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.

Austin Clarke’s Aesthetics of Crossing

My recent article, ‘“Our words spoken among us, in fragments:”’ Austin Clarke’s Aesthetics of Crossing’ is free and available in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Here’s a brief excerpt — click for the entire article:In a fascinating and revealing…

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.

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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.

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.

Creolization and Chimera Topics

Over the past year I’ve been working on a number of things. One exciting piece of news is that my book is finally coming out (yay!), another is that I’ve been working as a Postdoc at McMaster on a Digital Humanities project focused on Austin Clarke. I’ve been treating this postdoc as an opportunity to stumble around,  think about, and experiment in digital humanities. From both technical & hermeneutic perspectives, in what ways does DH transform our notions of reading, writing and canonicity? Big questions…

Clarke provides a useful test case for thinking about DH not only because his archives are so extensive but also because he writes about humanities, humanism and who gets to count as human in a broad sense. Clarke writes the slave past within the multicultural present – he shows how the social constructs of the colony and the plantation continue to structure life for black people even in post-colonial (post-national?) Canada. In this sense his work brings to bear the postcolonial critique of the black Atlantic onto the discourse of digital humanities. Whose humanities? Whose humanism? This topic – of the latent forms of humanism that lie at the heart of DH – has been raised by Tara McPherson but requires far more discussion and I’m hoping that Clarke’s work will open new ways of thinking about the category of the human within DH.