A TRIB­UTE TO AUSTIN “TOM” CLARKE

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - Pro­fes­sor Fraser is past Dean of Med­i­cal Sci­ences, UWI and Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Medicine. Web­site: profhen­ryfraser.com By Sir Henry Fraser

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, non­fic­tion, mem­oirs and even “food mem­oirs” that iden­tify him as the finest word­smith and the most pro­lific pub­lished Ba­jan writer.

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 quasilit­er­ate 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.

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

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