Against the Tide

Austin Clarke’s latest memoir revisits his early years in Canada.

“Friday, September the twenty-ninth, in 1955, was a dramatic day in my life. I arrived at the airport in Toronto, bound, as a student, for the University of Toronto.”

So Austin Clarke tells us in his new memoir, ’Membering, in an introductory chapter entitled the “The Little Black Englishmen,” which helps to set the tone for his journey from Barbados to Canada and his life thereafter. Using hurricanes as a marker at the start of his voyage, he draws on the names of female acquaintances in order to recollect the names of the different storms. With the aid of flashback, he recounts his early school years in Barbados and demonstrates a love-hate relationship with the colonial mother country. There are points in this recollection of his time as a student at Barbados’s Harrison College where he marvels at the classic English education he received. Although appreciative of his heavy exposure to literature, he expresses occasional resentment of the British and their colonization of the Caribbean.

Possessing a greater sense of Caribbean identity than many early West Indian writers, Clarke gains an initial awareness of racism that has a similar feel to some others, especially the Jamaican author Claude McKay upon his visit to Britain. Both men become conscious of their skin colour through racist terms and voyeuristic stares they receive from whites in their new surroundings—most memorably in Clarke’s case loud catcalls on Toronto’s subway: “Look the nigger!” or “Spook!”

To contextualize this racism, Clarke creatively intertwines his own perceptions with those of the protagonist Mary Mathilda from his Giller Prize–winning novel The Polished Hoe. He also uses this novel to critique his own shortcomings as a writer, as he candidly discusses having to develop his own voice through the characters themselves. In this way, he displays a departure from his colonial education. He also does so by ironically critiquing the way early Negritude writers failed to claim the use of their own “language as a weapon, as the justification of their anger against such a system of colonialism” and instead relied on the colonial tongue, French, for their literary expression.

Smoothly transitioning from his colonial Barba­dian environment to a cold and alien Canadian society, he begins a more comprehensive narrative of his Canadian experience, first as a student and then as a journalist, when he recounts receiving a rejection letter that blocked his desire to become a Canadian citizen. His experience in Canada is then illuminated through various lenses, primarily a Toronto-centric one.

His use of what is perceived as distinctly Canadian language becomes especially effective as he tells us of his introduction to “Canadianness” through the distinctive pronunciation of Toronto—Toranno—as well as use of the colloquial interjection “Eh.” He humorously demonstrates this mini language lesson via his Trinidadian friend as he tirelessly spends hours practising the pronunciation of the word Toronto in order to position himself as a true Canadian.

Throughout the book Clarke balances his knowledge and appreciation of the Euro-western literary canon with that of non-canonical writers. As his time in Canada lengthens, journeying becomes a recurring trope. Especially effective is his description of his first excursion to the United States, and his introduction to what was then the urban capital of Black American culture. Thanks to Clarke’s descriptions, we are exposed to the rhythmic sounds and vibrant culture of the Harlem Renaissance and to Harlem as a cultural and political hub. Harlem comes alive through Clarke’s prolific naming of famous black cultural artists and activists who once resided in the city and with whom he established friendships.

He then allows the reader to accompany him on trips to interview prominent and controversial African American figures. We experience the roller coaster ride as Clarke nervously awaits his groundbreaking interview with Malcolm X, whose uneasiness and impatience are drawn out on each page. The exhaustion of searching for and the disappointment of missing the opportunity to interview James Baldwin is also keenly portrayed. Similarly, Chinua Achebe’s coldness and arrogance during a memorable interview garner our sympathy for our excited and then deflated narrator.

Clarke exhibits an immense sense of admiration for as well as an affinity to the African American cultural and literary community, while a similar affinity is underdeveloped in his discussion of African Canadian cultural production. This is in part due to the years in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he taught in several American universities. African American literary and political culture seem to have had a great impact on his cultural development and self-definition. This means that he tends to reference the work of African American writers as paramount as his source of inspiration. No doubt his interaction with African American writers stemmed from his own frustration with the lack of recognition he received from Canadian writing circles whose members perhaps misinterpreted the Black activism that was married to his writing.

There are some interesting stylistic aspects to Clarke’s storytelling. Unlike many Caribbean diasporic writers, he does not fully utilize food to demonstrate longing for his native country, although at the book’s beginning he does sprinkle a list of Caribbean treats to take us back to his childhood days of play and enjoyment. Perhaps food’s relative absence here is because of the attention Clarke has paid in other books to the links between food and memory. Surprisingly, he uses Caribbean creole only sparingly to capture the tropical sounds of the city streets of Toronto. He does however use a full range of musical genres.

A more unexpected revelation is the insight he gives us into his short stint in politics with his daring run for the Toronto mayoralty in 1969. A story that could have come across as braggadocio proves instead to be genuinely engaging, as he draws on his campaign experience and its aftermath to show his candidacy’s impact in opening doors to other African Canadians to participate in what he terms the “all-white reservation of elective politics.” He also gives a brief history of political participation by African Canadians, though disappointingly he mentions the name of only one woman, Rosemary Brown.

’Membering is not Clarke’s first memoir. What most distinguishes this book is its emphasis on his life in Canada as well as the fact that it does not follow a typical linear narrative format. Instead, Clarke draws on what Caribbean poet-historian Kamau Brathwaite refers to as tidalectics, “the movement of the water backwards and forwards as a kind of cyclic … motion, rather than linear,” which, as Elizabeth Deloughrey writes, “provides a dynamic methodology for approaching island literatures.” The final chapters most illustrate this tidalectic flow and give the memoir what may seem like an incomplete feel. Given Clarke’s admiration of African American and Caribbean writing style, which has intentionally departed from a colonial literary approach that emphasizes a linear model of progress, this comes as no surprise. It also provides the source of his brilliant free-range style of writing, which is enfolded in discussions of ideas, interaction with other writers and fragments of his own memories and reflections of ’membering.