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Austin Clarke Essay

Austin Clarke

As a Canadian writer born and raised in Barbados, Austin Clarke has been able to explore the difficult lives of Caribbean immigrants in Toronto from a unique perspective. His ninth novel, The Polished Hoe, won the Giller Prize for fiction in 2002, and the Regional Commonwealth Prize for best book in 2003. Clarke has published numerous collections of short stories including Choosing his Coffin: the best stories of Austin Clark (2003). In 1999 he was awarded the W.O. Mitchell Prize for producing an outstanding body of work and the Rogers Communication Writers Trust Prize (1998).

Clarke was born in 1934 and schooled in Barbados. He also taught there. He emigrated to Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. He left university to work as a journalist and broadcaster. A few years later Clarke published his first novels: Survivors of the Crossing (1964), The Meeting Point (1967) and a collection of short stories, Among Thistles and Thorns (1965). He then taught creative writing at a number of American universities and was the cultural attaché to the Barbadian embassy in Washington. After he returned to Canada in 1977 he served on a number of community boards and continued to write about the West Indian immigrants in Canada and their struggles against racism and economic exploitation. The Caribbean characters in The Meeting Point return in Storm of Fortune (1971) and The Bigger Light (1975) making these novels a trilogy. Clarke creates real characters through the use of authentic dialogue and dialects, believable situations and subtle psychology. Social and political criticism is the focus of The Prime Minister (1977), an exposé of corruption in a developing country inspired by his year back in Barbados as manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation and an adviser to the prime minister.

Clarke is well-known for his many powerful short stories which deal with the adaptation of black people into white Canada. His second collection, When He was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971) was a great critical success. It was followed by four other volumes: When Women Rule (1985), Nine Men who Laughed (1986), In This City (1992), and There are No Elders (1993).

In his memoir of childhood in Barbados, Growing up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), Clarke explores colonial and postcolonial conditions in the British Empire. In the same context his novel Proud Empires (1988) explores island politics. His retrospective bent continued into the 1990s when Clarke published The Origin of Waves (1997), a novel of memory and reunion. His next book, The question (1999), is considered one of his most accomplished novels next to The Polished Hoe.

Updated March 16 2015 by Student & Academic Services

Austin Clarke, an award-winning author born in Barbados who wrote about the immigrant experience and being black in Canada, died on June 26 in Toronto. He was 81.

His agent, Denise Bukowski, confirmed his death but did not specify the cause.

Mr. Clarke won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for his 2002 novel, “The Polished Hoe.” Set in the years immediately after World War II, it tells the story of Mary-Mathilda, a former house servant and mistress to a plantation’s powerful overseer, who years later offers a murder confession that lasts an entire night, forming an oral history “steeped in slavery, colonialism and sexual exploitation,” Ihsan Taylor wrote in The New York Times Book Review.

His final work was a memoir, “’Membering,” published last year. It describes his struggles with racial discrimination and his early days as a journalist covering the civil rights movement in Harlem in the 1960s. In all he wrote 10 novels, five short-story collections and several memoirs.

Austin Chesterfield Clarke was born on July 26, 1934, in St. James, Barbados, and moved to Canada in 1955 to attend the University of Toronto. He turned to journalism before embarking on a career of writing fiction. His first two novels were set in the West Indies.

Mr. Clarke was a visiting lecturer at United States colleges in the late 1960s and early ’70s and a founder of Yale University’s black studies program. For a time he was a cultural attaché to the Barbadian Embassy in Washington.

He moved back to his homeland in 1975 to become general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation before returning to Canada the next year.

Mr. Clarke did not become a Canadian citizen until 1981. Asked why he had delayed doing so, he said, “I was not keen on becoming a citizen of a society that regarded me as less than a human being.”

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