Late last autumn, Austin Clarke accepted Canada's top literary award, the Giller Prize, for his novel The Polished Hoe. The ceremony was held at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Toronto. When Clarke stepped up to the podium, he did three things the elite literary audience was not expecting. He teased them by poking about the numerous pockets of his tuxedo jacket, looking for supposedly misplaced notes. Next he delivered a wordy, enthusiastic speech, the first such speech Giller audiences have been treated to in the eight-year history of the prize. Finally, Clarke behaved as though the judges, in awarding him the Giller, had made a perfectly sensible decision.
Toronto's literary tastemakers were flustered. It is true that Clarke, who arrived in Canada from Barbados in 1955, had been churning out novels for decades. It is also true that his name regularly cropped up on lists of major Canadian writers. And it is obvious that as one of only five Giller nominees, he had a correspondingly high one-in-five chances of winning. Still, a segment of the audience responded to Clarke's victory with bemusement, as though somehow, when they were not looking, he had managed to sneak to the front of the class. Interspersed between yelps of glee from the author's ecstatic followers were the murmurs of those who wondered: "How'd he do that?"
How he did that was with a novel of intimate atmosphere and epic sweep, in which a relationship between a cruel plantation manager and his fair-skinned mistress operates as a metaphor for the history of slavery, colonialism and economic oppression. The Polished Hoe is set in the early 1950s on the fictional island of Bimshire (aka Barbados), where sleeping with the boss entitles Mary Mathilda to economic and social privileges. But the cost, which is degradation, comes too high and leads her to an act of brutality. The action spans 24 hours, the length of time it takes Mary Mathilda to make a circuitous confession to a crime.
The novel's eerie magic derives from Clarke's exploitation of island voices—the voices of his own past—stippled, like Morrison's Song of Solomon, with music and singing games. Through horror and humor, and this dazzling vernacular, Clarke conjures an idiosyncratic people clinging doggedly to their humanity.
Language in The Polished Hoe does more than express experience, it embodies it. "The vernacular is the lingua franca of Bimshire, of Barbados," says Clarke. "One can no longer deprecate this language by calling it dialect. Because if we West Indians consider ourselves to be a people, then certainly we have got to make a judgment on the language the English colonizers spoke to us—and some of that language is unintelligible... not syntactically unintelligible, but unintelligible when spoken to us by those people."
Austin Clarke is the author of nine previous novels. His first, Survivors of the Crossing, which appeared in 1964, and the semi-autobiographical Of Thistles and Thorns, which followed in 1965, established him as a distinguished interpreter of the Caribbean colonial experience. The next three, The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973) and The Bigger Light (1975)—his Toronto trilogy—delineated the lives of the West Indians in Canada. For decades Clarke's books were virtually the only mirror that reflected black Canadians' experience. In 1997, Clarke won a Rogers Writers Trust Prize for his novel The Origin of Waves. He has written seven collections of stories and two memoirs, one of which is a delightful culinary reminiscence, Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food (1999), nominated for the James Beard Award.
Clarke realized, as he was working on The Polished Hoe, that the book was utterly different from anything he had written before. "I felt it could be a glorious book," he says. "But at the same time I felt it could have failed because of all the experimentation I was indulging in... having a woman sitting down with a man and talking for 24 hours. How was I going to sustain the interest?"
About the same time, over at Thomas Allen, Clarke's editor, Patrick Crean, agreed that The Polished Hoe was shaping into an extraordinary novel. In 2000, Crean, a respected Canadian editor, helped resurrect Thomas Allen's publishing division. He was eager to add Clarke to a small but distinguished cadre of writers that included the pugnacious critic John Metcalf and the innovative storyteller Leon Rooke. Crean had edited Clarke's satire of Barbadian politics, The Prime Minister, in 1977 and was hoping to work with him again.
Crean purchased the manuscript for The Polished Hoe after he had seen Clarke's story of the same name included in an issue of Toronto Life magazine. Clarke's first draft was thin, between 200 and 300 pages. But the second draft came in at a whopping 850 pages.
"I took the manuscript to my cottage on a private island up north," Crean says. "I spent 10 days alone, just reading it. I remember thinking, 'My God! This feels like a masterpiece.'
"The novel went through four drafts altogether, and every time it came back, it was breathtaking, even though there was more work to be done."
Until the 1990s, Clarke's relationships with editors were turbulent. He felt they never gave his work the attention it deserved. He shifted houses with virtually every book and was considered temperamental. But his recent Giller win gives credence to his past concerns. Certainly Crean's commitment has already benefited both author and publisher. Besides the Giller Prize, The Polished Hoe has garnered the Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book in Canada and the Caribbean, as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best overall book. Clarke also shared Ontario's top literary prize, the Trillium Award, with Nino Ricci (Testament).
One afternoon in spring I visit Austin Clarke to talk about The Polished Hoe. He lives in a Georgian style row house on the edge of a park just north of Toronto's waterfront. Clarke, who was just 69, is sporting the spiky locks he adopted a few years ago. He wears a navy tracksuit with the word Jamaica sprawled across the back. The way he bounds up the stairs reminds me that he had been a track star in his youth.
He sits me in a chair in his office and brings me tea, then slips in behind his massive mahogany desk. A small window spills pale light into the cluttered room. I try to keep sharp, but it is difficult to remain strictly professional while interviewing Austin Clarke. He tends to weave his every answer into story, and what with the sweet, black tea and the pale yellow light and the wingback chair and the storybook voice, I feel myself drifting back to childhood.
The inspiration for The Polished Hoe, says Clarke, was a woman he had seen on a trip to Barbados in 1994. "She had a hoe," he says, "and she was dressed in clothes that looked white—though they probably weren't sparkling white, because she was a laborer in the field. She was wearing men's pants, tied at the ankles, to prevent centipedes from running up her legs, and a hat."
"It was between 11:30 a.m. and noon," says Clarke. "Very bright and humid. And I was going into Bridgetown in a taxi. She was alone in a field, and what made it dramatic was the way the roads are built. The roads are dug out of the land and the fields are higher. I looked up and that is what I saw."
Clarke suddenly stands from behind the desk and walks over to a low wooden cabinet beside my chair. He rustles around in the bottom drawer and extracts a writing tablet. It has faded lined paper, and the blue ink is smudged.
"These are the first notes I wrote on The Polished Hoe," he says. "That same day after I returned from Bridgetown. I was staying at my friend's townhouse and I didn't have a typewriter. So I just wrote everything down."
"My name is Mary," the paper reads. "People in this village call me Mary-Mathilda. Or Tilda, for short. To my mother I was Mary-girl. My names I am christen with are Mary Gertrude Mathilda, but I don't use Gertrude, because my maid has the same name."
I'm not surprised that, after 10 years, Clarke still has these notes at his fingertips. There is very little he discards. His home is like a living museum—like a testament to his whole life. Wherever he finds a few inches of bare wall, Clarke hangs framed mementos: the gorgeous cover of The Polished Hoe, the Toronto Globe and Mail's brilliant caricature of the Giller nominees, the painting of two boys on a Barbadian beach that inspired The Origin of Waves. A gallery of prints and photos chronicle his life. There are pictures of his friends Norman Mailer, Malcolm X and Forbes Burnham, the Guyanese prime minister. There is Clarke's mother, Gladys, now in her 80s, his ex-wife, Betty, and his three daughters.
When you drop by Clarke's home, incense will be burning and CDs will be playing, at least one, but generally two: during my visit, calypso rang out from the living room, while Miles Davis serenaded us in the office. Davis is Clarke's musical hero. You can catch echoes of his masterful style in the whimsical, improvisational structure of Clarke's work.
"I hope I have been able to infuse in my writing an aspect of Miles Davis's brilliance on the trumpet," says Clarke. "I listened very attentively to Davis when I was writing certain passages of The Polished Hoe. I think, without knowing music, I have been exposed to enough music, to understand what he is attempting to achieve."
Clarke does not place journalists into a distinct category. If you show up at his house for any reason, he treats you as a guest. If it is approaching noon, he will pour you wine or sherry. If it is evening, he will fix you a martini or "fire you up a rum." In no time at all, you are talking like old friends, a conversation in which Clarke does not mind sharing his strong opinions. When I ask him about suggestions that The Polished Hoe is not Canadian, he tells me plain: "The Polished Hoe is a Canadian novel, because I say it is a Canadian novel.... In Toronto there is a sizable Barbadian community. If I talk about Canada, I've got to talk about Barbadians living in Canada. So Canada in its very characteristics is Barbadian, as it is Trinidadian. It is a very narrow racist attitude that says to me The Polished Hoe is a Barbadian book."
And when I ask him what Mary Mathilda's sexual relationship with Bellfeel implies, he says: "People who lack power must make accommodations. They must admit to the possibility of being screwed."
Clarke's own writing career began as a bit of a whim. Born to Gladys Clarke, a young hotel maid, and Kenneth Trotman, an artist, Clarke attended Harrison College in Barbados, the most prestigious high school on the island. In Canada, in the late 1950s, he could not afford to keep up his postsecondary studies and was forced to take a series of menial jobs he described as "work black men could get." He was a night watchman for Columbia Records, a seasonal postal worker and even worked as a stagehand for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Then, in December of 1959, Clarke got lucky. He was married and had a child and was once again out of work. But desperation gave him courage. He entered the offices of Thomson newspapers and asked for a job. The manager agreed to administer a test, and Clarke landed a position as a reporter with the Timmins Daily News. Clarke was overjoyed, ecstatic, until a friend pointed out that Timmins was located hundreds of miles north of Toronto. "I postponed the trip two days," he said. "I couldn't see myself going up there.
"When I got to Timmins it was the 23rd of December. I went to work and got an advance of $35. The boss had left a Christmas card with $5 bonus, and a loan of $50 that I could pay off one dollar a week. And the best time in my life in this country was that year and some months spent in Timmins."
The Timmins Daily News initiated Clarke's writing career. The northern city was the place where he began putting down emotional roots. The Polished Hoe, Clarke's entire oeuvre for that matter, is very much the fruit of those early years, which instilled in him the literary confidence to put Barbados on the Canadian map.