Monday, June 27, 2016
Toronto Star: Acclaimed Toronto author Austin Clarke dead at 81
Austin Clarke, the acclaimed Toronto-based novelist of books such as the 2002 Giller Prize-winning The Polished Hoe, died early Sunday morning after a long illness. He was 81.
Clarke’s passing was confirmed by Patrick Crean, his long-time friend and former publisher. He is survived by four daughters, a son and his former wife, Betty.
Clarke, who was born in Barbados, moved to Toronto in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. A handful of brief digressions aside, he never left, evolving here into a frank and forthright literary voice and a champion of black rights.
But he was leery of taking Canadian citizenship, acquiring it only in 1981, explaining later that “I was not keen on becoming a citizen of a society that regarded me as less than a human being.”
Indeed, Clarke’s observations of the splintering of Canadian society in the ’50s and ’60s gave voice to a new version of a country in its earliest stages of becoming.
“Austin wrote our multicultural moment before we even had a language to describe it,” said Rinaldo Walcott, a professor at the University of Toronto and a longtime friend. “He was an astute observer of those social dynamics, and he was a critic of it as well.”
Clarke was bluntly critical of the endemic racism he encountered both here and at home, in Barbados, a colonial British outpost where he attended Anglican schools before coming to Canada. ‘Membering, his lyrical memoir published last year, recalls with vivid detail his daily struggles with discrimination in an uptight city of not-so-long ago.
In it, he writes of living “in the atmosphere of great physical fear, of the expectation that a policeman might shoot me — bang-bang, you’re dead, dead — of being refused the renting of a basement room, or an apartment in a public building, that I would find myself standing noticeably longer than other customers at a counter in Eaton’s store, at the corner of Yonge and College Sts., that I might be thrown out, sometimes physically, from a restaurant, or a nightclub, as Oscar Peterson was, and face the embarrassment of being told by a barber that he does not cut niggers’ hair. This is my Toronto.”
Yet in private, friends speak of a generous, passionate spirit filled with an affection for simple pleasures in life: A love of cooking, of conversation, and of music. But he was also a complicated man, whose fiery passions around issues of inequity seemed at times to chafe with his conservative Anglican beliefs.
“If you were going to have a real relationship with Austin, you had to be prepared to move nimbly,” said the author Barry Callaghan, a decades-long friend and literary colleague who in 1996 published The Austin Clarke Reader through his imprint, Exile Editions. “He was a worldly fellow, a man of elegance, a man of conservative principles, but at the same time, he could be engaged with people that most conservatives wouldn’t let into their house.”
Clarke, famously, made a failed run as a Progressive Conservative candidate for the Ontario legislature in 1977, though his literary and intellectual fascinations seemed a clear ideological contradiction. He had built his reputation as a novelist as a keen observer of the nuanced plight of immigrants in Toronto, and specifically women. Meanwhile, his advocacy for a racially tolerant society had led him to places far outside standard conservative boundaries.
In 1963, while working as a journalist at the CBC, Clarke found himself in Harlem, N.Y., seeking an interview with the great African American writer James Baldwin, but instead came back with an hour of tape from a chance encounter with Malcolm X. Quickly building a reputation as a voice of black empowerment in Canada, Clarke wrote at a furious pace, though his passion would drive him away, at least for a time.
In 1968, Maclean’s magazine published a piece Clarke had written about his encounters with racism here under the headline “Canada’s Angriest Black Man.” Disillusioned at the simplification of what he had written as a complex issue, Clarke moved on to Yale University, where he became one of a group of professors to establish the school’s Black Studies program, one of the first in the United States.
Clarke’s enthusiasms were diffuse, straddling culture and politics. From Yale, they would lead him to Washington, D.C., where he served as a cultural attaché for the Barbadian embassy in 1973, and back home to Barbados, where from 1975 to 1977, he ran the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation.
He eventually circled back home to Toronto, and Walcott believes his return helped seed the rich literary fabric that the city, and the country, enjoys today. “His great passions were for food, for drink, but much more than that, for young writers across race and class and gender, whom he would have to his home and mentor selflessly, reading manuscripts and offering his feedback,” Walcott said.
Though his passion for social justice never wavered — he served on the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada from 1988 to 1993 — his commitment to his writing could be a powerful, monastic counterbalance.
In the late ’90s, Walcott lived downstairs from Clarke while he wrote The Polished Hoe, in a central Toronto duplex. “I wouldn’t hear a sound for three days,” Walcott recalls, “so I’d call and see if he was all right. He would tell me he was writing — he hadn’t eaten, or slept. It would possess him like a spirit.”
Clarke’s literary accomplishments, coupled with his strong social conscience, won him the Order of Canada in 1998, a poignant honour given the critical voice he had so often taken regarding his adopted homeland.
All the accolades aside, what Callaghan recalls most is a complicated friend who changed all around him for the better.
“When I think of special dinners here, it was also Austin that said grace,” he said. “There was no one like him, because there could be no one like him. There were just too many cross-references in his personality. He was singular.”
A funeral will be held at St. James Cathedral on July 9.