Austin Clarke | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Austin Clarke

Austin Chesterfield Clarke, novelist, short-story writer, journalist (born 26 July 1934 in St. James, Barbados; died 26 June 2016 in Toronto, ON).

Austin Chesterfield Clarke, novelist, short-story writer, journalist (born 26 July 1934 in St. James, Barbados; died 26 June 2016 in Toronto, ON). Clarke arrived in Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto but subsequently ventured into employment in various fields, including journalism. In due course, he turned increasingly to fiction, grist for his work being provided primarily by his interactions with West Indian immigrants, his own experiences as a black in Canada, and his familiarity with colonial and post-colonial Barbadian society. His first published novel, The Survivors of the Crossing (1964), dealt with the life of blacks on a Barbadian plantation and was quickly followed by Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965), which again focused on the West Indian peasant and sought to restore him "to his true and original status of personality." Next came Clarke's trilogy - The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973) and The Bigger Light (1975) - which was set in Toronto and offered the first comprehensive treatment in fiction of the complexities and ambiguities of black, West Indian immigrant life in Canada. Clarke also wrote short stories, his first published collection being When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971). This work appeared shortly after the start of a series of appointments as visiting lecturer at such institutions as Yale University (1968-70), Duke University (1971-72) and the University of Texas (1973), which enabled Clarke to interact with black American intellectuals, artists and activists and in turn led him to a greater interest in the black experience in North America, specifically to such themes as black marginalization, the emasculation of the black male and the question of black identity.

After the distractions of his designation as the Cultural Attaché of Barbados in Washington in 1973 and as Acting General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados in 1975, he returned to his writing, his experiences in Barbados inspiring the novel The Prime Minister (1977), which highlighted the moral bankruptcy of politicians and political leaders in neo-colonial Barbados. Clarke followed this work up in 1979-82 with a long series of articles in the Barbadian newspaper The Nation on various dimensions of Barbadian life. His next major work was a scintillating autobiography, Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack (1980), a satire of the main institutions of the Barbados of his youth, which won the 1980 Casa de las Americas Literary Prize. This was followed by two short-story collections - When Women Rule (1985) and Nine Men Who Laughed (1986) - which dealt mainly with black immigrants and by the novel Proud Empires (1986), which again explored life in neo-colonial Barbadian society. Clarke's writing career faltered briefly on his appointment in 1988 to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, but when he finally returned to his writing in 1992 his journalistic interests were apparent in Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth (1992) and In This City (1992), two tracts on racial issues written with some balance and moderation. He also wrote A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon (1994). His main published work in the early 1990s, however, was another collection of stories, There Are No Elders (1993).

In recent years, Clarke's career has soared. He published The Origin of Waves (1997), for which he won the 1998 Rogers Communication Writers Trust Prize, and another novel, The Question (1999). In 1999, he was again honoured for his work, this time with the W.O. Mitchell Prize. Clarke has also ventured into another genre, as evidenced by Pigtails n' Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food, a Barbadian Memoir (1999), which cleverly wedded local recipes with political, social and historical commentaries, and Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir (2004). He also re-issued some of his stories in a new collection, Choosing the Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke (2004). His crowning achievement, however, was the publication of his Joycean tome The Polished Hoe (2002), for which he was awarded the prestigious Giller Prize for fiction (2002), the 16th Annual Trillium Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Best Book Award for Canada and the Caribbean region (2003) and the Commonwealth Writers Award for best book.

Selected Works of
Austin Clarke