On Writing Austin Clarke’s Biography

by Stella Algoo-Baksh

Stella Algoo-Baksh is the author of Austin C. Clarke: A Biography (ECW Press) and a retired professor of English Literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

I first met Austin “Tom” Clarke at his home on McGill Street in Toronto on a cool, damp morning in August, 1987. He had just returned from the States, where he had gone to participate in his step-father’s funeral rites, and showed all the strains of rushed travel and of the emotional exhaustion of the occasion. To make matters worse, he was suffering from a bothersome cold. I had contacted him several months before to ask if I might interview him for a few days as part of the research for my doctoral dissertation, but while he had kindly agreed to be interviewed and had actually written down the dates on his calendar, he had forgotten both my name and what those dates represented. Despite such unpromising circumstances, he responded courteously when I called from my hotel a short distance away, reintroduced myself and reminded him of the purpose of my visit. The momentary surprise in his voice quickly gave way to a welcoming tone. Accompanied by my husband and a tape-recorder, I turned up at his home later that morning. When I noted his exhausted state and suggested postponing the interview for a day or so he would have none of it. No doubt recognizing that I had travelled from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and had a fixed period to see him, he seemed graciously unwilling to deprive me of time. I had an immediate indication of his generosity of spirit.

There were, of course, other dimensions to the man. That first morning we sat at a solid living-room table, with Clarke nicely settled into a well-cushioned high-back chair. He glanced suspiciously at my tape-recorder, a compact and well-intentioned but humble Sony, as I placed it on the table. Sensitive to my research needs, however, he had earlier consented to my recording our sessions and, whatever reservations he might have had about being placed permanently on tape, he studiously ignored the machine. Nor did he object to the presence of a third person, who had volunteered to monitor the progress of the tapes. Indeed, it soon became obvious that because of his sociable nature he rather enjoyed the companionship of two fellow West Indians. Certainly, it proved easy for me to establish rapport with him, as we discovered shortly that we had many interests in common. We shared some knowledge of Trinidad, my native island, which he had first visited as a teenager to participate in an athletic event; we both loved jazz, calypso and classical music; we were both wide readers, and we were both especially interested in writers from the West Indies. Clarke proved, however, to be much more immersed in some areas than I was. He had jazz and calypso collections and he listened religiously to CBC classical music. He had participated in the Harlem jazz scene and knew personally such notables as Max Roach, John Coltrane and Abbey Lincoln. He had associated with Caribbean writers like Sam Selvon, John Hearne, Andrew Salkey and George Lamming. I had clearly met someone of profound and eclectic taste.

What became apparent as Clarke spoke, apart from his prodigious memory, was the vast richness of his experience.

My exploration of Clarke’s life began in earnest after lunch that day. Clarke elaborated on social relationships in the racially segregated village of St. Matthias where he grew up, and on the barriers to success confronted by people like himself. He described, too, the activities of daily life, among them his attempts to cope with the demands of school and church. He indicated his gratitude to his mother, whose hard work had enabled him to attend secondary school. He spoke with some bitterness of his experiences at Harrison College, where he felt that despite his athletic and academic successes he had failed to receive the recognition he deserved. As he talked, it became clear that he was tiring, and he soon fell asleep. It is not often that a researcher is privileged to stand guard over her sleeping subject and his unprotected property, so I waited while he dozed. When he awoke half an hour later he was willing to soldier on, but it seemed best to terminate the session. “Sorry about the low productivity,” he joked. “I’ll have to make up for that!” And he did, with a vengeance.

The next morning, he seemed rested and more cheerful, and most signs of his cold had gone. With a twinkle in his eyes, he spoke of his mother’s insistence on burying his step-father under the long branches of a cemetery tree since the old man had always enjoyed the shade. Relaxed, we resumed our journey along the course of his life. With no moral obligation to do so, he spent several days with me in both morning and afternoon encounters, furnishing details of his experiences and cooperating when I prodded him about his responses to specific people and events. When I apologized for consuming so much of his time he gallantly replied that his effort was not overly demanding, that it was simply a labour of love.

What became apparent as Clarke spoke, apart from his prodigious memory, was the vast richness of his experience. He had been a teacher after graduating from secondary school, but he had also interacted with leading politicians and judiciary figures and aligned himself with the Barbados Labour Party in its pursuit of social and economic equality for all Barbadians. In Canada, he had attended university for a while before plunging into the labour force, where he had drifted from one menial job to another and encountered what he thought was the biting undercurrent of Canadian racism. On his turning to journalism in 1959, his fortunes had improved, as he became prolific in his work for newspapers, magazines and radio, often tackling the thorny issue of race relations in Canada and elsewhere. He had visited New York to report for CBC Radio on the culture and politics of New York’s Harlem, in the process developing relationships with such black activists as Malcolm X, Leroi Jones and Stokeley Carmichael. He had proceeded to the United Kingdom for the CBC to document the fate of West Indian immigrants as well as of West Indian writers based in that country, forming lasting friendships with Sam Selvon and others. His first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, had appeared in 1964 and other works quickly followed.

His success as a writer brought him more firmly into the public sphere, and he was often asked to give speeches, read from his works, and express an opinion on diverse topics. That success had also led him into a series of visiting appointments at American and Canadian universities, among them Yale University, Duke University and the University of Western Ontario, and at such institutions he had taught or developed courses or programs, but had also formed connections with numerous individuals from the academic, political and artistic community. Barbados, too, had honoured him, by stationing him in New York as a member of its diplomatic service and, later, by designating him as Acting General Manager of its Caribbean Broadcasting Service. Much of what Clarke disclosed to me would need afterwards to be confirmed in conversations with those who knew him, including his wife, Betty Clarke, and the writer Paule Marshall, and by close scrutiny of his private papers held at McMaster University. But it seemed to me that few could surpass him in terms of the variety of people he knew and the sheer volume of his involvements.

It had become clear to me by then that, while he habitually toiled late into the night at his own writing, he also loved good food and lively companionship.

But Clarke was too brimful of energy to confine our relationship entirely to an intrinsically formal interview and soon found ways to enrich our dealings that inadvertently revealed much about him. First, he conducted me on a tour of his home, past walls that reflected his many interests and connections. His dining-room was adorned with a large poster of Abbey Lincoln, and paintings that showed his absorption in black culture. Elsewhere hung large photographs of his wife and daughters, of Margaret Atwood, of his good friend and political mentor Roslyn Haddad, and of himself at Yale. There were photos, too, showing him in the company of such writers as Morley Callaghan, Sam Selvon, and Norman Mailer as well as the academic Eddie Baugh and former Federal Minister of Immigration Barbara McDougall. Then we visited his library, crammed with overflowing shelves. As the warmth returned to Toronto, we sat out in his intimate rear garden on evenings in the shade of a neighbouring locust tree, with Clarke puffing on his pipe like an English gentleman and calypso music streaming out through his open kitchen door. The delicacy of his taste surfaced in the obvious delight he took in the pink blooms of a morning glory that had taken possession of his fence, in a luscious red rose bush and in a pink rose of sharon that was prized sentimentally as a gift from an admiring student he had taught and mentored at the University of Western Ontario.

As Clarke grew accustomed to my spouse and me, his social involvement with us gained momentum and his zest for life came increasingly to the fore. A subway trip initiated by him to purchase black pudding from a Barbadian woman quickly became a social event. In an apartment drenched in the multiple aromas of souse, coconut bread and hot, freshly-cooked black pudding, the intended business transaction could apparently be completed only after an extended interlude of joking and bantering, punctuated by peals of laughter, between Tom and others sitting around. Then, as we emerged from the building, we ran into a trio of young West Indian women fashionably dressed for some special occasion, and, though he did not know them, Clarke complimented them on their beauty and enjoyed a jovial and mildly flirtatious exchange with them before they went on their way.

On another evening, he led us to the home of a good friend and helped her prepare supper for us, all the while regaling us with tales of the Don Valley area near the home of our hostess. The following evening he showed us the family home, where his wife Betty lived, and introduced us to a second library housing another impressive collection of books, and a leather divan on which, as he proudly informed us, the American activist Malcolm X had once sat. The primary objective of the evening, though, was the enjoyment of a delectable meal Betty had prepared. The next day, we witnessed for the first time Clarke’s love of cooking, so evident later in his Pigtails ‘n Breadfruit, when he hosted us at dinner. In the course of a long, lively evening, with jazz in the background, he demonstrated how to make cou-cou, a kind of polenta, which he later served with fried trout, roast pork, peas and rice, as well as other West Indian dishes, among them sweet potatoes and pone. It was a gastronomical delight, served in genteel English fashion in his well-appointed dining-room amid elegant silverware and glittering crystal glasses, with wine flowing freely. It had become clear to me by then that, while he habitually toiled late into the night at his own writing, he also loved good food and lively companionship.

Returning to Toronto to see Clarke in the early summer of 1988, I soon discovered that nothing had changed in our relationship. I had spent a month at McMaster University in Hamilton working my way diligently through his papers, photocopying critical documents and making copious notes from others. The main purpose of a short visit to Toronto was to obtain clarification regarding particular matters emerging from the documents. Despite the demands of his own writing, Clarke was again unsparing with his time, dutifully responding to my every query. Again, too, his effervescence appeared boundless, as he arranged a party for a group of his friends visiting from Barbados, extending an invitation to me. It was a characteristically lively event, with an abundance of food and drink, with calypso music blaring about the house, and with young women merrily reliving their girlhood by playing hopscotch in the backyard. Clarke was inevitably at the centre of things. When a debate arose among the men about a particular cricket score, he impulsively telephoned a friend in Winnipeg who was an authority on cricket and asked him to settle the issue. The very next day, I again found myself in his company, this time in a restaurant in the Greek Quarter of Toronto along with two elderly bachelors who apparently lived lonely lives in small apartments and who, with my acquiescence, had been invited to enjoy some companionship. His inclusion of the two men, I thought, was a touching act on his part, one that revealed much about his basic humanity.

It is entirely possible that some who did not know Clarke well might have regarded him as acerbic and cynical. Such a representation is perhaps not entirely without merit.

At the invitation of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Clarke arrived in St. John’s in the early fall of 2001 to read from his works. As a writer of international stature, he drew a substantial audience which included local writers as well as faculty and students from across the university. The event was a resounding success, with his listeners responding enthusiastically to both comic and serious segments from his novels. Afterwards, he autographed the numerous copies of his novels that had been sold and then, cutting a rather fatherly figure, engaged warmly with students who had lined up patiently to chat with him, an indication no doubt of the love of young people he had developed in his forays into university life. That evening, as guest of honour at a party organized at her home by a member of the English Department, Clarke was soon in his element. He seemed to enjoy the setting, as the house was located in the historic downtown of the city and boasted a splendid view of the harbour. There was an abundance of food, including the local specialty fish ‘n brewis, and a generous supply of beer, wine and scotch. Clarke helped himself to the scotch. Soon, no doubt assisted by the warmth of traditional Newfoundland hospitality, he was moving steadily from one group to another, sharing jokes and laughter, relating anecdotes about his experiences, in absolute comfort amid a sea of white faces. And he remained at the party deep into the night.

Clarke spent three days in my family home and he was as keen and diverse in his interests as ever. He took pleasure in our garden, with its dahlias, lilies, phlox, roses and other flowers still thriving in the gentle weather of a Newfoundland fall. A successful athlete in his youth, he still maintained a lively interest in sports and, fortified by Bombay Gin, he spent hours in our family-room watching videotapes of recent cricket matches in which the West Indies had demolished England. He expressed pride in the West Indian performance and, in particular, in the feats of Barbadian compatriots like Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall. Again, his interest in food made him receptive to different culinary experiences. He eagerly savoured the dishes at India Gate, a restaurant specializing in authentic Indian cuisine, and he enjoyed especially the seafood and the atmosphere at The Hungry Fisherman, a harbour-front establishment in a heritage building with open beams for a ceiling and a maritime décor. On another day we took him on the inevitable tour of St. John’s and its environs. Disregarding their colonial origins, he loved the monuments from the city’s past, among them the grand houses of the wealthy merchants of yore, the weathered Governor’s Residence, and the old churches towering above the city. At Cape Spear, the easternmost point of the continent, he relished the salt air streaming in from the Atlantic and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. It was the view from the top of Signal Hill, though, which appeared to take his breath away, as the poet within him – and he had written poetry long before he turned to prose – drank in the power of the landscape, with the ocean spreading out to the horizon and the jagged line of headlands baring deep cliffs as they strained toward the sea.

It is entirely possible that some who did not know Clarke well might have regarded him as acerbic and cynical. Such a representation is perhaps not entirely without merit, since he has long been a loud and persistent voice protesting the injustices of the Black experience. Indeed, his writing is in large measure a bold indictment of both Barbadian and Canadian society. In The Survivors of the Crossing, he depicts a highly stratified Barbadian society dominated by a white elite. The less privileged have limited opportunity and are gripped by a sense of powerlessness and by despair. The male is often emasculated because he lacks the resources to discharge his conventional obligations to the family. Indeed, as Clarke’s The Polished Hoe attests, Black people appear to have little intrinsic value, with the female being little more than objects for white sexual gratification. Clarke asserts in Amongst Thistles and Thorns that social institutions like the church and the school militate against change, since they reinforce traditional values and attitudes. Even as a Black political class begins to emerge, fundamental reform of the society remains elusive. The white elite seems impregnable. In The Survivors of the Crossing, the attempt by Rufus, a plantation worker, to organize a strike is a disastrous and abysmal failure. Long after constitutional change has begun, Clarke suggests in The Prime Minister and Proud Empires, the culture of colonialism remains intact because the black political elite still clings to European values.

He could rail against his countrymen’s addiction to European values but also display an allegiance to very English sensibilities; he could condemn surviving vestiges of colonialism but also take intense pride in a formal audience with the Queen.

Clarke censures Canada, too, for its devaluation and marginalization of the Barbadian immigrant. In The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light, the new arrivals are either unemployed or locked into low-status jobs, dwelling in a virtual caste system that exposes them to both overt and subtle racism. The maid Bernice, for instance, has merely moved from one psychologically crippling society to another. Alienation, devaluation of the self, emasculation—these are some of the hazards of Black life in the new society. Furthermore, the devastating impact of racism recurs in the lives of immigrants’ children. In More, for example, Idora confronts the challenges of racism to provide as best as she can for her son, but the latter succumbs to stereotyping and, denied economic opportunity, drifts into gang membership and crime. The immigrant also faces the challenge of establishing an identity, of determining how much he/she must surrender culturally to find a place in a largely white society. One might adopt entirely the values of the dominant society to gain acceptance within it, but in so doing one risks self-hatred and alienation from one’s peers. Marginalization, though, does not have to be accepted passively. As Clarke indicates in his short-story collection When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, immigrants are driven to adopt strategies to create a space for themselves: they may stress their dialect; they may participate in communal social activity; they may engage in interracial sexual relationships, or they may venture into new areas of employment. But success is never guaranteed and their efforts – as in a Black-White marriage – may well end in grief. In magazine and newspaper articles, too, Clarke chastises Canada for discrimination against Black immigrants. In “A Black Man Talks about Race Prejudice in White Canada,” for example, he charges Canada with racism in such areas as immigration and employment practices, vowing never to seek Canadian citizenship because this would shut off his only escape route from Canada.

Clearly, however, simple labels cannot do justice to Clarke, for he was a man of complex virtue. This is not to suggest that he was without flaws, for his personal papers offer hints of periodic indiscretions. It must be noted, though, that he was willing to acknowledge his failings. “Don’t scratch my skin too deep,” he pleaded as he directed me to his papers at McMaster. “Don’t scratch too deep or I’ll bleed.” But the painful aftermath of his actions had already run deep in the lives of others. He was, too, a man of profound contradictions: he could rail against his countrymen’s addiction to European values but also display an allegiance to very English sensibilities; he could condemn surviving vestiges of colonialism but also take intense pride in a formal audience with the Queen. While such contradictions sometimes made it difficult to comprehend him, they did not stifle his endearing qualities. His sense of humour was certainly one of these. It blossomed in his Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack: A Memoir, a sparkling satire of life in Barbados in his early years, as well as in regular columns he wrote for the Nation lampooning aspects of Barbadian social and political life. But it is in his correspondence that I tasted first-hand the pleasures of his wit. In a letter from 1993, he observed, for instance:

The recession is over. Things will improve. And St. John’s will become a metropolis of the eastern seaboard. Do not despair. If the cold I had during all of the Christmas season could get better, then anything can.

And in a 1992 letter:

We must have been in mystical communication, for about the time I was sending you some clippings of the Arts Award, you were writing me your registered letter, which scared me, because I am not usually called to the post office to sign my name before I receive any mail. I thought it was a bailiff’s notice!

His effervescence, too, was undiminished. Writing of Caribana, again in 1992:

Man, Caribana festival this year was pretty… . It was pure poetry. I fire one-two liquors whilst stanning-up ‘pon the sidewalk marvelling at the colours, the tunes, the bands, the spectators …! Pretty, pretty, pretty.

Nor was his spontaneity—some twenty years after our first meeting, he took a train to Ottawa to surprise me with a visit at the home of a mutual friend.

The Austin Clarke I had the good fortune to know was a pleasant and supportive man who had come to terms with the duality of his psyche. Having adjusted to the realities of Canadian society, he had learned to slip smoothly between the Black world and the White. He was able, for example, to go easily from the Caribana Festival on the streets of Toronto to a social event in the apartment of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. He had indeed seen the need to build bridges between the peoples and cultures of immigrant groups and those of the dominant society. As his career in Canada gained traction, he attracted mounting attention, both for his work and for his contributions to the society. He won awards, among them the Commonwealth Writers’ regional and international prizes and two prestigious Canadian awards, the Giller Prize (2002) and the Trillium Book Award (2003). He was honoured in Barbados with the Barbados National Builder Award (2001) and in Canada with investiture as Member of the Order of Canada (1998). Such experiences had no doubt contributed to the softening of his critiques of the places he called home and, in the course of our conversations, I saw only traces of regret about any racial humiliation he might have endured. Ultimately, he regarded his native island with favour and sympathy and whatever displeasure he had once felt with Canada had become greatly attenuated.


Stella Algoo-Baksh is the author of Austin C. Clarke: A Biography (ECW Press) and a retired professor of English Literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.