Leaving This Island Place

by Austin Clarke

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Style and Technique

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The anonymity of the narrator suggests that this story is representative of the experience of many young West Indians. The characters fit neatly into two groups: the young, who will either stay in Barbados and try to assume positions of power or emigrate and achieve self-satisfaction, and the old, who are adjusted to the limitations and oppressions or perquisites of island life. Together, they suggest that there is no viable middle way. Some readers may find the constant repetition of “I am leaving” too repetitive (it occurs seventeen times, and there are five additional variations of the same idea); however, it clearly is intended to convey the narrator’s obsession with departure. It becomes a leitmotif.

There are several vivid expressions that suggest Clarke’s skill at both characterization and description, for example, “the smell of stale urine and of sweat and faeces whipped me in the face,” and “The two large eyeballs in the sunset of this room are my father.” The inclusion of snippets of the godmother’s conversation throughout the story indicates that her remarks, unsettling rather than comforting, are a constant irritant. Most of the dialogue is void of the idiosyncracies of Barbadian dialect; as a result, the story becomes more than a single-island story and can be seen as a metaphor for all islands or small, isolated communities.

Historical Context

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This story takes place in Barbados, an island nation in the Caribbean. As Clarke is originally from Barbados, many of his stories either take place there or are about immigrants from Barbados to the U.S. and Canada. Ninety percent of the population of Barbados is made up of people of African descent. The official language is English, but Bajan, a dialect of English, is also spoken. The capital of Barbados is Bridgetown. Barbados was colonized by the British from 1627, when they first established a settlement there, to 1966, when the island achieved national independence. In the seventeenth century, sugar plantations became the primary basis of the economy of Barbados. Africans were forcibly brought to Barbados to work as slaves on these sugar plantations. A slave rebellion was waged in 1816, but slavery was not abolished in the area until 1834. Nevertheless, Barbadians of African descent continued to be employed primarily on sugar plantations and continued to occupy the least privileged socioeconomic strata. Labor disturbances in the 1930s, however, led to various reforms in the 1940s, which made it possible for black political organizers in the region to gain power and influence. Barbados achieved complete internal self-rule in 1961, and national independence in 1966, although it remained part of the British Commonwealth. Throughout the 1980s, the political system of Barbados was considered one of the most stable in the English-speaking Caribbean.

West Indies
The island nation of Barbados is part of the West Indies. The West Indies are made up of twenty-three island nations occupying the Caribbean Ocean in the region between Florida and South America. The history of the West Indies is characterized by the colonization of British, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Danish, who fought back and forth over territories in the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus the culture and language of the nations of the modern West Indies generally coincide with the culture of the nation by which it was colonized. The history of forcing enslaved Africans to work on the sugar plantations, however, characterizes the entire region. Many nations of the modern West Indies have organized around common economic interests through the formation of the Caribbean Community and Common Market, formed in 1973.

The sport of cricket is important...

(This entire section contains 638 words.)

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to the narrator's central concerns throughout the story. His father had been the captain of his village cricket team, and the narrator himself has become a cricket star in his own right. For the narrator, cricket represents his status as a social climber, for it is in the community of his wealthy, educated friends that cricket has become central to his identity. A game of cricket requires eleven members on each team, and is played with a bat and ball; each team is in a position to either "bat" or "bowl," and then switches between innings. The game of cricket began in the 1840s in New Zealand, but is derived from a game played by rural boys as far back as the thirteenth century. The formalization of cricket as an organized sport may in part be indicated by the founding of the New Zealand Cricket Council in 1894. In the West Indies, cricket was introduced in the early nineteenth century. Barbados was the first West Indian nation to participate in an inter-colonial match, in 1891, with what is now Guyana. An organized board for regulating cricket matches between islands of the West Indies, and with nations outside of the West Indies, was founded in 1927. In 1926, the West Indies joined the Imperial Cricket Conference, which was renamed the International Cricket Conference in 1965 and then the International Cricket Council in 1989. The first World Cup cricket competition was held in 1975. During the 1980s, the West Indies were a dominant force in international cricket competition. Although women played cricket beginning in the eighteenth century, the International Women's Cricket Council was not founded until 1958.

Literary Style

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This story is set in Clarke's native home of Barbados, the ‘‘island place’’ referred to in the story's title. Like the narrator and protagonist of his story, Clarke left Barbados as a young man in order to attend college in Canada. Thus, many of Clarke's stories are about immigrants who leave Barbados for North America. ‘‘This island place,’’ in the story, represents not just home but the narrator's entire familial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic roots. Thus, ‘‘leaving this island place’’ represents for the narrator the sense that he is abandoning his cultural roots in pursuit of socioeconomic success in the white-dominated Western world.

Point of View
This story is narrated from the first-person point of view. This means that the narrator is a character in the story, and that the reader is given only information, thoughts, or ideas available to that character. In this story, the narrator is not named, but is the protagonist of the story. First-person narration is important to this story because it concerns the narrator's inner conflicts as he prepares to leave his native island of Barbados to attend college in Canada. The reader is presented with the narrator's thoughts about his family and his socioeconomic standing. The first-person narration also presents impressions and descriptions of the protagonist as reflections of his own inner anxieties; for instance, when he is visiting his dying father, many of the people and objects he sees around him are described in terms which refer to death.

Clarke is celebrated among critics for his skillful rendering of the rhythms of speech of his Barbadian characters. Anthony Boxill, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, makes note of his "unerringly sharp ear for Barbadian speech patterns and rhythms’’ which contribute ‘‘much to the richness of his characterization.’’ An example of this is the speech of Miss Brewster, who shows the narrator to the room in the almshouse where his father is dying:

That man having fits and convulsions by the hour! Every day he asking for you. All the time, day in and day out. And you is such a poor-great, high-school educated bastard that you now acting too proud to come in here, because it is a almshouse and not a private ward, to see your own father! And you didn't even have the presence o' mind to bring along a orange, not even one, or a banana for that man, your father!

This story makes use of repetition as a central narrative device. The title of the story, "Leaving This Island Place," is echoed throughout the narrative. The narrator repeats phrases such as: ‘‘But I am leaving"; "I am leaving"; "I am leaving this place"; ‘‘I know I am leaving this island"; ‘‘I am leaving this island place"; ‘‘I am going to leave"; ‘‘I was leaving’’; and ‘‘I am leaving the island.’’ This serves in part to emphasize the theme of leaving as central to the story. In addition, the very fact of the excessive repetition of this phrase by the narrator implies that he is struggling with the fact that he is "leaving" and with its significance to his life. The phrase also takes on different implications at different points in the story. In some instances, the narrator reminds himself that "I am leaving" as a means of justification for the fact that he is abandoning his dying father. At other points, the narrator reminds himself that"I am leaving" as an expression of his desire to escape his family and his uncomfortable social standing in Barbados. At other points, it is an expression of anxiety at the prospect of leaving his home, his family, and his girlfriend.

Literary Heritage
Clarke can be categorized according to two distinct literary heritages: he is both a Caribbean writer and a Canadian writer.

As a native of Barbados, which is part of the Caribbean, Clarke is grouped within this larger regional literary tradition. Because the Caribbean was colonized by Spain, France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, the literature which has emerged from the island nations occupying it has been written in several different languages, corresponding to the language of the nation by which each island was colonized. Because the Spanish, who originally colonized the area, completely destroyed the people and culture native to the region, there is no record of the oral traditions which would have characterized the pre-Columbian era of Caribbean history. It was not until the 1920s that writers of the French- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean began to formulate a distinct literature emerging from black West Indian culture (rather than from European culture). The English-speaking Caribbean, which includes Barbados, did not develop along these lines until 1945. Early writers of the new tradition include George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, and Louise Bennett.

Canadian literature has developed along two distinct lines: anglophone (written in English) and Francophone (written in French). Clarke is part of Canada's anglophone literary heritage. Clarke's story ‘‘Leaving This Island Place’’ has been collected in the anthology of Canadian literature entitled Ink Lake, edited by Michael Ondaatje.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Boxill, Anthony, ‘‘Austin C. Clarke,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53: Canadian Writers since 1960, Bruccoli Clark, Gale, 1986, pp. 124-29.

Further Reading
Clark, Austin C., Amongst Thistles and Thorns, Heinemann, 1965; McClelland & Stewart, 1965. Amongst Thistles and Thorns tells the story of a young boy growing up in Barbados.

----, The Bigger Light, Little, Brown, 1975. The Bigger Light is the last of Clark's "trilogy" following the fortunes of characters introduced in The Survivors of the Crossing and Storm of Fortune.

----, The Meeting Point, Heinemann, 1967; McClelland & Stewart, 1967. The Survivors of the Crossing is the first in Clark's so-called "trilogy" of works exploring the unique problems of West Indian immigrants.

----, Storm of Fortune, Little, Brown, 1973. Storm of Fortune is the second of Clark's ‘‘trilogy’’, following the fortunes of characters introduced in The Meeting Point.


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