Austin Clarke, best known as the Giller Prize-winning author of The Polished Hoe, belongs to the group of writers born in the West Indies during the 1930s and raised during the diminution of colonial power. Almost all these writers – Andrew Salkey, V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and Sam Selvon, among others – immigrated to England, where they instigated what is now considered to be the Golden Age of Caribbean literature. Clarke chose a different route and moved to Toronto in 1955.
It was not a seamless transition, though, and as Clarke shifted from job to job, he grew frustrated over his inability to move ahead and he frequently considered whether he had erred in his choice of destination. While working in Kirkland Lake, Ont., as a reporter for Thomson newspapers, he experienced his "first serious desire to be a novelist." But there was no real model for him in the 1960s. The streets of Toronto, he observes, were always fictionalized to present monochromatic models. "Black people, as characters and presences on the landscape of the city, were 'invisible' precisely in the context of the term as it is used by Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man." Clarke turned for inspiration to the works of the Americans Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ellison and, to a lesser extent, to the West Indian writers who had moved to England and who were already writing about migrant lives there. But he could not realistically use these writers as models, nor could he just transport their characters onto the streets of Toronto. He realized he had to develop a distinctive style. The result was the meditative and musical language for which he has become known.
Acclimation took a long time in coming and a fair section of 'Membering – which begins like a memoir with a detailed description of his position as a privileged school athlete in Barbados, acquires the feel of a novel as it arranges events and develops its arc but soon begins to feel more like a conversation – deals with Clarke's invisibility as a writer. Readers familiar with him only through his recent awards and recognition might be surprised by this early indifference. Although he wrote prolifically, it was only with the 1997 publication of The Origin of Waves that his books began to attract a solid audience. Afterward, several of his novels were republished by Random House. "For years and years, I withered in the ranks of the unmentioned and probably the unmentionables," he writes.
Clarke's frustration with this lack of recognition by the writing fraternity in Canada falls within the broader narrative that details his interactions with black American writers, his visits to Harlem and his immersion in the Civil Rights movement. The indifference to his novels, he felt, could not be separated from the general hostility to black activism and he viewed his reputation derived from a newspaper's headline as, "the angriest black man in Canada" as partially responsible for this neglect. Of this period, Clarke observes, "They never paused to see why I was angry? Or what had caused this anger, if at all I was, really 'angry.' "
Clarke has mellowed over the years and is now more forgiving of the corrosive indifference to his early works but it is fascinating to read of the manner by which he loosened some of his regional and ideological affiliations and his attempts, over time, to nurture some sustaining vision of himself as a black man in a mostly white city. His confidence never withered and at the end of this memoir, one is left with the picture of a writer with an unwavering faith in his message, yet constantly evaluating his place in Canadian literature.
Clarke also casts a critical eye on his own writing. He is objective about the shortcomings of his early works and he writes at length about the "new" language he had to develop for The Polished Hoe.
This new language, lyrical and informal and evocative, is sprinkled throughout his memoir, particularly when he is describing Toronto of the sixties and seventies. He writes of winters as "days of adventure, of romance, of dressing up and going to parties… where men and women danced after dinner, no matter how small the house was." Clarke's depiction of Toronto's social life a generation ago is superb and, if only for this, 'Membering is a worthwhile addition to the city's history. Readers looking for an equivalent presentation of Clarke's private life will likely be disappointed, however. Early on, he writes, "I am controlling, through choice and selection, the things about myself that would become public knowledge … "
'Membering is at turns admonishing, cajoling and digressive, but always perceptive. Clarke's book may not be a primer of sorts as Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent Between the World and Me, but it is difficult to think of another Canadian writer so equipped through experience and sensibility – and graciousness, it must be said – to trace the attempts, stuttering at times, that Canada has made from the 1960s onward to accommodate diversity.
Some readers may be frustrated by all the circuitous arcs or by the final chapters that seem like an interregnum and that give the memoir an incomplete feel, but this is really a magnificent account of a writer's life. The fact that Clarke's persistence paid off is due, in equal measure, to his talent and to his fidelity; and perhaps this is a reminder of a time, not so long ago, when these qualities, rather than sales, determined a writer's worth.
Rabindranath Maharaj's last novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, won the Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Book Award.