“Membering and Remembering” the Literary Icon, Writer and Friend Austin Clarke

Austin Clark
Austin Clark

Since its inception in 1995, A Different Booklist bookstore has had the distinct pleasure of launching Austin’s entire book in Canada. In 2014, A Different Booklist, in partnership with the Government of Barbados and Harbourfront Centre, dedicated a bench in the Ontario Square in honor of Austin Clarke, a Grandfather of Canadian and Commonwealth literature.

These are some of the intersections I had with Austin. His book launches are memorable as they attracted people from all walks of life; book lovers, emerging writers, scholars, students, contemporaries, groupies, and international authors.

His wa c 1inning of the Giller Prize Award in 2002, for The Polished Hoe brought a new excitement to the African Canadian community. It was refreshing to see a Black man’s picture plastered all over Canadian national media for this singular achievement. Going on to win the Commonwealth award was another fine moment for the African Canadian literary community.

I first met Austin in person outside of Parkdale library, the home of the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Collection. He was an enabler of this collection, which is now housed in four branches across the Toronto Public library system. He was getting out of a Beck taxi accompanied by the former Barbadian literally giant Bruce St. John. This was a moment of awe for me because I had experienced them only through their writings and now they were there in front of me in the flesh. He was wearing Bermuda shorts, great legs, a classic white shirt and of all things, a straw hat. I thought of one of his titles “When I was Young and Wore Silks.” These were exciting days for Caribbean writers in shaping the Canadian literary landscape. Authors like Dr. Althea Prince, Dionne Brand, Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph, Marlene Nourbese Phillips, and the Dub Poetry movement. Parkdale Library was a Mecca for these events.

I was a fan of Austin because he hailed from Barbados where my parents’ navel strings are buried. He was a contemporary of my uncle, the great Hal Willoughby Walcott, a brilliant mind and an outstanding Combermere scholar. Both men admired and respected the potential and promise they saw in each other to define a post-colonial Barbados. My uncle always referred to Austin as Austin “Tom” Clarke, a man of words and letters, who would then go on to Harrison College, a young man known at that time for his athleticism.

In my formative years I watched as Austin tried to transition Barbadian society to become more Barbadian and Bajan, and to do away with the colonial trappings the society had inherited. I saw that because he too had witnessed the birth of an independent nation, he understood that African people were and are capable of excellence in every field, and that the finer things of life are very much entrenched in our DNA. I even sang the popular calypso “Tom Say” that “piconged” his desire of Barbadians to be themselves.

In my university days as I sat in courses on Caribbean literature and history, I felt a sense of pride. I had grown up with a writer who shaped two regions of the world simultaneously, North America and the Caribbean. Little did I know that in years to come we would enjoy a professional relationship and become friends. Little did I know that I would sit next to him on aircrafts to attend literary festivals and conferences. Little did I know that he would become a patron of A Different Booklist bookstore and encourage my husband and I all the way. Little did I know that he would salute me as a children’s writer and attend several book launches to encourage fellow colleagues and aspiring writers. Little did I know that we would on occasion drink the “Wine of Cane Juice.”

Artists and writers are often owned by and married to “community.” Their lives are often