Not Just a Canadian Writer

Reviewed by Sarah Lawson Welsh

Festschrifts are often ephemeral things: constrained by the need to honour, celebrate, and/or elegize their subject and often limited by the moment of their production. For readers situated outside of the charmed “circle of remembrance,” they can seem closed or lacking in the critical verve and robust analytical focus of less personal studies. Not so Paul Barrett’s ‘Membering Austin Clarke, which transcends the Festschrift genre whilst retaining some of its best features. This 2020 collection brings together creative and critical approaches to Austin Clarke’s life writing, poems, novels, and short stories and maps the extraordinary contribution of a writer who although a key figure in both Anglophone Caribbean and Canadian literature, is still strangely under-read, under-studied, and under-recognized.

 

Indeed, one of the strongest contributions to the book, André Forget’s brilliantly illuminating essay, “Still the British Empire,” addresses some of the possible reasons for the complex “legacy of forgetting” surrounding the critical reception of Austin Clarke’s writing and the continued marginalization of his work in a Canadian literary context (156). Clarke arguably always found supportive networks and secure canonical status within Anglophone Caribbean literature. The sustaining qualities of his early friendships with other key Caribbean writers of his generation are delightfully explored in Kris Singh’s revealing essay “‘These Virtues o’ the Cullinerry Harts’: Talking Food and Politics in the Letters of Austin Clarke, Sam Selvon, and Andrew Salkey.” A later essay by John Harewood documents how Clarke continued to meet, correspond, and maintain networks with other writers of Barbadian origin living and working in North America, such as Kamau Brathwaite and Paule Marshall. Yet Clarke’s status as a Canadian writer was never as assured or secure, despite the fact that he lived and worked in Canada for over five decades and was one of CanLit’s most prolific authors. As Forget suggests, the marginalization or erasure of Clarke from even some very recent mainstream histories of CanLit is all the more striking given that Clarke was dubbed in 2016 “Canada’s first multicultural writer” (”Austin Clarke” qtd. in Forget 156) and that in the boom years of CanLit Clarke was arguably not just “the most prominent Black writer in Canada [but] Canada’s most prominent man of letters, period” (Forget 156). ‘Membering Austin Clarke is thus hugely welcome in demonstrating why we should take Clarke more seriously, taking on the task of evaluating, with skill, sensitivity, and intelligence, the many sides to Clarke as a man and as a writer, and his important cultural and literary legacy.

 

Rinaldo Walcott’s opening essay, “The Trouble of Intimacy sets the tone of the collection. The contributions are often intimate recollections of those who knew, met, or worked with Clarke, in either a personal or professional capacity, many becoming friends as well as colleagues. The inclusion of photographs and unpublished work (including drafts in progress) from Clarke’s archive, as well as creative tributes by other (mostly Canadian-based) creative writers, consolidates this intimate tone. However, as Walcott observes, “intimacy is double-edged” (2); to know somebody or something intimately is also to throw light onto the flaws, contradictions, and ambivalences of the subject. Thus, the intimacy that characterized “Clarke’s literary geography of Toronto” (4)—a city that Clarke came to, in part, by accident, and in which he settled and lived for many years—also  drove him to a career-long “outraged artistic reflection” (Barrett 9) on how this same city responded, at best ambivalently, to Black narratives such as his own, and how it, ultimately, in his view, resisted “Black people and Blackness” (Walcott 4). Many of the writings in which Clarke most clearly explored Canadian-based experiences of racism and exclusion are critically considered in this volume, including his early Toronto trilogy of novels (The Meeting Point [1967], Storm of Fortune [1973], and The Bigger Light [1975]), his short stories such as the celebrated but in many ways problematic “When He Was Young and Free and Used to Wear Silks” (1971), and his final book of poems, In Your Crib (2015). Such texts are, arguably, as much a part of Clarke’s intimate examination of his environment as the more accessible writing of, say, his “culinary memoir” Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit (1999), which deals in different kinds of familial intimacy in a largely Barbadian context.

 

Several of the contributors in this volume grapple with the fact that Clarke was both a committed activist and writer. These contributors cast a critical eye on how Clarke’s writing connected to his interest in issues of race, migration, and the politics of diversity in a Canadian context, as well as in a wider Black Atlantic context.  They also examine how his writing was both accepted and shunned by a literary establishment and especially a literary prize culture in Canada that seemed perpetually uncertain as how to respond to and categorize his work. Walcott argues that Clarke’s often uncomfortable narratives of Black lives in a Canadian context were not only absolutely prescient in addressing the “polite racism” that accompanied the public discourse of Canada’s multicultural policies, but also continue to be crucial precisely because “Black People and Blackness remains firmly adjacent to the national narrative that continues to imagine itself as white, a whiteness that Clarke’s work spectacularizes for the violence it does to Black life” (4-5). In our contemporary moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, of accelerated moves to decolonize educational curricula and to reappraise the colonial links of many major Western institutions, such writing could hardly be more relevant. Clarke is, as this volume suggests, still a writer for our time.

 

Overall, ‘Membering Austin Clarke makes for a lively and often fascinating mix of literary criticism that, with some exceptions (e.g., the under-contextualized creative contribution by Giovanna Riccio, which may be confusing to a reader less familiar with Clarke’s work), is well-judged and imaginatively structured. The careful placing of different but interweaving contributions and kinds of contributors works iteratively and accumulatively, like the jazz music that Clarke loved almost as much as his own skilfully mixed home martinis. The essays circle and recircle the beginnings of Clarke’s writing career, his life-long interrogation of his Caribbean roots, his experience and representation of Canadian urban spaces, and his complex sense of “Black Atlantic” connectedness (with its own sometimes ineffable and spectral temporality, as Winfried Siemerling considers in his fine analysis of Clarke’s 2015 memoir, ‘Membering). The essays attend to Clarke’s ambivalent location as a writer who was, as André Forget argues, “never only a Canadian” (156) but whose life and work straddled more than one place and challenged the status quo of CanLit. They address the question of  genre, style, and formal experimentation in Clarke’s writing, while also considering his working methods and relationships with editors and publishers, not just as individuals but as representatives  of a wider institutional apparatus of canonicity.

 

However, unlike many Festschrifts this particular volume is unafraid to foreground the problematics of Clarke’s life and work, including his often difficult dealings with others, his irascible and frequently outspoken personality, and the problematic sexual (and sometimes racial) politics that are reflected in much of his writing. Leslie Sanders’ article “Dear Austin: Why Teaching Your Work Is Difficult” is an excellent example of this balancing act: intimate in address to the late author (whom Sanders knew as a colleague) yet explicit in its address to the problems that Clarke’s writing can present in a pedagogic context:

As you know, I teach African-Canadian literature . . . and every time I put together a syllabus, I am torn as regards your work and what to assign. Especially at the undergraduate level. What can I teach of your work that will not make me feel I must attack, defend, or ignore your representation of women? And if attack is my only viable option, how will that affect how succeeding generations value your work and contributions?” (25-26)

One absolute highlight of this collection is Asha Varadharajan’s article “The Wordshop of the Kitchen,” which places into a mesmerizingly effective dialogic relation a reading of Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road: A Memoir (2009), Marshall’s classic short story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam” (1967), and Clarke’s own memoir, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980). Those essays in the book that deal directly with Clarke’s archive and that reproduce and revaluate Clarke’s letters, diaries, working papers, and previously unpublished writings are also extremely valuable, no less because they are collected in one place. Some critical contributions are perhaps limited by their critical apparatus, turning to an almost exclusively American and/or African American critical framework for a reading of Clarke’s work rather than a more nuanced and, arguably, appropriate focus on Canadian and Caribbean writers and on Clarke’s transnational writing within these wider diasporic circuits of influence, context, and exchange. However, this is a valuable and welcome volume that brings into focus the prolific writings of a key figure in Canadian and in Anglophone Caribbean literature.

 

Work Cited

“Austin Clarke, ‘Canada’s First Multicultural Writer’ and Giller Prize–Winning Author,

Dead at 81.” National Post, 26 June 2016, nationalpost.com/entertainment/

books/austin-clarke-canadas-first-multicultural-writer-and-giller-prize-winning-

author-dead-at-81#.



This review “Not Just a Canadian Writer” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 29 Oct. 2021. Web.

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