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.