Surviving Clarke’s Crossing

This piece originally appeared in the June 30th edition of The National Post:

You didn’t have to spend much time in this city before you encountered Austin Clarke. He was a resident figure at the Grand Hotel and Bistro 990, where the staff knew exactly how to prepare his martinis. He was a generous man who regularly hosted young writers, scholars and artists in his home for advice and a meal of bacchanalian proportions. Clarke prepared for such events with visits to Kensington Market, where vegetables, meat and fish were carefully studied and selected. For a time it seemed that Clarke was everywhere: on Bloor, on Church, on Shuter, on Eglinton. This is perhaps why the city feels just slightly emptier, less vibrant, less alive, now that he is gone.

In Canada, its never about race

A black immigrant in Toronto waves a household object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and most-importantly — dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon but their cries are ignored. Finally, they are forced to shoot him. He dies. A familiar tragedy.

In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant who was killed in his Manchester Ave. home on a Sunday morning holding a lawn edger. His death led to protests from the black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU. In 2015 the man is Andrew Loku, an refugee from South Sudan, who was killed holding a hammer. His death was investigated by the SIU; the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Separated by nearly forty years, both men died unnecessarily at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly haunting about both incidents is not merely the horrors of police violence nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the white Canadian media. In both Johnson’s and Loku’s cases white Canadian law enforcement, media, and judiciary frame the killings as unfortunate incidents & sad tragedies rather than as the racist behaviour of a racist society. The identical responses to both killings demonstrates very clearly how anti-black racism is at the heart of Canadian public discourse.

Codework and Carework: Editing Modernism in Canada

I spent one year as the Editing Modernism in Canada postdoctoral fellow which I mostly spent working in the McMaster University Archives reading and writing about Austin Clarke and learning about the digital humanities. I was somewhat surprised when EMiC decided to fund my Clarke project but as I learned more about the organization I realized that there really is no strict mandate for EMiC work. Their working definitions of modernism and Canadian writing are wide and flexible and indeed part of their project is to push at the boundaries of these definitions; I think this is one of EMiC’s real strengths.

Austin Clarke, Dennis Lee and Nation Language

When Austin Clarke was revising his short story “The Motor Car” for the Collection When He Was Free and Young and Used to Wear Silks he worked with Anansi editor, poet, and children’s book writer, Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie!). Lee provided extensive notes for Clarke’s proposed stories, including extensive summary and manuscript comments for both the new and revised stories.

Lee’s extensive comments for Clarke’s “The Motor Car”

Lee generally praised Clarke’s work, describing “An Easter Carol” as “breathtaking” and “Give Us This Day: And Forgive Us” as “superb.” One area of concern Lee has with Clarke’s “The Motor Car,” however, is Clarke’s use of dialect or nation language. The main character, Calvin’s, arrival in Toronto is described as:

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“Toronto in your arse, man!” The plane touch down, and the first man outta the plane is, well, no need to tell you who it was. Calfuckingvin! And he pass through the customs like if he was born in Toronto. The white man didn’ even ask him a question … Before the first week come and gone, Calvin take up pen and paper and send off a little thing to Willy and the boys… (11)

Where the gorblummuh is here? CanLit, Clarke, and Algorithmic Criticism

One of the questions that haunts my research is why is Austin Clarke’s writing so marginal within Canadian Literature? Clarke is not only a foundational Canadian author but also one of Canada’s most prolific. His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, is contemporary with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Double Hook and predates Northrop Frye’s infamous conclusion to Klinck’s Literary History of CanadaClarke has, therefore, been concerned with the question of “Where is Here,” from a diasporic perspective, well before CanLit ever articulated that as the (supposedly) defining question. Yet despite being so prolific and engaged with the themes that centrally concern Canadian literature, there is very little critical writing on Clarke’s work.

A quick search of Google Scholar for Clarke reveals approximately 2100 results, many of which are completely irrelevant or only marginally related to Clarke’s work. Contrast this with the nearly 2000 results generated by searching for “Sheila Watson Double Hook.” Similar searches for Mordecai Richler and  Hugh MacLennan reveal 3,000 and 4,360 results respectively. Searching for Margaret Atwood breaks the internet.

No Really, Where is Here???

Stephen Marche’s polemic on the dea(r)th of Canadian Literature reads at times like the musings of the Manhattan ad executive as he soars over the Iowan countryside, commenting on the folksy ways of the people 30,000 feet below. As his argument jets between Atwood, Ondaatje, and Munro, the rest of CanLit receives a flyover. We learn that Lampman, Moodie, and Johnson were all “intensely marginal” and “not particularly good,” that “Despite the fact that Munro won the Nobel Prize, Atwood will always be the iconic Canadian writer, like the Mounties or Anne of Green Gables,” and that Ondaatje is “perhaps the first post-nationalist Canadian writer … Canadian in his preoccupations and in his instincts—He too looks for the victim to cherish and obsesses over settings.” Broad strokes indeed; Marche’s analysis offers the kind of sweeping generalizations that come with breathing rarefied air. Back here on planet Earth, however, things are a little more complex and messy.

Clarke’s Narrative Realism, Data Visualization & GIS

One of the central tensions in Austin Clarke’s work is between his depiction of very real, accurate movement & imagined movement. The places characters go & the places they imagine they might go.

Clarke’s attention to movement is at the heart of his diasporic poetics: he captures the black Atlantic ethos of movement across borders alongside the regulation of the movement of black people by the state and the police. Clarke’s most recent novel, More, for instance, begins with a sentence that extends four pages where the main character describes moving through her Toronto neighbourhood. As the sentence ends we learn that all of her movement has been imagined and she is actually lying still & silent in her dark basement apartment.

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Part of my postdoctoral project has been to map out these numerous depictions of movement throughout Clarke’s work. This is partially to examine the ways in which he borrows from the (under-examined) themes of movement that structure Fanon’s representation of the colony. But its also to provide a visual representation of Clarke’s movement, what Rinaldo Walcott has called a ‘blackening’ of Canada. Where do Clarke’s characters go? What routes do they take? How does their movement transform their relationship to the city & the nation?

A few interesting recurring questions and problems have emerged from this mapping. First there is the constant theme of circuitous routes. Clarke’s characters regularly go in circles: starting out somewhere, trying to get somewhere else & ending up where they started. Often it is the police, their own anxiety, the transit, or their failings that lead them back to where they began.

Exhibit B — “fixed in the ether of history”

I’m particularly troubled by Luminato’s recent efforts to bring Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B to Toronto. Bailey’s artistic arrangement (creation? performance?) purports to represent the history of human zoos and link them to contemporary politics of surveillance, control, and imprisonment of racialized bodies. Bailey sees a continuum between the racist thinking of human zoos, the white supremacist devaluing of black bodies and subjects and contemporary imprisonment of so-called illegal migrants. Critics of his work however suggest that Bailey’s work reproduces the very structures of racism that he purports to critique and merely offers a space for white liberals to experience guilt while offering a space to gaze upon prostrate, abused, and denigrated black bodies.

Kehinde Andrews argues that “The exhibit invites liberals to feel the “discomfort” of their colonial history while fawning over the naked and prostrate black body” and perpetuates “the idea that black people are passive agents to be used as conduits for white people to speak to each other.” Rinaldo Walcott‘s series of tweets in response to the exhibit dispute Bailey’s claim that human zoos & their accompanying logic are a thing of the past. He also reminds us of the history of white liberal’s gazing at black bodies and insists that Exhibit B is nothing more than a continuation of devaluing, fetishizing, abusing, and dehumanizing black bodies in the interest of white liberalism. Walcott writes:

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Walcott also stresses the structural power that promotes artists like Bailey to talk about race & representation [as part of this he unfairly suggests that “you can’t trust” the words of actors in these pieces — because they wouldn’t critique Bailey because they need the work. This is a problematic and unfair speaking-for on Walcott’s part that dismisses views that don’t accord with his own]. He writes that “Only white men get to decide what is to be seen” and “White men always want to see art that subjects black people.”

Walcott’s focus on seeing implicates both the innate structures of white supremacy that support the decision to stage Bailey’s piece as well as the acts of seeing and gazing that the white spectator engages in when they attend the performance. Christina Sharpe extends Walcott’s critique:

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