The Afterlives of Austin Clarke

Introducing the Austin Clarke Prize in Literary Excellence

by Kelly Baron

Author Austin Clarke, photographed at his home, in his office.
Author Austin Clarke, photographed at his home, in his office. (Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

What happens when a great writer dies?

I don’t mean to ask this rhetorically. While writing this introduction to the first annual Austin Clarke Prize in Literary Excellence, I have been thinking about the implications of such a death. There is the incredible grief that follows from the family and the close friends. There are the practical posthumous concerns: of a funeral, of end-of-life requests, of managing the will and their belongings. But when a writer dies, especially one of the caliber of Austin Clarke, there is more to consider. There will be tributes, more writing to be completed in the memory of the one who is lost, a legacy to be considered. These become, in a way, the afterlives of the great writer.

I like using the term afterlives for these posthumous writerly concerns because of the connotations of the word. Afterlife denotes a life after death, and while it is typically associated with some kind of spectral fantasy or ruminations of heaven or hell, it quite literally refers to an everlasting life after death, or a continued or renewed use. These definitions can help us to understand the importance of an award like this one: in renaming our annual literary prize for Austin’s memory, we provide a venue for continuous renewal and interest in his writing, inspiring others to break formal boundaries in many of the same ways that he did.

Austin Clarke (1934–2016) was, above all else, an exceptional writer, one who disrupted the expectations of what Canadian literature could and should become. His literary career was characterized by impressive productivity. In the span of his lifetime, he published eleven novels (including his 2002 Giller-winning The Polished Hoe), nine short story collections, two poetry collections, along with a number of memoirs. In this large body of work, he continually questioned the homogeneity implied with the development of a Canadian cultural establishment. He was deeply critical of the official Canadian position of multiculturalism, but to consider his work a “realist or sociological account of Black life in Canada” would be, as Paul Barrett notes in “On Austin Clarke’s Style,” a fundamental misreading of the value of his writing. Although Clarke began his writing career as a reporter at the Timmins Daily Press and The Globe and Mail, his vast body of literary work has “never been 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” which “demands” a stylistic account.

Paul Barrett’s 2017 special issue in these online pages was the first of Austin Clarke’s afterlives. ‘Membering Austin Clarke: A Puritan Special Issue was the first tribute to Austin’s life in writing. Barrett published a number of Clarke’s works posthumously: “That Man, That Man—Stories and Confabulations” and “The Robber,” both works of short fiction, alongside two poems, “Let Me Stand Up” and “Do Not Let Them Choose the Fragrance.” But Paul also did something unique while assembling his tribute to Austin: he included short fiction and poetry inspired by Austin Clarke, and he published the first music in The Puritan’s pages, a mix put together by Peter Pesic titled “The Clarke Train: The Music of Austin Clarke’s Toronto.” The special issue was more fragmentary than any other we have published. It included Clarke’s voice, providing a venue for his own unpublished writing, along with deeply personal essays considering his influence over others.

Paul’s tribute continued to evolve, and became the second afterlife of Austin Clarke. ‘Membering Austin Clarke, published by Wilfried Laurier Press in late 2020, became the first edited collection dedicated to Austin’s memory. It is another fragmentary work, filled with reminiscences and critical essays from some of the best minds in CanLit, accompanied once again by poetry and short fiction inspired by Clarke.

Paul intended for the collection to show Clarke’s influence on CanLit. Although Austin Clarke is one of the most widely published and critically acclaimed Canadian authors, he has never been a household name, and he is notoriously underread, with many of his books out of print. And while ‘Membering Austin Clarke achieves its goal of showing that Clarke’s writing on Black diasporic life and the immigrant experience is foundational for contemporary CanLit, Paul’s collection does so much more. It is a moving and intimate tribute to a great writer who valued style above all else. Because beyond including personal reminiscences, critical essays, poetry, and short fiction, the collection is littered with photos of Clarke, of his editing process, of the notes sent to him by his editors. What Paul has assembled is not only a critical discussion of Austin Clarke’s influence on contemporary Canadian scholars and writers, but also a tribute to the writing process. When Austin wrote, his words were always under a state of revision. He would reuse his writing as he would see fit, and every story, every novel, every memoir, every poem experienced continual renewal throughout his lifetime. Paul’s collection doesn’t just memorialize the great writer, but also the great writer’s process.

In the spirit of Austin’s own approach to his writing, the third of his afterlives is this award. When I approached Paul to connect me with Loretta, Austin’s daughter, in order to work with his family to establish an award in his memory, my goal was one of renewal. By dedicating an annual writing prize to his legacy, we hope that his words experience an everlasting life through their ongoing influence. To that end, we are using The Puritan as a dedicated space to continue to publish reflections, critical essays, and creative pieces on Austin Clarke. The first such essay is a revised version of Paul Barrett’s essay, “On Austin Clarke’s Style.” Paul’s essay began our special issue back in 2017, and it followed Rinaldo Walcott’s “The Trouble of Intimacy” in beginning ‘Membering Austin Clarke. It is fitting that it should begin the third of Austin’s afterlives, and it gave me great pleasure to see it revised from addressing the collective forgetting of Austin’s death by Canada’s literary community to acknowledging a new legacy through this award. There are also new pieces dedicated to his memory forthcoming—from David Chariandy, who dedicated his gorgeous novel Brother to Austin, and from Rinaldo Walcott, his long-time friend and companion.

And you, dear readers and writers, those of you who submit to his award and those of you who eagerly await each of our next issues, you are the fourth afterlife of his work. By reading his works, by enjoying his lyrical sentences, his attention to rhythm and style, you ensure that his words keep living. Every influence that he has over every reader who attends to his writing is new and unique in its own form. Every writer who submits their work for consideration, who finds influence in his writing, does so in their own inimitable method.

And for that, we thank you. Because we are the lucky stewards of an award dedicated to an exceptional writer’s memory, and we measure our success in this endeavour by encouraging our readership to keep reading and to keep writing, and to write in a method that unashamedly demands an attention to style.

With special thanks to Loretta Clarke and Paul Barrett.