Austin Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Austin C. Clarke 1934–-

(Full name Austin Chesterfield Clarke) West Indian-born Canadian short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

Austin C. Clarke is hailed as a pioneer of Caribbean-Canadian literature and is one of Canada's most prolific, if not well known, writers. Recognized principally for novels and memoirs, Clarke has also published five books of short story compilations, each focusing on the struggles of West Indian immigrants living in Canada. Like his other writing, Clarke's short stories are fueled by his experience of cultural alienation as a West Indian and his analysis of how racism and colonialism impact the daily lives of Caribbean immigrants. Clarke's frequently anthologized short stories are populated by portraits of complex individuals navigating the difficult terrain of cultural adjustment and assimilation. Although Clarke is noted as an exemplary voice of post-colonial Commonwealth literature—often compared to V. S. Naipaul—he has only recently begun to achieve international critical acclaim.

Biographical Information

Born in Barbados in 1934, Clarke was educated at Harrison College and became a schoolteacher before moving to Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. Beginning in 1959, Clarke worked as a freelance broadcaster for the CBC, for which he recorded a series of interviews and documentaries on racial issues in North America and Britain. This began a prolific period in Clarke's career, during which he wrote several short stories and the novels Survivors of the Crossing (1964), Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965), and The Meeting Point (1967); followed by the novel Storm of Fortune (1973) and a collection of short stories entitled When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1973). In the mid-1980s Clarke published two collections of short stories When Women Rule (1985) and Nine Men Who Laughed (1986), as well as the novel Proud Empires (1986). Returning in the early 1990s to the short story form, Clarke published the collections In This City (1992) and There Are No Elders (1993). In 1992, in response to a riot, Clarke produced Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth, a pamphlet. Also in the 1990s, Clarke wrote A Passage Back Home (1994), a memoir of his friendship with the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, and Pig tails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food (1999), a “food memoir” that combines recipes with memories of Clarke's formative years in Barbados. Clarke's 1997 novel The Origin of Waves won him the inaugural Rogers Communications Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 1998. Clarke's memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), won the 1980 Casa de las Americas Prize for Literature. Over the course of his career, Clarke has held many political, professional, and academic positions, including: Cultural Attacheé to the Barbadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; General Manager of The Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados; and visiting lecturer in creative writing and African American literature at Yale, Brandeis, Duke, the University of Texas, and the University of Western Ontario.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Themes of urban alienation, isolation, and ancestry unite Clarke's five short story collections, which span from 1964 to 1993. In his fiction, Clarke uses what critics call a Caribbean aesthetic: a combination of dialect, standard English, exaggerated characterization, inner dialogue, and omniscient perspective; all of which reveal the struggle of West Indian immigrants living in Toronto. This writing style often reflects Clarke's own position as an insider/outsider, which he details in the introduction of Nine Men Who Laughed, a work interested in questions of authority and voice. Clarke's stories often incorporate different forms of prose, such as letters, to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters whose psychology forms the basis of Clarke's inquiry. The inner lives of these characters, shaped by an internalized racism, identity crises, and intense isolation, are further agitated by the alienating city in which they now live. Clarke refuses to present a nostalgic vision of Barbados, however, and often parallels the uneasy social systems of both places, thus further complicating the comforting notion of a homeland.

In his short stories, Clarke chronicles individual struggles. He details relationships, work, marriage, self-image, and other intimate concerns of daily life amidst the social, political, and cultural backdrop of colonialism. Drawing from his close relationship with an immigrant community, Clarke is able to employ a double lens approach in his writing: zooming in on everyday life while also taking a wide-angle view at the discrimination immigrants face in Canada, being defined as both “immigrants” and as “blacks.” Influenced by Franz Fanon's study examining the impact of colonialism on “the oppressed” and “the oppressor” along with his own experiences of colonial education, Clarke's characters struggle with self-hatred and estrangement; hence Clarke refuses to blame individuals for their plights, although their desperate attempts to take control of their own lives are often tragic. Death, decay, and isolation characterize the story “The Collector.” Violence characterizes the unhappy institution of marriage in “A Slow Death,” “The Smell,” and “The Man,” where men struggle to assert authority. Clarke links this violence to the pain of self-hatred and self-denial. In “Griff,” for example, one of Clarke's best known short stories (published in both When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks and When Women Rule), a Barbadian man desperately tries to gain acceptance and confidence by denying he is black, and later strangles his adulterous wife. Other characters become invisible to avoid racial conflicts, such as the West Indian domestic worker in “I'm Running for My Life” (In This City); some direct violence at themselves or at children, as a simulacrum of the brutality they face in relation to white society, like the incestuous father in “The Smell,” or the unemployed bank clerk driven to suicide in “Canadian Experience” (Nine Men Who Laughed). Clarke does not simplify racism or colonization, instead he presents a complex social scene where blacks are also racist—as in “Hammie and the Black Dean”—or cruel and superficial—“A Man” and “How He Does It” (Nine Men Who Laughed). Clarke's skilled prose style reflects the double-life of his characters—mirroring his own—which forces them to straddle two cultures and speak two languages. Yet Clarke's prose also articulates a common humanity and envisions a society where people of all races can be “free and young.”

Critical Reception

Clarke's short fiction receives varied reviews from major publications and scholars alike. Generally, his earlier work—When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks and When Women Rule—is praised for its vibrant characters, while his later works—Nine Men Who Laughed and In This City—are faulted for their hardened characters and bleak vision. Clarke is often criticized for letting his political agenda interfere with the narrative of his later works, thereby alienating the reader. Many scholars, however, emphasize that while these stories present a world rife with despair, they are ultimately underpinned by an idealized vision of a more equitable society. Clarke's earlier collections, such as When Women Rule, are sometimes criticized for their one-dimensional depictions of monstrous women. Yet in later works, such as In This City, Clarke included more complex female characters. Clarke's later short fiction, particularly Nine Men Who Laughed, is examined for its importance as post-colonial narrative. Post-structuralist critics observe, among other themes, the construction of masculinity in Clarke's short fiction, especially in the narrative of Nine Men Who Laughed. Clarke has yet to achieve wide-spread critical acclaim and popularity; however, the publication of Stella Algoo-Baksh's Austin C. Clarke: A Biography (1996) focuses closely on his first two story collections and signifies a renewed interest in Clarke's life and work.