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Toronto author Austin Clarke, October 4, 1983.Thomas Szlukovenyi/The Globe and Mail

About halfway through his twisting, soulful 2015 memoir 'Membering, Austin Clarke spends a few pages contemplating how a writer can best bring a fictional character to life. At one point he turns his attention to Mary-Mathilda, the elderly plantation worker at the heart of his best-known novel, The Polished Hoe. While admitting he holds "dawdling thoughts concerning the best way to construct a character," he nevertheless feels "a fair satisfaction" regarding this particular protagonist.

"This makes me believe, and believe after many incomplete and detouring journeys, that a writer can end up at the correct destination, even after many digressions, detours and wrong turns," he writes. "There is something within the writer's body, some gadget like a sensor, like a piece of metal which attracts other pieces of metal … that rings a bell announcing destination."

After a life filled with a novel's worth of detours and digressions, Mr. Clarke, a teacher, activist, journalist, public servant and pioneering author of Caribbean-Canadian literature whose work sparred with issues of colonialism and racism, immigration and destination, and lit a path for future generations of writers, died on June 26 at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He was 81.

"He laid down so many tracks for so many of us," says his friend, the writer and filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton. Mr. Clarke's writing, she adds, "cracked open what was possible."

Austin Ardinel Chesterfield (Tom) Clarke was born on July 26, 1934, in the parish of St. James, Barbados. He was born to a single mother, Gladys Clarke, though within roughly a year of his birth she'd married a police constable, Fitz Herbert Luke, whom Mr. Clarke writes became his father "in word, in love and in deed." It was an impoverished household, but young Austin earned a scholarship to the Combermere School for Boys, in Bridgetown, the capital, and then attended the elite Harrison College for two years. At school, he proved to be an exceptional runner ("I was the champion schoolboy athlete for seven consecutive years," he boasts in 'Membering) although it was a far different kind of race, as he told The Globe and Mail in 2013, that led to a life in books.

"The brightest boy in the village challenged me to a reading race. He decided on the books to be read; he took one and I took one. I became fascinated and I wanted to become a writer, because it was amazing to me that anybody could remember what he'd written on the first page and be consistent on page 300." Inspired, Mr. Clarke opened one of his exercise notebooks and began a story of his own. "I wrote, 'Once upon a time, there was a man.' And I couldn't think of anything else, so I wrote wavy lines for many pages. And at the end said, 'The end. By Austin Clarke.'"

In 1955, he was admitted to McGill University, but soon found himself at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, where he studied political science and economics. In 1957, he married Betty Reynolds, a nurse, and within three years they had two daughters, Janice and Loretta. Mr. Clarke dropped out of university and eventually landed his "first real job" as a cub reporter for the Timmins Daily Press and then in Kirkland Lake for the Northern Daily News; when he returned to the city he was hired as a reporter for The Globe and Mail.

Later, he worked as a broadcaster for the CBC, where he interviewed and/or crossed paths with an impressive range of black intellectuals, writers and artists, and some of the towering figures in the civil rights movement, including Amiri Baraka, Louis Farrakhan, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, Max Roach and Malcolm X, with whom he became friends.

It was during this period, even though "there was no black Canadian writer" to whom he could turn for inspiration, that Mr. Clarke decided to pursue fiction on a full-time basis. He quit his job and gave himself one year to make it as a writer.

"No black man, no immigrant in living memory, meaning no living immigrant in the second half of the century had ever expressed the thought, the experiment, of wanting to be a writer," he writes in 'Membering. "It must have been as startling to be heard, as it was for my wife when I announced to her that Friday afternoon that I was not going back to work, but would 'go on the dole' for one year; and after that year, in failure or success, I would return to work, and cease being a financial liability on the Canadian society. My life on welfare lasted six months, when to my astonishment, and to the shock of others, my first manuscript, The Survivors of the Crossing, was accepted by McClelland & Stewart."

The novel, about a workers' uprising on a Barbadian sugar plantation, was published in 1964; a second novel, the highly autobiographical Amongst Thistles and Thorns, about a nine-year-old boy, his washerwoman mother and the two men who may be his father, was released the following year; The Meeting Point, which kicked-off his acclaimed "Toronto Trilogy," exploring the myriad experiences of Caribbean immigrants, followed in 1967.

"Austin was not a natural fit," says Barry Callaghan, who first met Mr. Clarke in 1967 when he hired him to write for the Toronto Telegram, where Mr. Callaghan served as books editor, and later published five of Mr. Clarke's books through his own Exile Editions. "He was exotic. He was treated with a certain degree of respect, but also curiosity, because he was writing about subject matter that didn't exist in the canon. It wasn't small-town Ontario, it wasn't the Prairies and he wasn't trying to solve the great divide nationally – he was no Hugh MacLennan. He was like nobody, which was as it had to be and should be."

"There was a music in [his writing] that was so amazingly powerful," says his longtime editor and publisher, Patrick Crean, who began working with Mr. Clarke in the 1970s. "At his best, he could equal V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott."

Beginning in the late 1960s, Mr. Clarke spent several years in the United States, teaching at Yale, Brandeis, Williams College, Duke and the universities of Texas and Indiana, helping establish Black Studies programs at several of these schools. In 1974, he was named cultural attaché at the Barbadian embassy in Washington, and then, in 1975, returned to Barbados for a bumpy stint as general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation – his management style didn't go over well with his employees, leading to a hit song about him, Tom Say, as well as death threats Mr. Clarke took seriously enough to arm himself at work.

In 'Membering he wrote, "I would walk through the television studios, with the handle of my .38 visible, each time I thought I needed to remind staff who was boss, pulling back the tunic of my shirt jack suit to let them see that I was armed."

After he was fired, he returned to Canada and, in 1977, published The Prime Minister, a thinly-veiled novel about the experience. His long-time friend Roy McMurtry, who was then the Attorney-General and would one day became the province's chief justice, visited Barbados with Mr. Clarke after the novel was published.

"Certainly, from what I learned from my trip with him to Barbados – it was within the year of its publication – most people were able to identify themselves in this supposedly fictional novel," Mr. McMurtry laughs. "I remember one encounter in particular where the person was very friendly and polite to me, and wasn't overly pleased to see Austin. She said – and I used to kid Austin about this – 'It's so nice to meet your friend, the Attorney-General of Ontario, but as far as you're concerned, Tom, you can go straight to hell.' I remember simply saying to Austin, 'I assume she's in the book?'"

That same year, Mr. Clarke ran, unsuccessfully, as a Progressive Conservative candidate for the Ontario legislature. (This was not his first flirtation with politics; he mounted a short-lived campaign for mayor of Toronto in 1969.) Later, Mr. Clarke served on the Ontario Film Review Board and then on the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

His literary celebrity reached its height in 2002 with the publication of The Polished Hoe. Set on the fictional West Indian island of Bemshire, the novel is structured around a late-night conversation between Percy, a policeman, and Mary-Mathilda, whom he has known all his life, and who is being questioned about the murder of her employer and lover. Writing in The Globe and Mail, T.F. Rigelhof called it "both a prologue to all else that Mr. Clarke has written and its great summing-up. It ought to be both widely read and deeply remembered."

It was. The novel won the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, which earned him a private meeting with the Queen, which his agent, Denise Bukowski, calls "the highlight of his life." Around this time she had dinner with Mr. Clarke at a trendy Toronto restaurant, where she handed him his first royalty cheque since winning the Giller Prize. "He was so excited that he went around showing the cheque to everyone in the restaurant," she says.

"I think with the Giller he finally got his due," Patrick Crean says. "That just busted everything open."

In total, Mr. Clarke published 11 novels, six collections of short fiction, three memoirs, two poetry collections and an autobiographical cookbook, Pig Tails 'n' Breadfruit. He was a founding member of the Writers' Union of Canada. He was a three-time finalist for the Governor-General's Literary Award, won the City of Toronto Book Award for his final novel, More, and received both the W.O. Mitchell Prize and the Harbourfront Festival Prize for lifetime achievement. He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1998.

"People often talk about people as being singular, and it's often misused, but I would say that Austin was indeed singular," says his long-time friend, Rinaldo Walcott, a professor at the University of Toronto. "The depth and breadth of his work, across multiple genres – novels, short stories, poetry, journalism, essays – really speaks to someone who is singular."

"He was the very first non-white writer to establish himself in the [Canadian] literary sphere," Ms. Bukowski says. "And he deserves tremendous accolades for that."

Mr. Clarke leaves his ex-wife, Betty; his daughters, Janice, Loretta, Jordan and Darcy Ballantyne; his son, Michael; and five siblings, Dennis Luke (goes by Mphahlele Lukeman), Clifton Luke, John Luke, Robin Luke and Margaret (Anna) Smith.

A public funeral is planned for St. James Cathedral on July 8 at 11 a.m.

"I see him as a trailblazer," says Prof. Walcott, who will deliver the eulogy. "In his passing, I hope that people begin to understand and to see and maybe even appreciate the deep intellectual contribution that he has made. That we can begin to recognize in this country that black life is not singular, is not just lived for black people, but that it is something that deeply enriches this place."