Caribbean Beat Magazine

Austin Clarke: “I was a necessary nuisance”

Barbados-born novelist Austin Clarke on the vicissitudes of sudden literary celebrity; as told to Vaneisa Baksh

  • Austin Clarke. Photograph courtesy Ian Randle Publishers Ltd.

The prize has made my life more hectic than I like. It has opened vistas that I never thought could be associated with writing. I am seeing an aspect of life in Toronto that is at a much different level for writers. I do not like the constant demand on my time, keynote speeches to organisations that have nothing to do with literature, invitations from book clubs, instant recognition on the street — which is nice.

Most important of all is the wonderful way that West Indians and other blacks who live here have taken the award as their award. It puts them in a better light, and so far as the rest of the community is concerned, gives them confidence. That was something I did not pay attention to, the tremendous effect the award could have.

Just before the [Giller] prize was awarded on November 5 — Guy Fawkes Day, a tremendous augury — just out of curiosity, I started twisting my hair, and it remained that way. And people were saying, here is someone who is important, who has decided to be rasta — not that I am — and I notice that some women have begun to twist their hair, and some men are regretting that they do not have hair to twist. I say, wear a wig.

You know how in a cartoon the character has his hair electrified? There was a review, and they used the leading cartoonist, and he drew my hair like flashes of lightning. Part of winning the prize is that your face is reproduced on the book bags of one of the leading bookstores in Toronto, and my face is on these book bags. In London, Ontario, this Canadian man asked me: when did lightning strike your hair?

I had started revising a novel I had begun writing in 1996, which I had never got right. I began working on it around September [2002], and it took me a long time to write the first sentence, and then I wrote the next sentence, and then I was short-listed for the Giller on October 3. And then the reviews started, and I was not able to go back to those sentences until June. Now it is going pretty well.

Then I will begin on the memoir. The memoir, of course, will demand more concentration. I didn’t want to write a chronological thing. I wanted it to have a point. I have found a name. “Membering” — the loss of limbs — it suggests a certain discomfiture related to society, and goes back to a certain kind of incapacity with the language — a child sometimes has difficulty with the word. Belonging.

In the early 60s when I started, which corresponds with civil rights, there was the contention that if you were relevant, and if you were cool, you had to have in your title, as in your sensibilities, a certain blackness. So you were a “black” writer — then it occurred to us who were writing that it meant a certain way of looking at our work, which suggested something inferior. But we insisted on our identity, because white Canadians were not writing about it.

I noticed that the idea of acceptance was reproduced in the way I was addressed. This is very important. As I gradually became a nuisance on the landscape, meaning that my books were published, they realised I was not going to go away. I suppose I was partly to blame for this, because I had always insisted that I was black.

I was accepted as a necessary nuisance. I was not going to go away. I never planned that as a writer. I just wanted my work as a writer to be taken seriously. You are taken seriously only after you have become a celebrity.

I was regarded as an immigrant. I had lived here for 47 years. How many years did I have to live here to be considered a Canadian?

Nowadays, I am Canadian because I contributed. I had conceded the point of nationality before the Giller, and felt I had spent so much time here that it is no longer a point of significance.

I am Canadian, but I am also Barbadian.

You have a certain image of the immigrant, but when the immigrant beats you at your game, you have to claim him. The Giller Prize showed me how cut-throat and nasty it is. It means a lot. It means that your book in Canadian terms sells 60,000 that year. The comments made about literature written by black people are identical to the comments made about race. I got the feeling quite early that there was a certain displeasure that I was short-listed, and this was reflected in some of the comments made before the Giller was announced. On radio talk-shows. Childish games, in which two or three of them said the book was unreadable, and it turned out that they had not even read the book.

It is identical to dismissing the value of a person before you have met them. I felt they were coming very close to being racist, and saying that I had won the prize because I was black, and that disgusted me. I heard recently that there was a rumour that the book had been shown to all the publishers and was rejected, and it was the editor who rewrote the book and made it presentable. That gives you an example of how vicious the thing is.

I am not alarmed because in the past I have dealt with it. I have doubted my ability to write, but I always felt my writing had to be separate from my personality. My writing could have continued to be disregarded, but it would not have affected me.

I would say still that this country, certainly this city, is still the best and last remaining place for a black man to have some peace of mind. I think this is largely due to the contribution made by West Indians to multiculturalism. West Indians have always lived with multiculturalism, we have learned to get along with people. The quiet sense of knowledge that you can achieve is something that West Indians have. We have changed the society of Toronto for the better.