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.

Clarke wrote this city so well because he knew it at the level of the street. He wrote about pawn shops on Jarvis, bars on Spadina, roti shops on Eglinton, rooming houses on Vaughan, gambling rooms on Oakwood. He knew the melancholia of walking Yonge Street surrounded by strangers. He knew the solace of staring out at the frozen winter lake amidst the traffic and construction. Clarke wrote the everyday as a blend of the hope, aspiration and longing of Toronto’s citizens – as well as the crushing hopelessness of racism and poverty that this city still refuses to adequately address.

Clarke’s literary career began in 1961 in the small magazine Evidence, where his first short story was published alongside the work of Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Gwendolyn MacEwan. “Short story” is an early instance of Clarke’s efforts to use the black Caribbean vernacular to portray the lives of black people in Canada:

CP/Commonwealth Foundation

“Lemme tell you ’bout one set o’ sweetman from Barbados named May Day. Man, all kind of Westindian student here catching their arse, can’t go lectures they so busy hustling a buck to pay school fees. Them missing lectures, walking in the cold evenings saying them looking for a casual work. But it don’t have nothing casual ’bout the ways them catching them arse.”

The story contains all the keen social observation, intimacy of voice and incisive wit that would come to define Clarke’s work. He employs a melancholic humour to give voice to Caribbean characters that are stuffed into the “three-dollar a week cupboard on Harbord.” It is in these marginal spaces where Clarke saw the truth of this city: the servant’s quarters in Rosedale, the basement apartments in Cabbagetown, the benches of Moss Park.

Clarke is often described as Canada’s first multicultural writer, or Canada’s first immigrant writer, or Canada’s first black writer. These labels are completely inadequate: Clarke is one of our most important writers in need of no qualification, and his career does not merely predate, but should define what we think of as Canadian Literature. He was writing well before Northrop Frye defined CanLit as concerned with the question of “Where is here?” His work predates Atwood, Munro, Ondaatje and so many others we think of as foundational to our literature. Indeed, Canada is only now beginning to catch up to the vision of nation and community that Austin Clarke has been writing for 50 years.

Clarke’s work has been “characteristically neglected,” according to critic W.J. Keith. Asked in 1991 about the failure to understand his work, Clarke explained, “there are no Canadian critics qualified to look at the things I write.” This is due both to racism and the incompetence of our literary establishment.

His work goes beyond easy notions of diversity and multiculturalism to give us a real sense of the pain, struggle, pleasure, fear and hope of what it means to be black in Toronto

While Canadian critics have tried to overcome their colonial anxiety by struggling to define a boring, conservative idea of what CanLit should be, Clarke has been defying those notions for years. His first novel, Survivors of the Crossing, sets the example: crossing bespeaks the middle passage and slavery, but also the crossing, blending and mixing of voices, languages, places and styles. It is a literary practice that brings together the influences of John Coltrane, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Selvon, Leonard Cohen, Kamau Brathwaite, Amiri Baraka and so many others – all under the masterful artistry of Clarke’s narrative voice.

This artistic crossing is Clarke’s legacy to Canada: a black Caribbean-Canadian aesthetic that smashes together the languages of Barbados, Canada, America and England. Clarke’s work crosses everyday life in Canada with its colonial past, the history of slavery, the pleasures of jazz, the elevated language of Christianity, the longing of immigrant life, and the pain and hopes for black liberation.

Kevin Van Paassen/National Post

Like his characters who traverse the city in cars, subways and on foot, Clarke criss-crossed the city, collecting its sounds, its voices, its feeling. His work goes beyond easy notions of diversity and multiculturalism to give us a real sense of the pain, struggle, pleasure, fear and hope of what it means to be black in Toronto.

Clarke’s final novel, More, is one of his best. The protagonist, Idora, lies prostrate in her basement apartment as she dreams of her life in Toronto. Physically marginalized, she uses language and imagination to carve a place for herself in a city that doesn’t want her. In the novel’s final scene, she mourns her son while listening to the bells of St. James Cathedral:

“She can hear the bells of the church where the men with no homes, with no jobs, with no bedrooms, with no breakfasts, sit in the cold sun … they make her soul light. And they bring back the joy of deliverance. And they seem to justify her affection for this city of Toronto, and for this country of Canada; and for this community of Moss Park.”

Clarke wrote with affection for the people of this city, and we are only now starting to live in the place that he envisioned for us. He was a towering figure in the cultural life of Toronto and Canada, and though we cannot recover from his absence, we can accept the gift of his work. The bells of St. James Cathedral will ring for Austin Clarke on July 8.