Clarke on Clarke

George Elliott Clarke’s poetry and criticism includes a sustained, regular engagement with the work, influence, and style of Austin Clarke. In his two major collections of essays, Odyssey’s Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (2002) and Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature (2011), G.E. Clarke includes a number of essays dedicated to studying Austin Clarke’s work. More recently, he has offered poetic reinterpretations of Austin Clarke’s “When He Was Free And Young And Used to Wear Silks” in his collection of poems, Gold, and in Matrix Magazine.

Paul Barrett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Acadia University and the author of Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His research is at the intersection of Canadian literature, critical race theory, and, most recently, digital humanities. His writing has appeared in Canadian Literature, TOPIA, ARIEL, The Journal of West Indian Literature, The Walrus, NOW Magazine, and The Puritan. His forthcoming research considers the relationship between definitions of the human and the humanities in Canadian literature. He lives in Toronto, ON, but Brampton, ON, runs deep in his veins. He was once thanked in the liner notes of a GWAR album.

Paul Barrett interviewed George Elliott Clarke in April 2017 to understand these poetic reinterpretations, his take on Austin Clarke’s importance to Canadian Literature and his contribution to black writing in Canada and internationally.

Paul Barrett: I’d like to start by thinking a bit about some of your recent homages or transformations of Austin’s work, particularly “When He Was Free and Young And Used to Wear Silks.” I’m thinking of the pieces in Gold and Matrix – where you have these two reinterpretations. What led you to return to these early parts of Austin’s work?

George Elliott Clarke: I became acquainted with Austin’s work through the short stories and essays, primarily from the 1980s and into the 1990s. I had an opportunity to do an anthology of African Canadian literature, or Black Canadian writing if one prefers, for McClelland & Stewart (Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature), and I knew right away that “Free and Young” was the story I was going to reprint in that anthology.

I remember it also because of the fact that Austin was represented by Denise Bukowski, who is also my agent. In fact, she became my agent because of her unwavering determination that Austin was going to receive $500 for that story! And I thought, well if she’s so staunch for Austin maybe she can be just as staunch for me, and she has been.

Anyway, I had to have that story. Of course, it’s indebted to Joyce and his stream-of- consciousness technique. However, I love the fact that that story – keeping in mind that it is difficult to follow completely the speaker’s thoughts – is a great take on early 1970s Toronto, the Black Arts movement-era, the cultural politics of the time, the rise of second-wave feminism and how it began to impact relationships in terms of divorce becoming more common, and the praxis of the “hookup” becoming more widespread. Here’s this protagonist who is thinking about various relationships—in the midst of probably attempting to seduce someone else, who reminds him of this other woman that he knew. There are numerous layers in the story as well as a great mix of contradictory attitudes as well as references to 1970s Pop culture and politics. Here’s an African or Caribbean Canadian riffing off of life in progressive, hippy Toronto and the arrival of Soul culture along with the increasing presence of Caribbean Canadians and the real life impact of the politics of feminism. There is nothing else like it in Clarke’s oeuvre or in Anglo-Canadian literature.

PB: Its interesting, given the complicated style of this story and just how modernist or even avant-garde it is, that it is so rarely taken up by Canadian critics. This is particularly puzzling given the tendency of Canadian critics to engage in sociological readings of Clarke’s work: to miss the form and treat his work as mere ‘reporting’ of black life in Canada. Here is a story in which the form of the work screams out for attention yet doesn’t receive it.

GEC: A couple of CanLit academics that I spoke to—about fifteen years ago—about “When He Was Free and Young,” critiqued the story as being anti-Semitic, and implied that it could not be canonical for this reason. Of course, I recognize that there are phrases and sentences in the story where the speaker offers his critique of what he perceives as a Jewish tendency to avoid outright confrontation around Civil Rights agitation and to allow black people—African Americans specifically—to bear the brunt of the blowback, so to speak, or repression of the state, while themselves benefitting from the liberations effected by black agitation. These are unfortunate comments, to put it mildly, but they are true to the psyche of the protagonist. In my take on “When He Was Free,” I omit all those ethnocentric comments on the part of the protagonist. But I do read the original story in the context of the Black Power politics of the times which had a hard edge, which was critical of what some radicals thought to be the collusion of some elements of Jewish American society to support, if not the state, then, at least, state repression of African-Americans as a means of deflecting the state’s anti-Semitic impulses. This critique goes back to Malcolm X, but was taken up by Amiri Baraka most stridently.

These are extremely unfair attitudes which Austin Clarke’s protagonist does repeat, somewhat. Again, my impression of these elements is that they are a relatively minor aspect of the story, which does not mean that that they can be excused or ignored. However, the story’s major thrust has to do with this particular middle-aged, middle-class, Playboy-ogling protagonist trying to get his romantic life, his sex life, “together” – to use appropriate, 60s slang – while the society, especially in terms of heterosexual relations, is changing rapidly. Changing under his feet, so to speak, while he’s sitting at the Pilot Tavern.

Nevertheless, there’s an absolutely objectionable anti-Semitic taint in Clarke’s oeuvre that I’ve discussed critically. I’m very much aware, for instance, of a pamphlet, published back in 1967, that Clarke issued under a pseudonym, that does express, bluntly and blatantly, anti-Semitic commentary. “Black Man in a White Land” is the title, wherein Clarke—as Ali Kamal Al Kadir Sudan—is interviewed pseudonymously by Marvin X, an African-American writer who lived briefly in Canada in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

PB: Yes, and I think there are passages in his other work, The Meeting Point, for instance, that I think can be described as decidedly anti-Semitic. Particularly the depiction of Mr. Burrmann.

GEC: Yes, so in confronting those passages, it’s possible to perceive how some folks may have decided that it was okay to essentially give Mr. Clarke his due—as a black writer on black issues—but otherwise ignore work that can be problematic—not just anti-Semitic, but also homophobic and sexist, at times. Which is to say, his work reflects who he was. This does not excuse any of his objectionable utterances. However, just as we just as we are able to make intellectual judgments about and maintain a critique of other objectionable writers—while also being able to appreciate what is powerful and striking and important in their work, so do I think that Austin Clarke is eligible for the same kind of engagement with his controversial passages. However, to return to “When He Was Free and Young,” there’s plenty to engage with productively in that story without needing to fixate on the minute gestures toward ethnocentrism on the part of the fictitious speaker. To look at it another way, the anonymous speaker’s sexism, buffeted by second-wave feminism, is the real crux and dynamic of the story.

PB: Indeed, another dimension of Clarke’s writing that critics often find troubling is his depiction of women. Was this a concern for you in your rewriting of “When He Was Free and Young?” To add to that, you’ve talked about Clarke’s use of the Canada-as-white-whore metaphor in some of his other writing. Was that in your mind as you wrote these tributes?

GEC: Not really, because I think “When He as Free” is far more personal. Clarke’s not thinking as socially as he is in some other stories such as “When the Bough Breaks” or “Canadian Experience” where Canada-as-white-whore metaphors appear. See, particularly, the introduction to Nine Men Who Laughed when Clarke refers to the system – or “shitstem”– as having an aspect of black-male-bashing that could be related to white dread of black masculinity and white female dread of black masculinity. But I don’t see these concerns as central to “When He Was Free and Young.”

But to return to the central question of whether Clarke’s characters says unsavory things about women: Yes, absolutely, they do. But does this mean we shouldn’t read Clarke? I have to say, no.

Certainly in my mind, I align Austin Clarke with Mordecai Richler, who was also known to make comments that people took umbrage with. He was nevertheless an extremely important writer in CanLit. I think Clarke deserves to be considered alongside him as someone who did not hesitate to offer an unsparing, although tinged with satire, view of what he saw as the real purpose of racism, in particular, but also classism, and sexism.

I do think that, though he’s a little bit confused and a little bit drunk, the protagonist in “When He Was Free and Young” would like to be successful with these women in the Pilot Tavern, but he’s also grudgingly understanding that things are changing, whether he likes it or not. He has to find a way forward—to forge principled, loving relationships—but is unsure how, which actually was probably the situation for a lot of heterosexual men—of whatever ethnic, racial, or cultural background—at the time. I think Clarke is honest about his protagonist in thinking through all of these new dilemmas of ‘courtship’.

Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is potentially another text to place alongside Clarke’s story, at least in this regard. So I think, frankly, it’s really unfair to castigate Clarke for his political incorrectness while giving many other writers completely free berth and free reign—to be as free-spiritedly objectionable—in a “truth-telling” or satirical manner—as they wish to be.

PB: I wonder if this has to do with the complicated nature of his politics, particularly the difficulty of Clarke as being inadequately radical for the campus radicals, being too outspoken for conservatives. He’ll rail against Canadian structures of race and class, the vertical mosaic, but one senses he’s mostly angry that he’s not at the top. In other words, Clarke is never completely at home within any of our traditional political nomenclatures.

GEC: Yes, that’s a fair assessment. Yet, we have been inadequate ourselves in just understanding how radical Clarke’s perspective is. I sometimes make the point that generally speaking – and, yes, I am generalizing a lot here – African American writers and intellectuals almost consistently make this argument: “Why can’t we be treated equally?” Of course it’s a fair and appropriate argument to make in a republic based on the idea of general equality. In fact, when it’s clear that folks are being treated unequally, it is a cry to arms, a call to arms, for all of those disaffected persons to demand their equality under the constitution. So Austin practically stands alone—in terms of internationally acclaimed writers African-heritage writers—when he implies, “I don’t want to be equal; I deserve to be recognized as naturally superior.” [Laughter]

That, to me, is an extremely radical statement. That’s the satire, for me, in his writing. Clarke positions his protagonists as having to live Canadian immigrant lives that are slightly, or completely, fraudulent, because they don’t want to live lives as obviously underclass folks. They come from backgrounds where they had property, were treated with respect, and attended elite schools, so why should the ‘colour of their skin’ or the fact that they are black suddenly entail their tumbling into the basement of this hierarchical, class-oriented monarchy? Why can’t they step out of an upper-middle class existence in the Caribbean or in India or in other parts of the world, come to Canada, and become Prime Minister, be Premier, be the heads of corporations, be the presidents of universities, be police chief, be fire chief, and all without question or without having to struggle?

His characters often already have the pedigree and the educational accouterments, the degrees, to be at the top. So why do they have to take a subsidiary, tertiary position? Why do they have to scrap and struggle when—in some cases—they are the sons and daughters of Caribbean Prime Ministers and/or Third World cabinet ministers?

That’s the problematic that Clarke engages so powerfully—and that might also be a reason why folks are so hesitant to take him up. Because if the answer to Clarke’s implicit socio-political challenge is, “You should be; you should be our superiors and, at the top, and we should be your servants.” Well, what happens if you take that argument seriously, keeping in mind its satirical side?

Yet, it’s only by taking that argument seriously that we can truly achieve real equality. If our social equality can imagine and tolerate – to use a great Canadian verb – the idea that there’s a Black Prime Minister, a Brown Prime Minister, a Yellow Prime Minister, a Red Prime Minister—for crying out loud, if we can collectively tolerate this notion, then we get there faster, i.e., to a position of real equality.

PB: Do you think there is an argument to made that Austin has always been out of step with CanLit? In the 70s when Atwood is writing Survival and thematic criticism is emerging as a force, Austin’s writing doesn’t accord with that particular definition of CanLit. Then in the 90s when CanLit is appearing increasingly transnational and global, and critics are questioning whether the nation still holds as a salient category of analysis — I’m thinking also about the debates between you and Rinaldo Walcott around space, and the place of blackness in the nation — Austin returns to the nation or at least Canadian space as an important element of how one imagines blackness here.

GEC: To begin, we do have to set Austin in an international context. Far more international than is the case for most Canadian writers in the 1960s and 70s. Some had great readerships in Canada, but not necessarily beyond these borders. Yet Austin did; he saw himself quite rightly as being in the same bailiwick as Sam Selvon, Andrew Salkey, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, et al. All of them were leaving the Caribbean, moving to other nations and writing in those nations as well as writing back to the homeland by introducing London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, and New York to great Caribbean writing. So it’s probable that he never thought of himself, early in his career, as a Canadian writer, but rather thought of himself as international, following in the footsteps of his ex-pat, African-American idols, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

I’ll bring in another figure who thought of himself along the same lines: Irving Layton. A poet, Layton never identified much with Canadian nationalism or thematics. Sure, he wrote his wilderness and nature poems but for the most part he saw himself as belonging to an international Anglo-American group of writers, and loved to base himself in Greece, Italy or Spain as opposed to writing about the Great White North from Cabbagetown in Toronto or rue Main in Montreal.

Austin also saw himself as belonging to an international, black cast of writers. C-A-S-T – although maybe we can add an “E” to the end of that word! So, Austin goes and interviews Malcolm X, follows Amiri Baraka in his political life, goes back to Barbados and tries to establish the Caribbean Broadcast Corporation. He also helps to start Black Studies Programs across the United States, even teaching up-and-coming black critics—like Houston Baker.

The irony here though is that while Clarke was an international writer, he actually did give Canada tremendous forensic scrutiny, but not in a way that was flattering to Canadian sensibilities or establishment. (In a strange sense, I can suddenly put Pierre Berton and Austin Clarke side by side: both being ‘natty’ in their dress and public presences and erudition. But Berton was very much part of the establishment and Austin was not—or, well, not as much.)

So I have to come back to an element that some might take umbrage with but it has to be said: there is something called “race”—and even though this is Canada where “race” seems spectral, I must still wonder: if Austin were white, would he be experiencing the same kind of critical neglect? If he had decided not to focus on race and class as much as he does, would his career have suffered as much neglect as it has? Yes, many fine white writers may also complain about neglect. But Austin was quite a public presence and published in New York and London, and had an international reputation before many English Canadian writers: before Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, or Michael Ondaatje. So one cannot rule out racism (ethnocentrism) as a cause for his ostracism. 

PB: In addition to racism, I also wonder if this has to do with a kind of critical ineptitude where Canadian critics are simply ill-equipped to read Austin’s writing. They don’t read Selvon, they don’t read Brathwaite, they don’t understand Coltrane so they can’t read his work in the contexts of the traditions upon which he is drawing. Furthermore, they don’t see how he draws on and adapts Eliot, Joyce, O’Connor and others in his work, so he is imagined as lacking a tradition.

GEC: Absolutely. In a sense his work has been awaiting the arrival of scholars and critics who have some foundation in Pan-African discourses around literature, politics, and society. Folks who’ve read a Franz Fanon, Malcolm X and liked it! He’s been awaiting the arrival of critics who are steeped in those influences that he had, which most white, English-Canadian writers would not have had. (At least the Francophone writers would have read Franz Fanon! I’m sure that Pierre Trudeau read Fanon as closely as he read Mao!)

PB: At the same time, Austin must have been a figure of frustration for you because in many respects, as you’ve written, Clarke’s work and his depiction of blackness in Toronto becomes a metonym for blackness in Canada and diasporic blackness is a metonym for Africadian existence. So to what extent did you find yourself thinking, yes Austin deserves his due, but so do these other writers and others histories.

GEC: Like many other younger writers, I strongly admired Austin. At the same time his work was complicit with the general lazy and maybe even racializing, or racist, Canadian viewpoint that the only real black people in Canada were recent immigrants from the Caribbean. Or, the only good Black people in Canada were recent immigrants from a particular class of people from the Caribbean. My anecdote about this perception goes back twenty years, but I did describe, in Odysseys Home, my having overheard a white academic tell a West Indian-Canadian black how much ‘better’ she and others like her were in comparison to the historically present Black Canadians who are “passive”—i.e.—“lazy.”

This idea doesn’t get voiced very much: that there is a pecking order amongst blacks as far as white Canadians are concerned; that there are good blacks and bad blacks (i.e. indigent, illiterate, shiftless, prone to criminality). In truth, the historical black community was marked by poverty, illiteracy, the experience of segregation, and legalized lynching, and general suppression. Although this community has been here for two hundred years, and established churches and so on, we have still been perceived as rogues, criminals, and layabouts who didn’t contribute anything to Canada. Or we just don’t exist; the destruction of Africville was a fleshing out of that belief that we should not exist anywhere within sight.

Because of the racist, sexist, and classist immigration system that Canada put in place they began to ‘welcome’ – that isn’t quite the right verb – African and Asian immigrants from the Caribbean, as of 1955, the incoming first-generation tended to be students, if they were men. They were arriving, having already achieved—in many cases—really good educations in their homelands, and some were even already upper-middle class. So even though they were subject to racism, they were also quite impressive to a lot of white Canadians who would have realized that these Afro-Caribbean men, in the 1950s and 1960s – and I use this verb quite deliberately – ‘outclassed’ them significantly.

So, white Canadians could then compare these incoming, well-educated, well-dressed, courteous, well-spoken new Black Canadians with the “old-line” who may have been—for generations—unskilled, manual labourers, maids, domestics, and illiterate and criminalized—thanks to the structural, political, economic mechanisms that kept the historical black community a despised underclass almost up until the present. Ironically, however, the racism that the historical black community experienced became—and has become—a problem for Caribbean Canadians, who now also face challenges in schooling, employment, and criminal justice—the same systemic blights—plights—that the historical African-Canadian community has faced—and struggled against—for centuries.

The good news is, in the last fifteen to twenty years, there has begun to be some kind of rapprochement or understanding that the two communities—immigrant blacks and “indigenous” blacks (Africadians)—actually do have the same struggles and must show unity to respond to the white racism that we collectively experience.

To conclude: It is Austin Clarke’s work, especially the later work, that is the signal, the lighthouse, directing all of us to begin to understand that we do have common struggles across ethnicities and across racial categories and across categories of ‘settled-ness’ or immigration that we must address if we are ever going to achieve true equality.