Austin Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks 1973

When Women Rule 1985

Nine Men Who Laughed 1986

In This City 1992

There Are No Elders 1993

Survivors of the Crossing (novel) 1964

Amongst Thistles and Thorns (novel) 1965

*The Meeting Point (novel) 1967

*Storm of Fortune (novel) 1973

*The Bigger Light (novel) 1975

The Prime Minister (novel) 1977

Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack: A Memoir (memoir) 1980

Proud Empires (novel) 1986

Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth [as Ali Kamal Al Kadir Sudan] (pamphlet) 1993

A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon (memoir) 1994

The Origin of Waves (novel) 1997

Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food/A Culinary Memoir (memoir) 1999

*These works make up “The Toronto Trilogy.”


Frank Ryan (review date 1974)

SOURCE: A review of When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, in Best Seller, Vol. 33, No. 19, January 1, 1974, p. 434–35.

[In the following review, Ryan praises Clarke's skillful use of memory as a source of inspiration for the characters in When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks.]

That the black man from Barbados (and the West Indies in general) encounters unique problems when he enters Canadian and American cultures is made clear in [When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks] this collection of eleven stories. He remembers the beauty of Barbados, its white sand, warm sun, family life, leisurely pace, and...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Keith Garebian (review date 1985)

SOURCE: Review of When Women Rule, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 51, No. 7, July, 1985, p. 59.

[In the following review, Garebian evaluates Clarke's depiction of racism and its brutal impact on the West Indian immigrant characters in When Women Rule.]

The title of [When Women Rule] is slightly misleading in that it suggests a gender imperialism as its major theme. Although women do dominate psychologically and physically several of the male protagonists, Austin Clarke's true themes are indignity and embarrassment, caused by racial and economic conditions rather than gender distinctions.

The eight stories deal with the passions of West Indian...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Neil Bissoondath (review date 1985)

SOURCE: “Flaws in the Mosaic,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 14, No. 6, August/September, 1985, p. 21.

[In the review below, Bissoondath praises Clarke's skillful depiction of the complex relationship between West Immigrants and Canadian society in When Women Rule.]

In an interview in a recent issue of Magazine Littéraire, the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo says of exiles: “There are people who remain mentally or effectively attached to their country of origin; they camp. There are others, on the other hand, who adapt, change language, become French or American. There is a third category, to which I undoubtedly belong. While growing distant from my country of...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Diana Brydon (review date 1986)

SOURCE: “Cultural Alternatives?” in Canadian Literature, No. 108, Spring, 1986, pp. 160–62.

[In the review below, Brydon describes Clarke's short story collection When Women Rule as misogynist, and suggests that Clarke loses control of his material.]

Meredith Carey's critical study Different Drummers: A Study of Cultural Alternatives in Fiction purports to examine the cultural alternatives offered the reader by fiction devoted to the lives of people “who don't fit in.” Her system would probably classify the short story collections by Trinidadian-born Bissoondath and Barbadian-born Clarke, both Canadian residents who write of dislocated...

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Lloyd Brown (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Inside the Mosaic,” in El Dorado and Paradise: Canada and the Caribbean in Austin Clarke's Fiction, University of Western Ontario Press, 1989, pp. 85–105.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the relationship between Canadian fiction and Caribbean nationalism in Clarke's writing.]

In the Clarke short story, “Doing Right,” a street fight between a black and an Asiatic Indian inspires some sly jesting at the expense of Canadian multiculturalism: “… multiculturalism gone out the window now … I remember how one minister up in Ottawa say different cultures make up this great unified country of ours. I remember it word for word. All that lick up...

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Lloyd Brown (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Adam and Eve,” in El Dorado and Paradise: Canada and the Caribbean in Austin Clarke's Fiction, University of Western Ontario Press, 1989, pp. 131–51.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the roles of Clarke's men and women in his fiction.]

There is a certain familiarity about the image of May Thorne at the conclusion of Proud Empires—a matronly Eve in the middle of a decayed plantation Eden. The image actually confirms John Moore's speculations, in The Prime Minister, about the basis of political power in the Caribbean. Women, Moore muses, know that they exercise ultimate power through their sexuality: “Of that forbidden tree...

(The entire section is 4371 words.)

Lloyd Brown (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “A Sense of Style,” in El Dorado and Paradise: Canada and the Caribbean in Austin Clarke's Fiction, University of Western Ontario Press, 1989, pp. 152–85.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Clarke's conception of style and spiritual power.]

Clarke's mastery of the Barbadian dialect as a narrative form has always been one of his most obvious strengths as a writer, and this talent has become a somewhat tired commonplace in popular reviews of his work. In fact, Clarke's facility with his dialect forms is rooted in a strong self-consciousness about language and style, one that encompasses standard English as well as the Barbadian form of...

(The entire section is 3876 words.)

Lloyd Brown (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Myth as Affirmation,” in El Dorado and Paradise: Canada and the Caribbean in Austin Clarke's Fiction, University of Western Ontario Press, 1989, pp. 186–91.

[In the following essay, Brown delineates Clarke's transformation of New World myths, and claims that Clarke's work is part of the New World literary tradition.]

As satire, Clarke's fiction is a sustained attack on moral and social failures in both Canada and the Caribbean. But his satiric contempt for individual and collective corruption does not wholly define his work. It coexists with an affirmative idealism which is reflected in the typical ebullience of his style and characterization, and which...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

Victor J. Ramraj (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Temporizing Laughter: The Later Stories of Austin Clarke,” in Fac. Des Lettres & Sciences Humaines, 1989, pp. 127–31.

[In the following essay, Ramraj examines Clarke's harsh depiction of the abuses West Indian immigrants often face, and concludes that Clarke's militancy intrudes upon otherwise skillfully written and conceived stories.]

Austin Clarke's early stories about West Indian immigrants in Toronto are uncompromisingly blunt depictions of their harsh experiences. These stories are informed by a passionate authorial anger that Clarke makes no effort to control or keep out of his work. Clarke is now perhaps the harshest, bluntest, angriest, most...

(The entire section is 2572 words.)

Stella Algoo-Baksh (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Austin C. Clarke: A Biography, University of the West Indies Press, 1994, pp. 108–15, 158–63.

[In the following essay, Algoo-Baksh discusses the autobiographical elements in When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks and When Women Rule.]

Of the total of sixteen stories in the Canadian and American edition of When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, two are set in Barbados, ten in Canada, and four in the United States,1 and as a group they run the gamut of the types of crises, dilemmas, and trials Clarke has himself faced, seeming in many cases to be vehicles that allow him to make sense of the complexities of...

(The entire section is 5148 words.)

Glenn Sumi (review date 1994)

SOURCE: Review of There Are No Elders, in Books in Canada, Vol. 23, Summer, 1994, p. 51.

[In the following review, Sumi is critical of Clarke's There Are No Elders for its heavy-handed prose and morose themes.]

With its title and epigraph taken from Derek Walcott (“There are no more elders / Is only old people”), Austin Clarke's There Are No Elders promises insights into deep social problems. In particular, one expects it to address the much-discussed lack of role models—or “elder statesmen,” as it were—in many urban communities.

What we get instead is a poorly edited book of stories, each with a theme lifted (it might...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Smaro Kamboureli (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Signifying Contamination: On Austin Clarke's Nine Men Who Laughed,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, Vol. 57, Winter, 1995, pp. 212–34.

[In the following essay, Kamboureli focuses on Clarke's self-reflexive introduction to Nine Men Who Laughed as a tool for understanding Clarke's relationship to postcolonial discourse.]

For a writer to “wrestle with his shadow,” he must be certain of casting one. …

—Françoise Lionnet (322)


It has become almost typical for writers of postcolonial and multicultural critical discourses to begin by...

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George Elliott Clarke (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Clarke vs. Clarke: Tory Elitism in Austin Clarke's Short Fiction,” in West Coast Lines, Vol. 22, Spring/Summer, 1997, pp. 110–28.

[In the essay below, Clarke analyzes the representation of class in Austin C. Clarke's short stories and argues that Clarke ironically upholds bourgeois Canadian nationalism despite his critical stance towards it in his non-fiction writing.]

Perusing Austin Chesterfield Clarke's short stories, one catches, at times, the distinctive odour of the late British writer Ian Fleming's sorry James Bond spy adventures. Certainly, both authors stud their pages with references to pricey autos and shapely women. (Or should that be shapely...

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Dan Coleman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Playin' ‘mas,’ Hustling Respect: Multicultural Masculinities in Two Stories by Austin Clarke,” in Masculine Migrations: Reading the Postcolonial Male in ‘New Canadian’ Narratives, University of Toronto Press, 1998, pp. 29–51.

[In the following essay, Coleman uses Judith Butler's theory of gender performance to understand the use of masculinity as an assertion of cultural resistance in Clarke's short stories, “A Man” and “How He Does It.”]

Austin Clarke has published fifteen volumes of fiction and autobiography since 1964, making him one of the most prolific writers living in Canada today. Yet, despite the Barbadian-born writer's...

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Further Reading


Baugh, Edward. “Friday in Crusoe's City: The Question of Language in the West Indian Novel of Exile.” ACLALS Bulletin 5 (1980): 1–12.

Addresses the role of language in West Indian novels.

Birbalsingh, Frank. “Austin Clarke: Caribbean-Canadians.” Frontiers of Caribbean Literatures in English Frontiers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 86–105.

Traces Clarke's Caribbean and Canadian roots and influences.

Darthorne, O. R. The Literature of the Black Man in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Discusses Caribbean...

(The entire section is 230 words.)