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)

This draft, from October 25, 1970, relies on a narrator whose voice employs nation language to at once convey familiarity with Calvin as well to transform the terms by which Canada is depicted. Writing Canada in nation language constitutes a blackening of the nation — not receiving white Canada on its terms but rather reading it through the discourses and imaginaries of the black diaspora. As in a great deal of Clarke’s works, his characters occupy the difficult space of living in a diaspora within the nation. He included, for example, little guides to nation language, like this one, in his archives:


Clarke’s use of nation language was clearly inspired by Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (and perhaps — although he wouldn’t admit it — Naipaul). In fact Clarke’s earliest short stories, published in Evidence Magazined and simply entitled “Short Story” is a clear emulation of Selvon’s style:

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In “The Motor Car” Clarke uses a perhaps more Bajan-inflected form of nation language, dropping the “It have” that pervades his early writing. Yet Lee, acting as the Editor at House of Anansi, was concerned about the use of “dialect” in Clarke’s story. He writes:

“I have a slight unease about the dialect narration. Not for itself, because I find it racy and vigorous and a splendid medium for the story. I am only pointing my uninformed nose into the middle of questions involving illiteracy, poverty, race, etc; and wondering whether some smart-ass critic is likely to come on about the voice of the story being patronizing, condescending, or whatnot — an obviously sophisticated writer affecting the dialect because of its local colour — cashing in — all that shit. For myself, I find it justifies itself simply by its verve and tang; but I wonder how much you care yourself about controversy of this kind. If you don’t want to give people a foothold to start it, I’d suggest that you might attach the narrative voice to a speaker; i.e., convey at the beginning, at the end, and perhaps once or twice on the way through that a West Indian man is sitting down and telling this cautionary story to a friend or friends. It could be indicated in a  couple of words each time. To repeat, I don’t feel it necessary myself, but then I’m scarcely on the front line & exposed in this area.”

At the risk of becoming the “smart-ass critic” Lee fears, I think Lee’s comments provide a window into some of the editorial decisions that structure the publication and reception of Clarke’s work and that have affected his place in the Canadian canon.

Certainly Lee readily admits his lack of familiarity with questions concerning the use of nation language and its importance to asserting a Caribbean / West Indian identity and language. Similarly, one traces Lee’s discomfort with wading into any kind of racial politics in his use of terms such as “racy,” “vigorous,” “verve,” “tang.” These words all suggest the kinds of exoticism he is worried about without ever using the term “black.” There is something of the uncomfortable liberal speaker in Lee’s statement, one who isn’t quite sure what to call Clarke’s stories or his politics — they’re vaguely identifiable within the blurry categories of “illiteracy, poverty, race, etc.”

This is of course not an effort to discredit or attack Lee — I think he’s struggling to articulate caution and support for Clarke’s story and its important that Lee lets Clarke decide whether to alter his use of nation language. At the same time Lee’s comments are quite revealing about the limits of what Canadian editors were comfortable publishing. If House of Anansi was cautious about the use of nation language then how would a story of in nation language be received by more established and conservative publishers? Furthermore, Lee’s comments may reflect the anxieties of a Canadian reading public who would might be unfamiliar with the relationship between the West Indian and black identity and the use of nation language. This suggests a very real example of the manner in which the aesthetic practices of West Indian and black diasporic writers are misunderstood within Canadian literature.

Lee’s comments are dated October 24, 1970 and the manuscripts of “The Motor Car” in the William Ready Archives at McMaster University are either undated or dated Oct 25, 1970 — one day after Lee’s comments. This presents some ambiguity concerning how Clarke responded to Lee’s comments. Did he revise the story in one day or are there even earlier versions of the manuscripts that aren’t in the archives? My guess is the former given that Clarke’s edits to the manuscript are relatively minor and there is no evidence of substantial changes to the story.

The following page is the final page of the edited manuscript:


Other than a few typos and an added sentence here and there, Clarke’s manuscript after Lee’s comments is very similar to the undated manuscript. Based on this similarity between the earlier, undated manuscript and this edited manuscript (as well as the published versions in the collection and in Evergreen magazine) I don’t think Clarke heeded Lee’s advice. There is no sign of the extensive changing of the use of nation language in the story and the kinds of substantial changes that would be required to address Lee’s comments. That said, I am not entirely sure. Clarke does, after all, begin the story, as Lee suggests, with a narrative voice anchored to a particular speaker. It begins:

“That black man you see lying down there in that bed, is Calvin. Calvin wash motor cars back in Barbados till his back hurt and his belly burn and when the pain stop in the body it start fresh in his mind.” 

The reference to “you” is the only indication that the narrator is speaking to a particular audience and observer. So Clarke doesn’t return describing this narrative frame. Does this opening address to “you” indicate Clarke acceding to Lee’s request to assign the nation language to a particular character? Or has Clarke simply ignored the worries of his white, liberal editor?

As is the case for many of the questions I’m pursuing in Clarke’s archives, I can’t provide a definitive answer to this question but rather argue the case that it appears that Clarke largely ignored Lee’s worries. Yet even without a definitive conclusion about the use of nation language, Lee’s comments provide a window into the kinds of editorial pressures and concerns that Clarke faced (and continues to face, perhaps) throughout his career. Perhaps I’ll find a letter from Clarke to Lee telling him not to worry so much but its more likely that those exchanges happened over martinis at the Pilot Tavern.

But Lee’s comments remain relevant and revealing. To what extent did Clarke internalize Lee’s concerns and ensure that subsequent writings would be of less concern to the liberal, white reader? Clarke certainly continued to use nation language, perhaps most famously in “How He Does It” and “Doing Right.” Yet  its no surprise that Clarke  has never published a novel in nation language as Selvon did — this appears to not simply be a matter of style or personal preference but also of avoiding these kinds of concerns in the future.

Part of my research in the future will be to trace Clarke’s use of nation language in his writing using vocabulary management profiles. Does Clarke’s use of nation language increase / decrease or change throughout his writing? Is nation language primarily reserved for his short stories? In what way are editorial concerns responsible for his use of nation language? These are the kinds of questions that I’ll be pursuing as my research continues!