Sunday’s unwanted news of the death of Barbadian literary icon Austin “Tom” Clarke led me back to my small, but cherished bookshelf. There on the third shelf, in the company of George Lamming’s In The Castle Of My Skin, Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell and The Wine Of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace, is my copy of the awarding-winning The Polished Hoe.
I confess I have done nothing more than admire the cover and browse through its pages, but on this occasion I was in search of details of the world-renowned author who left his native Barbados about two
decades before I was born.
It simply read: “Austin Clarke is a professor of literature and has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Williams, Duke, and the Universities of Texas and Indiana. He assisted in setting up a black studies programme at Yale in 1968, after which he became the cultural attaché of the Embassy of Barbados in Washington, DC. He lives in Toronto, Canada.”
I was disappointed. For me, it failed to capture the man Canada claims, but Barbados owns. A clearer picture emerged as tributes flowed from far and wide.
I listened intently while celebrated novelist George Lamming described Clarke as “a very fine writer”, and as acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill labelled him the “grandfather of black Canadian literature”. Others said he was a pioneer and giant of West Indies literature who had left behind a tremendous legacy.
Yet, Austin “Tom” Clarke is hardly a household name in Barbados, though his 11 novels, six short-story collections, four memoirs and two-poetry collections
Born in 1939, Clarke, a student of Combermere and Harrison College, migrated to Canada in 1955. Clarke, as teacher, journalist and broadcaster, became the first black writer in Canada to become internationally renowned.
There is no doubt he is a Bajan gem with an intriguing story, and I got a glimpse from three outstanding Barbadian women who have reproduced some of Clarke’s most revered works.
Award-winning Barbadian actress Alison Sealy-Smith, who shared Canada with the inimitable Clarke, lit up as she reflected on their warm friendship.
“He is one of the giants . . . his common touch, his ability to build fascinating characters, his ability to see beneath the surface of things, his ability to lance the boil, to let the blood seep to the surface, the fact that he was not afraid to expose things that some of us may not always want exposed.
I think that was his hallmark.
“A great writer can be seen in his use of language which, of course, Austin “Tom” Clarke had. It can be in his choice of themes which, of course, Austin Tom Clarke had. But I think when you are not afraid to expose, that’s it. I like him a lot because he was a rebel.”
The two Barbadians connected when Smith, the founding director of the Obsidian Theatre, a company that specializes in black Canadian drama, was blown away by The Polished Hoe, the confession of Mary Mathilda, a slave who confesses to a murder, which won the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, Trillium Prize and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize that gained him a private audience with the Queen.
“I read this book and I went, ‘Loss, this is theatre, this a film, this is an epic film!’.”
Sealy-Smith anxiously went in search of the author, who she said was regarded in Toronto as a “leading luminary” and a “colossus”.
“When I start asking around, I was told ‘good luck’,” she chuckled.
“Somebody told me the best way to get Austin “Tom” Clarke to agree to a few things is a few martinis. So after one afternoon in a bar, $450 later, and a headache in the morning, we had the rights.”
Not only did Sealy-Smith’s theatre secure the coveted prize but the multitalented actress played the part of Mary Mathilda with Clarke’s full blessings.
“Said Clarke, ‘You are Mary Mathilda. I trust you and your work’,” Sealy-Smith remembered.
With a bright smile, as she journeyed down memory lane, she shared that Clarke was a dream to work with, attending rehearsals as many as three days a week.
“He was generous, he was giving. He told us whenever he thought that we were off, but mostly he left us completely alone.”
She particularly enjoyed his quiet but stern rebukes.
“He would call me up and say, ‘Come, I told you not one time, not two times, I think it must be the fourth time I am telling you. It is trildren, please respect what I wrote: trildren.”
Shortly after, these chastisements were forgotten, and Sealy-Smith and her colleagues would often retire to his home for a favourite pastime –– a drink of red wine.
“He had a huge wine collection of some of the best red wines. He loved his red wine and he would just bring out bottle after bottle.”
Clarke was also adept in the kitchen. Sealy-Smith testified that the first time she tasted pudding and souse in Toronto, it was from hands of the renowned author.
“I was living in the city for ages, and all I could find was jerk chicken, jerk pork. I could find festival dumpling, and I can’t find nothing Bajan.
“And one day, he said, ‘Sealy-Smith, you are going to like this. Look what I got’. He opened up his Styrofoam container, and I nearly fall down. I said, ‘Austin, where you get this from?’. He said, ‘Shush, trade secrets. Eat it, don’t ask questions’.”
Sealy-Smith says she will miss the genius Tom Clarke, but cherishes her successful production of The Polished Hoe and playing Mary Mathilda.
“It was really cool to be a part of that . . . . It was when I managed to bring my Canadian self and my Barbadian self together; it was really satisfying.”
Another Austin Clarke hit was his 1980 book Growing Up Stupid Under The Union Jack, a memoir detailing his life as a young boy in the 1940s with his single mother who struggled to provide him with the best education. The story tells the challenges of daily life in a society based on colour and class prejudice, and a rigid set of customs and rules imported from England and imposed on Caribbean society.
Cultural icon, dramatist and author Dr Cynthia Wilson, a former manager of Stage One Theatre Productions, produced the dramatization of the book, her favourite of all his novels.
“It’s my favourite story. I too was growing up at that time in a situation where I was equally stupid. It was a landscape where if you were white, you were right; if you were brown, stick around; if you were black, stay back.
“When you went to school, you were not supposed to have an opinion. The teacher handed down the law and you obeyed, or you got punished.”
Wilson’s friendship with Austin did not begin onstage, but as early as in school days. When she visited Harrison College for lessons, she often saw “Tom”, the athlete, who excelled at long-distance races: the 400 and 800 metres.
Wilson, who owns every book penned by Clarke, says “he was brilliant, he was somebody who never lost the taste, smell, feel and sound of Barbados”.
Like Sealy-Smith, she loved his wit, his laughter; and thoroughly enjoyed working with Clarke on the production, saying “he was very easy; anything you needed, Tom would say yes”.
She however expressed regret he was not fully recognized by his homeland, but has urged Barbadians to celebrate his memory by buying his books.
“I will remember him laughing. I think he should be remembered for the way he loved Barbados and the way he was steeped in Barbados. He is a great loss.”
While Sealy-Smith and Wilson both worked with the iconic Clarke, producer and director Amanda Cumberbatch did not enjoy the privilege.
But that did not stop her from producing the Gap Theatre’s inaugural hit play Alleluia, Pork Chops, which condenses the two stories Alleluia Morning by John Wickham and Austin Clarke’s short story Killing A Pig To Make Pork Chops With Onions And Sweet Peppers, from his book Pig Tails And Breadfruit.
“When we first read this story before I even translated it into script, I remember every body giggling and laughing and remarking about how quintessentially Barbadian the writing was. Austin Clarke told of Gertrude, a woman in the village who goes around collecting orders for the pork . . . for pudding and souse on Saturdays; who she chooses to offer pudding to and who she didn’t choose to offer it to.
“We were fascinated by Gertrude. We were also fascinated by the neighbourhood butcher. What a dangerous mysterious figure he cut in Austin Clarke’s world!”
Cumberbatch, who admitted she had never read much of Austin Clarke, though a student of literature, was converted to a big fan by the culinary memoir, which she says should be in classrooms across the island.
“His work speaks of Barbadian life that is so close to home. You read it and it lifts off the page. You know people like this; you even live in this village.
“I live in that village. I have really been missing something all my life, even as a student of literature, not having read Tom Clarke.”