A Tribute to Austin “Tom” Clarke

After our famous and revered literary icon, George Lamming, the late Austin Ardinel Chesterfield “Tom” Clarke must be the most widely known Barbadian writer. Frank Collymore was a household name for decades, Geoffrey Drayton and Paule Marshall have lived most of their adult life outside of Barbados, John Wickham and others are known for a miscellany of writings, and a few newer names are resonating in this century—from Theo Williams and Orlando Marville to a younger cadre. But Austin “Tom” Clarke has distinguished himself in Canada, and never left Barbados far behind.

So when he was awarded an Honorary University of the West Indies Doctorate of Letters in 2002, I took great delight in reading all of his works that I could source. I had read The Prime Minister and Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack many years before, but I spent some of that summer engrossed in other novels and short stories, a major biography and other reviews. Then I wrote my citation, to present him at the Graduation Ceremony—and I said:

“Chancellor, Bajans love words—we love the language—we love to talk—from tea meeting to talk shop, rum shop or pulpit, on the beach or on the block – we love words, their sound and their meanings, the stories they tell and the power they give us. Austin “Tom” Clarke has found that power, in a rich profusion of stories, novels, columns, non-fiction, memoirs and even “food memoirs” that identify him as the finest wordsmith and the most prolific published Bajan writer.

Barbadian author Austin Clarke passed away on June 26 in Toronto, Canada.

Barbadian author Austin Clarke passed away on June 26 in Toronto, Canada.

He was born in 1934 and his childhood is regaled in Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack and glimpses in other stories, such as An Easter Carol, the moving story of a small boy and shoes too small. He escaped from primary school at St. Matthias Boys to Combermere, or “Cawmere”, bastion of the best Barbadian education in English, the domain of that treasure of Barbados, Frank Collymore, and the cradle of Gladstone Holder and George Lamming. At 16 he moved on to that other place on Crumpton Street, where he was less than happy, and departed in 1952 with his Oxford and Cambridge A levels. He spent three years teaching and then to Trinity College, Toronto in 1955, to study economics and political science – a path, which could have led to a career in politics. But he was drawn to the world of literature and the urge to write. He abandoned university in 1957, got married and took on a series of short term jobs, earning just enough to keep body and soul together as a journalist.

He took the plunge as a writer and wrote full time in 1962. To borrow a clumsy modern phrase, he multi-tasked furiously, working on short stories, on The Survivors of the Crossing, his first major success, published in 1964, Among Thistles and Thorns and The Meeting Point, all between ’62 and ’64. He also worked in this period as a freelance broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, presenting a series of interviews and documentaries on black issues in North America and Britain. He later held appointments in creative writing and African- American literature at a number of American university campuses, and continued to publish. He gained recognition at home and abroad and in 1974 was appointed cultural attaché to the Barbadian Embassy in Washington.

In 1975 he was appointed General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation back home. He later described the new experience as “a more political experience than he anticipated”. For quasi-literate Bajans who devour newspapers but avoid books, this was his greatest claim to fame . . . his controversial stint at CBC. He strove to bring home the highest professional standards, but he suffered the fate of many a returning Caribbean migrant – higher expectations than the old status quo. He was given a baptism of fire, and in the conflagration that ensued his contract was terminated.

He returned to Canada and wrote The Prime Minister – an autobiographical, highly political novel modelled on his CBC spell. Serialised in the Nation newspaper, it held the attention of the nation for months, and made his name a household word. He followed this up with a weekly Nation column, indulging in political commentary, and was inspired to run unsuccessfully in the 1977 Ontario elections.

In spite of his firmly established place in both Canadian and Caribbean literature, or perhaps because of it, he spent much energy on political issues, serving on the immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for five years. Then began his most prolific wave of writing, with collections of short stories, A Passage Back Home, and The Origin of Waves (1997), which earned him the inaugural Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. And almost as we speak The Polished Hoe is being published by Ian Randle Publishers of Jamaica.

Austin Clarke’s work explores the migrant condition, the colonial experience and the place of Caribbean man in the wider world. But the bigger issues never submerge the delight in the language – his skill in making the words on paper conjure the living, breathing experience of the real, live version. Here is a brother in Toronto, persuaded to look after his brother in Brooklyn, who has “just a little problem”, and whose family feel his liver is about to give out: “He hardly got any left back,” they said. “If I did not open my arms to him, the spleen would
splinter, collapse, and perhaps his blood sugar would roar, or rise, or do whatever blood sugar does.”

On the last page of an evocative story The Cradle Will Fall, in which one of the author’s alter egos meets his long-lost boyhood soul mate John after 40 years, John says: “We leave the cradle, man, and our mothers feed us Cream of Wheat to make us men, and we have different paths, and we go here and we go there, have women, wives, girlfriends, but we never leave the place we’re born.”

That is both the challenge and the strength of Caribbean man, the debt and the deliverance of Caribbean countries. We never leave the place we’re born. If we accept it with joy and reconciliation, both people and place are enriched and fulfilled. And so, Chancellor, we welcome home this survivor of the crossing on his “passage back home”, we will fete him with “pigtails n’ breadfruit” and we will share in “the bigger light”, Oriens Ex Occidente Lux, rising out of the West, as I invite you, by the authority vested in you by the Council and Senate of our beloved University, to confer on Austin Ardinel Chesterfield Clarke the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.”

Postscript: Austin Clarke then gave his unique Graduation Address. It consisted of his opening a hot-off-the-press copy of The Polished Hoe and reading the first seduction scene.

Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website: profhenryfraser.com

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