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.

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.

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.

Canada Reads … Hinterland Who’s Who

The unnamed protagonist in Pasha Malla’s short story, Being Like Bulls, works in his family’s Niagara Falls gift shop long after the falls have been devastated by environmental destruction and are now mere carrion for raiding American corporations. He is faced with a choice: preserve this mausoleum of Canada’s past, full of Skylon Tower erasers, Terry Fox wigs, Niagara Falls snow globes, and smiling beaver press-on tattoos, or sacrifice this inherited national chachka in the pursuit of a new identity in the present? Canadians today are faced with a similar choice.

When Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan stormed Canada’s literary awards this year, John Barber asked in The Globe & Mail if “Canadian Writers Are ‘Canadian’ Enough?” Barber joins a long list of critics who have rushed to their battle stations to defend Canada and Canadian Literature as soon as a novel that purports to be Canadian is not set in the Ottawa Valley, doesn’t describe the muted anxieties of a small town, or conclude with a staring competition between a Francophone farmer and Louis Riel, reincarnated in beaver form. From George Grant’s lament for Canada in 1965 to Douglas Coupland’s enshrinement of Canadian kitsch, to John Metcalf’s insistence that the only real Canadian books are scotch-inspired reflections on Anglo-Canadian malaise, Canada has a long list of those who would preserve the trinkets of our national heritage. The Leonard Cohen bobble-heads and Irving Layton urinal pucks are in good hands. Yet these critics and artists merely attempt to stem national and individual change, enshrining a notion of Canada that is no longer relevant to a growing number of Canadians.


Canada Reads