without also attending to his misrepresentation of women. As Austin writes Idora for 300 pages, keen human and social observation and his evocation of pathos at times veers into voyeurism, objectification, and fascination with a repressed queerness. Women in his work are too often objects of male style, projections of male fantasies: “the Canadian thing you see lying down there in that bed” (“Motor Car” 90) that match nicely with the leather interior of a newly purchased (or more likely, leased) convertible. Clarke’s depiction of the women in his work regularly replicates this logic of possession, with characteristics pulled from a well of despondent female sadness from which Clarke never seems to tire of drawing.

Rinaldo Walcott sees “Clarke’s women characters” as “difficult to read because he attempts to offer us the details of lives that he observed, might have participated in and as a way to both come to terms with (his) masculinity” as well as to “demonstrate how he experienced women as both full of resourceful strength and a force to reckon with at the same time” (10). Yet, too often Clarke’s observation and experience is filtered singularly through his own male gaze with little attention to what it misses. This difficulty of reading Clarke’s women characters that Walcott discerns, both in terms of their complexity and objectification, is taken up by a number of critics throughout the collection. Leslie Sanders describes the difficulty of reading and teaching Clarke’s work given “the increasingly invasive and visceral quality of your representation of women, particularly regarding how your female characters experience themselves. How to understand, communicate and make meaning of their life in the fabric of your literary imagination” (39)? Camille Isaacs’s essay reads key moments in Clarke’s oeuvre that show the recurring misogynist tropes in his later fiction. Sonnet L’Abbé gives us a sense of the man as patriarchal writer but also as a generous critic and sometimes mentor, while Asha Varadharajan offers an unexpected and spirited new interpretation of Austin’s attention to sexuality and female bodies.

One of the central goals of ‘Membering Austin Clarke is to wrestle with these numerous difficulties and contradictions in Clarke’s writing, and to reflect on how a serious engagement with these complexities transforms our interpretation of his work and his place in Canadian writing. Indeed, it is a sad reflection on the state of Canadian Literature that his work rarely receives such close critical attention. Were Clarke but a marginal writer, or someone who made only a brief impression on our literature, this might be excusable. However, his foundational status in CanLit makes the lack of critical attention paid to his work all the more baffling. To take but one recent example, Nick Mount’s much-praised Arrival: The Story of CanLit almost completely neglects Clarke’s contributions to the Canadian literary scene of the 1960s. Mount’s erasure is exemplary of a Canadian literary culture that has rarely understood Clarke’s work. Take, for instance, Quill and Quire’s account of Clarke’s winning The Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe:

When Austin Clarke confounded the oddsmakers and walked away with the 2002 Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe, murmurs spread through Canada’s tonier, gated literary communities that the wrong writer had taken the trophy this time out. The Polished Hoe was too long, they complained, its dense style too difficult and structureless, its tone too angry, too overtly political, too black. (Grainger 2008)

Clarke “confounded” Canadian literary establishment. He didn’t earn, but “walked away with” the prize. Where previous criticisms of Clarke’s work attack its apparent simplicity (Bucknor “Window”), here his work is “too difficult,” and “too structureless.” As Patrick Crean, Clarke’s editor on The Polished Hoe, notes in his contribution to the volume, “When his name was announced, and they said ‘The winner of the 2002 Giller Prize is Austin Clarke,’ there was an audible intake of breath in the room and this undercurrent of ‘woah, how could this be’” (191)? Charlotte Gray, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, echoes these sentiments in her expression of disappointment that Carol Shields didn’t take the prize that year:

[A]t the Giller Dinner, I was Carol’s guest at her table. When Austin Clarke was named the winner, I couldn’t bear to turn around and look at her. When I finally did, I saw that Don Shields and Meg Shields were sitting close to her, one on each side, holding tight. And I also felt a huge wave of love and admiration surging across the room toward this fragile, blond woman. The three Giller judges may have chosen Austin Clarke that night, but Carol Shields had already won the hearts and minds of thousands of Canadian readers, including the Giller guests and particularly women. (2003)

Such observations are typical from the Canadian literati. Gray and Shields, Canadian critical insider and Canadian literary darling, are seated at the same table in an act of intimacy that bespeaks how CanLit is supposed to work. The too difficult, too political, too angry, too black Austin Clarke is negatively compared to some “fragile, blond” people’s darling; in other words, a real Canadian writer.

It demands repeating: Austin Clarke is one of our earliest, most widely published, best awarded, and least studied Canadian authors. He insisted on writing Black life in Canada, in all its complexity, in a cultural moment of ubiquitous and suffocating whiteness. His early stories and first novel predate Northrop Frye’s articulation of “Where is Here” as a defining Canadian question. In the 1960s, at the outset of his career, he wrote columns for national newspapers, won literary awards, published in small magazines alongside Layton, Page, Cohen, and others, wrote for the CBC, enjoyed an international readership, and appeared on national television. Despite his contributions to Canadian writing and his status as a public figure, however, his work is absent from most Canadian literary history and criticism. Indeed, the worst drinking game in CanLit is to flip to the back of a literary history and take a drink for every entry next to “Clarke, Austin” in the index. You will be as sober as a late-career Leonard Cohen.

Clarke’s writing and subsequent marginalization bespeak a rupture in Canadian literary discourse that challenges who gets to speak and which voices count within the field of Canadian literature. The rupture that Clarke’s work represents is a precursor to the debates that have rocked Canadian literature in the past few years, particularly as CanLit’s refusal to engage Clarke’s work enables us to see how the Canadian literary and critical communities imagine themselves and what difficulties or complexities they choose not to grapple with. André Forget’s entry in this collection provides a sense of the cosmopolitan vision in Clarke’s work that Canadian literature chooses to ignore. Against a simplistic vision of a literature speaking for a nation, Clarke’s work challenges not only the primacy of the nation as the lens through which we should read Canadian writing but also the voices, the styles, the languages in which the experience of this place will be narrated.

In the face of this ongoing critical neglect, the easiest thing for Austin to have done would have been to throw up his hands, accept that Canadian Literature really means white Canadian Literature, take a comfortable government job and retire to his books, his jazz, and his martinis. But that was never his style. When we return to the fragments that inform our understanding of Austin as a man and an artist, we see that writing was what mattered to him most. The writer’s life, the power of words, the capacity of language to crystallize a moment of transcendence, capture the sting of racism or the dream of redemption—the ability of the writer to grasp at ineffable truths in fleeting moments that most of us only intuit—that meant everything to him. The word held such power for him: writer.

Clarke’s style is therefore both a reflection of his own particular artistic vision as well as a response to the erasure and absence of spaces for Blackness in Canada. It is paradoxical and provocative for its eschewing of legible political categorization and for his strategic deployment of different styles aimed to provoke, anger, baffle, annoy, and entertain. When he arrived in Canada, white Canadians prejudged Clarke’s level of education and intelligence. Clarke thereby learned to use style to circumvent those presumptions and prejudices: his conversational and authorial style asserted his mastery of language, his political style was an unexpected blend of Red Tory and Black nationalist politics. His wry acceptance, in the 1960s, of the role of “Canada’s Angriest Black Man” and subsequent transformation, in the 1970s, into a candidate for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, bespeak his strategies to both adapt and perform a style that demands a place for Blackness, in all its complexity, in Canada as well as to build a career for himself in a landscape hostile to his vision and his skin colour.

Two of his editors featured in this collection, Patrick Crean and Dennis Lee, comment on the difficulty of working with Austin; that difficulty must be understood in the context of a literary culture that was suspicious of his very presence. Mordecai Richler, of course, believed he was wise to Clarke’s game, claiming that Clarke used the myth of his own persecution in order to fuel his career. Richler knew this strategy well, having employed it himself.

Whatever his motivation, Clarke’s style challenged, alarmed, confused, and intrigued; it could not be ignored. A great student of Eliot—whom he read voraciously at Harrison College in Barbados, and emulated in his earliest poetry—Clarke’s style owes something to his modernist precursor: repurposing the fragments of numerous voices, rhythms, histories, and traditions to be shored against his ruin, his neglect, his erasure.

I was standing at the corner of Hallam St. and Ossington Ave. on a Sunday morning when I learned Austin had died. It was three months into the planning of the issue that would eventually form this collection. The location is notable in his work, as it is the place where Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant, was shot dead by the Toronto police in his home on a Sunday morning in 1978. Johnson’s murder affected Clarke deeply: the figure of Albert Johnson haunts his characters’ memories and nightmares throughout his writing. His prose is littered with visceral depictions of the smashed breakfast dishes, the imprint of the policeman’s boot on the front door, the smell of gun powder throughout the house, screaming children, and a man bleeding to death at the bottom of his stairs. If the iciness of the literary establishment was exemplary of Canada’s polite racism, the police killing of Johnson was a horrific reminder that behind that politeness was the very real violence—the everyday brutality—of white supremacy and colonialism. Walking the laneway behind Johnson’s home, I wondered whether Austin had walked the same space as he imagined how he might transform the Johnson’s, and the Toronto Black community’s, grief and outrage into some kind of bruised hope or balm against such violence.

Austin’s style in response to the murder of Albert Johnson was that of mournful observer, enraged activist and citizen, and Jeremiah railing against the injustices of his society. He expressed his outrage in the Black community newspaper Contrast:

Anytime. Anytime I have to expect. that a policeman. who dislikes my love of flowers. who feels that I am man. can kick in my door: overturn my Sunday pot of rice and peas: beat me while I am on bended knee. and then kill me. He can kill me in the presence of my children and my wife. He can do all those things to me. because he has the power. and the authority. Because he has determined. on his own. that I am his enemy. And also because he feels that his conduct. his indecency may not be chastisably reprehensible by his colleagues and his superiors. (12)

Clarke’s anger is palpable: the staccato sentences bespeak the cut of the police bullets, the naked violence of the killing. Language fails in the face of such terror that reminds Black men that, even in their homes, they aren’t safe from the police. Yet as the editorial continues, Clarke recovers his usual loquacious tone. Here style becomes a weapon to hold a mirror up to Canadian society and unmask the “indecency” of the law and of white Canada’s indifference to Black life.

This indifference, and outright violence, continues today, and it is one of the reasons we continued pursuing this project after Austin’s death. Our first intuition was that we might abandon the collection altogether, particularly as it took on a new gravitas. Austin’s story was not necessarily ours to tell, and perhaps some more appropriate venue or publication—a publisher that Austin had worked with in the past—would be preparing a similar reflection on his work. But as his death received minimal attention in the Canadian press, and his work continued to suffer critical neglect, this collection seemed ever the more necessary. Indeed, the anniversaries of Austin’s death have passed with little notice in either Canadian literary circles or public forums.

It is in this context that The Puritan’s Austin Clarke Prize in Literary Excellence is so important. It simultaneously honours Austin’s memory and his singular contributions to Black diasporic writing while also offering an opportunity for a new generation of writers to have their voices heard and continue the transformation of writing in Canada. The original title of Austin’s first book was “Words, Words, Words is the Future” and Austin’s belief in the ability of language to narrate, liberate, and envision some other possible life will continue thanks to this award. These writers will challenge their forebears, forge new paths, and demand new reckonings with the historical legacies of Canada and Canadian literature. We are lucky to have a publication like The Puritan supporting some of the most exciting writers in Canada and I am sure Austin would be proud of having his name, his work, and his spirit of persistence associated with this magazine and award.

I became familiar with Austin’s spirit of persistence from my time spent working in his archives at McMaster University. I first visited Austin’s archives as a graduate student when I was writing a history of More. It took Austin 30 years to write the novel, and it underwent at least 12 substantial transformations. In the late 1970s, he bragged to his friend Sam Selvon that he was “dreaming of the millions” that were to arrive with the imminent publication of the novel; it finally came out in 2009.

Austin’s archives are a lesson in indefatigable persistence. They are filled with unpublished manuscripts, rejection letters, ideas for TV shows and plays, short stories and interviews, most of which have never seen the light of day. His archives are a catalogue of some successes, but mostly failures—a monument to the experience of failing, again and again, and never wavering in the belief in one’s own talent, until that rare, unlikely moment when something sticks.

That time in the archive was revelatory for me—I spent those humid, pleasurable summer days in the silence of a library basement, steeped in the drama of events that occurred before I was alive. It quickly became clear to me that the published text was just one of the many pieces that comprise the author’s story: the numerous drafts of novels, the midnight notes, the newspaper clippings, the BMW receipts (really), the letters of abuse from Austin to his editors, Austin to his friends, Austin to his enemies—these fragments all shape how we read the work and how we come to know the man.

Working in the archive also gave me a sense of the material necessity of Austin’s fragmented style: he recycled and repurposed his own work whenever he could. Early drafts of novels are retitled, cut down into short stories, passed off as new work, and sold to a willing bidder. Whole swaths of unpublished manuscripts make appearances in subsequent works, awkwardly jammed into a narrative frame in which they hardly fit. A short story can become a radio play, can become a theatre production, can be become the basis for an editorial, can become a novel. In this respect his style is something of a rag-and-bone author: no part need be discarded, it can always be repurposed for some other project.

Indeed, the archive itself is a lesson in repurposing one’s artistic work in order to survive. Austin strategically donated his archives in the years that align with the release of his major publications so that the tax receipt for his donation would be most lucrative. In this respect the archive itself is a dimension of Austin’s style, what Idora calls “Survival, girl! Improvisation” (58). Austin improvises, transforming letters from creditors demanding overdue payments into new material for the archives and therefore turning debt into another source of income. There is something very Austin about reading a letter, in the archive, complaining that McMaster are a bunch of cheap bastards for their refusal to pay him properly for his material. Style: improvisation, survival, performance.

Austin had a range of styles upon which to draw, and which enabled him to improvise in his acts of narration. Compiling the various fragments of his style reveals what might be described as an aggressive creolization: the mixing of cultural forms that emerges from the particular experience of life in the Caribbean. There are a number of links between creolization and what Canadian poet A.J.M. Smith calls “eclectic detachment”: the Canadian writer’s experience of being “immersed both in the European and the North American cultural tradition … but … not of it” (8). Yet detachment and creolization aren’t quite right. Clarke could never be as disengaged as Smith’s modernist poet. Similarly, despite the sense of blending, creolization retains the fundamental differences and integrity between the distinct cultural forms.

Clarke goes further than detachment, borrowing, or creolization to practice what I think of as an aesthetics of crossing: his style crosses a range of cultural, aesthetic, historical forms in a way that renders them forever contaminated; he destroys whatever safe limits might have existed between those traditions. It is not merely that he shows Caribbean people in Toronto; his work renders Toronto Caribbean. Winfried Siemerling intuits this in his reflection on Clarke’s play on musical tropes and images of light, describing the “improvised transposition” at play in Clarke’s work. Indeed, the title of his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, indicates not just the crossing of the Atlantic or the crossing of the Middle Passage but also his crossing of form, of voice, of tradition, of style. Crossing includes both the productive possibilities of hybridity and bricolage as well as the misrecognition and violence that inevitably occur when cultures meet.

Describing the experience of reading Chaucer in colonial Barbados he writes, in his second memoir, ‘Membering:

as my mother said, ‘one thing led to another’; and we used Chaucer’s language of the fourteenth century to daub the personality and character of our colleagues sitting beside us … we went through the list of pilgrims, from the General Prologue, and transferred them, to our colleagues (247)

 “One thing led to another.” Like Idora’s chain of equivalencies that link memory, history, desire, and hope, Clarke’s experience in the Bajan classroom adapts Chaucer’s pilgrims to fit these young colonial subjects. The “stupidness” of Clarke’s education was that it better prepared him to be an ideal, obedient colonial subject than to face the challenges of modern Barbados. In the face of such stupidness, Clarke adapted, using style to transform an imported set of narrative forms and tools to fit his circumstances.

An exemplary instance of Clarke’s fragmentary style of crossing is found in his tribute to his friend and fellow novelist, Sam Selvon, in A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Sam Selvon. Writing after Selvon’s passing, Clarke recalls the first time he heard Selvon’s work being read on the BBC Program, Caribbean Voices:

I cannot remember what time it was, when I first heard, either his voice or the magnificent acquainted language of his stories, sent back to us from overseas; … our words spoken amongst us, in fragments and with no force of appeal, would be golden portraits of our lives, because they were coming to us on these Sunday nights, from overseas: on the BBC’s radio programme, “Caribbean Voices.” … to hear, all of a sudden about the breadfruit tree; the casaurinas; the names of flowers we had passed earlier that very Sunday … the Kiskides, Couva, Port of Spain, Gravesend Beach and “Trumper”: to hear these symbols of words, greater than words; greater than our recognition of them in everyday life, all this was to make us feel “we was people, too.” (9-12)

The language of the Caribbean is transformed as it flies across the Atlantic, recast in the medium of radio and blended with the voice of the BBC in order to be made new. Clarke’s own “magnificent acquainted language” is broken apart into “fragments” only to be reassembled, through the act of narration, as “golden portraits of our lives.” The familiar vocabulary of “breadfruit tree,” “casaurinas,” “Kiskides,” “Couva,” “Trumper” is given a new vitality precisely as it becomes defamiliarized and fragmented. Like Idora, lying in her bed in the basement apartment in Moss Park, imagining movement across a city that otherwise ignores her, young Clarke sits in his home in Barbados next to the radio, allowing Selvon’s words to transport him across the Atlantic, and then back ‘home,’ only to find home beautifully disfigured and depicted in a new, golden light. At the heart of Clarke’s style, therefore, is the capacity to cross these fragments of memory, history, desire, and longing in the articulation of some new imagined self.

Clarke’s fragments, as well as his attention to the act of sewing those fragments together, crossing them in new ways—insists upon writing itself as the primary scene of his style. Perhaps the theme to which Clarke returns most regularly throughout his oeuvre is that of writing. Writing is the space where the fragments are crossed together not to form some cohesive or sutured whole but to revel in the act of telling in order to know one’s ironies, to celebrate the power and joy of words, to find brutal and honest truths in the act of narrating oneself. It is little surprise then that Clarke’s first novel The Survivors of the Crossing begins with the protagonist, Rufus, working on a sugar cane plantation and palming a letter from a friend in Canada. The letter sets everything in motion. Writing, and the act of narration, is perhaps the way in which Clarke’s characters string together the fragments of their existences, the confusing pressures of migration, and the disappointments of life. Rufus thinks,

A feeling of pride gathered deep in his heart: to think that he was the recipient of this important-looking airmail from overseas! From a large continent, sent to him on this small island! … from so many miles across the seas, and had landed right here, in the correct place, in the correct Village! (4)

The arrival of the letter, which Rufus cannot read, reshapes his imagination. He goes from feeling he exists on the absolute margins of the British Empire to imagining himself as part of an international network of exchange of ideas. Of course, things don’t turn out as Rufus hoped, but the arrival of the letter initiates a chain of events that transforms Rufus’s relationship to the space of the plantation. While Rufus cannot read the letter, he knows the power of words; when he hears it read aloud, he senses “something basic and vital…[to] have that power o’ words and ideas in his hand … It read like a piece o’ poetry” (11). Similarly, in Amongst Thistles and Thorns, Girlie feels like “I got the first prize!” when she is the recipient of “a first-class, registered air mail red-white-and-blue envelope … with a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves,” containing “a real ten-dollar bill, made in the United States of America, with ‘In God We Trust’ printed on it” (65). It is not merely the words themselves, but the idea of language; words as a metonym for freedom and possibility. In his final collection of poetry, In Your Crib, the speaker laments that “I do not have the gift of words / put down in certain rhyme and rhythm / to guide your hand” (45).

The plot of Clarke’s best-known novel, The Polished Hoe, constitutes a lengthy confession wherein Mary-Mathilda tells the story of the plantation and her murder of the plantation owner, to Sergeant Percy. The confession lasts the entirety of one night and Mary-Mathilda expands her confession into a narration of the history of slavery, colonialism, migration, and the experience of Black people in Barbados. Her confession weaves together these fragments and, as she explains to Percy, “all that we possess to hand-down is love. And bitterness. And blood. And anger. And all four, wrap-up in one narrative” (354).

Mary-Mathilda’s summative words give perhaps the finest encapsulation of Clarke’s style: an effort to wrap the fragments of experience into one cohesive narrative, in a manner that makes the act of writing, the love of language, and the very human drive to tell a story the organizing thread that assembles human disorder and the messiness of life into something we can recognize and see ourselves in. Clarke’s prose simultaneously attends to the style of the self and the style of the letter, making writing and language the scene of self-making. His characters are always writing letters, telling stories, confessing their acts, re-treading the ground of their lives. All in the hope of some new insight, some possible resolution, some respite from struggle or moment of grace in the act of re-telling. To be a writer is to be seen, to be heard. This is the ultimate act of style for Clarke.

 

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