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.

The following image represents Estelle’s movement in Storm of Fortune. Estelle travels from Toronto General Hospital to Union station via taxi. The driver scams Estelle: taking her the long way along College, to Church, south to Front, and then to Union Station. When she arrives at Union she feels lost and unsure of what to do, so she rides the subway north to College Station & then back down to Union.

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These circuitous routes are common in Clarke’s work (The Origin of Waves is most representative of this phenomenon) and suggest the circular structure of many of his narratives – ending where they begin – as well as perhaps Clarke’s own ambivalence towards movement and migration. His characters travel from Barbados to Toronto yet do they ever actually get anywhere in terms of achieving their goals? Do they ever arrive as citizens in Canada or are black immigrants always perceived as belonging elsewhere?

Another challenging question that has arisen out of this project is the tension in Clarke’s work between very real forms of movement (that are easily mapped onto the space of Toronto) and breaks in that realism where characters are suddenly somewhere else completely. Why, for instance, is Clarke so meticulous to map out the spaces of black Toronto in his Toronto Trilogy (the Paramount Tavern, Boysie’s apartment, Henry’s rooming house, The West Indian Federation Club) while simultaneously locating the Burrmann household (where Bernice works as a domestic) on a nonexistent street in Forest Hill? Similarly, consider the following movement in Storm of Fortune:

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The purple line depicts Boysie’s movement along Danforth Ave and the text describes his anxiety about being followed by the police. This passage begins with Boysie on Baldwin Street and then quickly jumps to him on Danforth Ave, some 5km away. How did he get there? Why this sudden jump in Boysie’s location?

This break in movement raises a challenge for my own project. How do I depict Boysie’s movement across the city? Do I fill in the blanks from Baldwin to Danforth, guessing the most likely route that Boysie would take? Or do I let the text dictate what to map and let the gaps in the narrative depiction of movement stand as an important element of Clarke’s depiction of movement?

Filling in the gaps in movement (which are regular throughout Clarke’s work) offers a more recognizable kind of realism for the person viewing the map. But this actually transforms Clarke’s narratives, filling in details that he opted to exclude.

I see these questions as strengths of this project: by translating Clarke’s depiction of movement into a visual form we are able to see dimensions of his texts that are otherwise marginal or obscured. This paratextual representation of Clarke’s work brings to the forefront not only his attention to movement but also the unreality of his work. Clarke’s work is often unfairly described as a kind of sociological account of black life in Toronto. This visual representation demonstrates that Clarke’s work is anything but sociological or explicitly realist. Instead Clarke’s notion of verisimilitude is demonstrably structured by frames of memory, desire, ambivalent movement, and racism. His depiction of the space of Toronto and the blackening of Toronto by his characters is not merely a realist account of ‘what life is like’ but instead a complex depiction of the way in which the physical and psychic effects of race structure his characters’ relation to space & nation.