It may be that Austin Clarke has written nine novels. Or it might be 11. In a recent interview, he laughed when I asked him about it. "I'm going to sit down one of these days and count them."
It's not that he isn't serious about his writing. Quite the contrary. He is, however, a man with his eye on the big picture. And the big picture tends to be ahead, not behind. Clarke feels that while writing The Polished Hoe he learned "how to write a novel for the first time, after all these years. This is the first time I have understood."
Clarke says that, with this most recent book, all of the pieces fell into place. "I felt the freedom and the liberation from all of the things that could influence the writing of a book negatively. I was not anxious for anything. I was in a very good mood. I was healthy. I was cheerful. And I had retained my sense of humor. And I thought ... that they are the ingredients that an author must experience and realize if he or she is going to write something that is great and good."
Born on Barbados in the West Indies in 1934, Clarke has lived in Canada for most of the last 46 years. Though several of his books take place in that more northern locale, his most recent novel, The Polished Hoe, is set on an only mildly fictionalized West Indies island Clarke calls Bimshire: a local name for Barbados. The book, for which Clarke won the 2002 Giller Award -- one of Canada's most prestigious awards for fiction -- takes place on one long island night, when a woman named Mary-Mathilda calls the local law to confess a murder. Mary-Mathilda is the mistress of one of the island's most powerful men and the mother of his only son. She has a position of respect in her community, but it's a tenuous respect: tinged as it is with fear for Mr. Bellfeels, Mary-Mathilda's protector since girlhood.
Clarke's books include the memoirs Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack and A Passage Back Home and the food memoir Pigtails n' Breadfruit: the Rituals of Slave Food. His last novel, The Question, was nominated for the Governor General's Award in 1999, the same year Clarke was awarded the W.O. Mitchell Prize. The author lives in Toronto.
Linda Richards: The place you write about in The Polished Hoe, Bimshire, is that a real or fictional island?
Austin Clarke: I don't understand why I did not say Barbados. I think [it was probably] because, not having lived there for such a long time, I might have used a name which turned out to be the name of someone living on a plantation. I don't want to cast any aspersions. But I was in Barbados in March to receive an honor and ... I had to go to Government House and, just by accident, I saw a plaque on the wall listing all of the names of all the governors Barbados ever had, and the governors general, and I went through it to see whether "Sir Stanley" -- the name of the Governor in The Polished Hoe -- was ever, in fact the name of a real governor. And I was very relieved to find that there wasn't.
Barbados is pro-British -- pro-English -- very strongly. In its political allegiance, in its culture, in its imitation of a way of living. So much so that Barbados is known as Little England. There's something that we had thought was humorous, years ago, during the Second World War. When the premier of Barbados sent a cable to Churchill saying: Go forth, England. Little England is behind you. We had thought that was a joke and, of course, anyone my age would be able to tell you that cable caused Barbados to become the laughingstock. But it does exist. The way in which we were educated and our imitation of speech would cause us to be regarded as English: Black English people. And, because of that, we have the name "Bimshire" which is the name of a county in England and Barbados is [in effect] an overseas English county.
So Bimshire as it exists in The Polished Hoe is a fictionalized Barbados?
It is another name for Barbados. Anyone who knows the West Indies would know if you said Bimshire. People today would even say: Oh, you're from Bimshire. That is used in a mildly derogatory manner. That you are English. But I was hoping that nobody would even seek to explain that Bimshire [in the book] is Barbados. But, in my mind, I deliberately made it Bimshire to demonstrate the extent to which even people living in an oppressed situation could be Anglophiles. And that is why throughout the book there's this reference to the magazines: London Illustrated News and especially when the sergeant was a boy going to elementary school he was put rigorously through certain details of English history. And it was his mastering of English history that would have made it possible for him to go to secondary school on a bursary or scholarship. And then, of course, the comparison existed in the attitude of [Mary-Mathilda's son] Wilberforce who came back to Barbados -- or to Bimshire -- more European than he'd left.
You are from Barbados originally.
How long have you been in Canada?
I came in 1955 to go to university. So that means 47 years. And the 29th of September was the 47th year that I've been here.
Why this story now?
Well, I understand and I don't understand the implication of your question. Why could I not have written it before? "Why this story now?" I take the stress on "now." I felt the freedom for the first time that I needed as an author to deal with this subject. I did not know the subject was going to be this. But I felt the freedom and the liberation from all of the things that could influence the writing of a book negatively. I was not anxious for anything. I was in a very good mood. I was healthy. I was cheerful. And I had retained my sense of humor. And I thought, if not at the time, certainly now reflecting on it because of your question, that they are the ingredients that an author must experience and realize if he or she is going to write something that is great and good. It might not come out that way, but certainly the author must have in mind the possibility that this concentration and accumulation and existence of these factors that I mentioned.
Then I suppose, asking the question for you, I would say: Why go back to Barbados, about which I'd written only three times, meaning in three novels. The first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, and the second novel, Amongst Thistles and Thorns and the third novel, The Prime Minister. Why at this stage in my life would I go back? Not having spent too many years writing two books set in Toronto.
The reason, I think, comes out of a mistaken disposition, I think, that you can write more effectively about your country if you are far away from it. This idea about objectivity being synonymous with distance. I don't believe that at all. But I would have to say that it was a feeling not of objectivity but of apprehension of things Barbadian. It was as if I decided to write about Barbados in such a way, honestly, that if it was taken the wrong way I wouldn't have to care because I had dealt with Barbados in the sense that Barbados was no longer a threat in the same way that Africa to me is a threat. Meaning I can not go to Africa and can never go to Africa because of the uncertainty of my association and reaction to Africa. I felt that Africa was so important a place to visit in the 1960s and, if I'd gone, I know that I would have to make the decision right there and then that I would not return. Let's say if I'd fallen in love with an African woman, I would not return. Or if I'd fallen in love with the landscape of Africa, or if I'd fallen in love with the history of Africa it would be easy for me to call home and say: Forget it, I'm not coming back.
So it was this kind of attitude that I had solved all of the problems that Barbados implied over the years and that I could [now] write about Barbados.
And then of course I must [respond to] the "now" aspect of your question. I must have prepared for this [novel] for a long time. I don't know if authors are disposed to exposing things that have influenced them in the writing of their book. And I think authors like to feel that they're original. I don't believe that even as a feasible [possibility]. Because I know -- and most authors ought to know -- that you're quite easily influenced by things you read. My preparation might have been the things I have been reading for the last year. Ian McEwan interests me quite a lot. Saul Bellow. Derek Walcott our poet laureate, meaning Nobel laureate. To some extent, V.S. Naipaul, although I don't like him at all. Of course I would have to say Richard Wright. I used to feel that Baldwin provided that, but I don't think so now. And lastly, but certainly not least, a Martiniquean -- I think he's from Martinique -- chap who wrote Texaco, the novel. A brilliant novel. Patrick Chamoiseau. And in that novel I saw the possibilities which he could -- and did in fact -- achieve. The broadening of the language which really is wonderful. One would refer to it derogatorily as Creole French. But he was able to use that and create a new language. And it's interesting that one of the most impressive reviews of the book was written by Derek Walcott himself. Having been born in St. Lucia, he would speak a patois version of French. And of course, English, too. So he was quite close to this chap.
Texaco. It's an interesting thing that the title itself suggests a double entendre. Because Texaco is the name of a very important oil company. And Texaco is also the name of the slum because all the barrels and the junk you get from an oil refinery were dumped in this Texaco. And he was able, in that junk and flotsam and jetsam, to create a very beautiful environment. Both physically and intellectually. So that he was able, in using the language -- which is what you'd call dialect which is now called the native language or the language of the people -- he was able to use this in ways that rendered it no longer a dialect. It is now the legitimate language of that island because the majority of the people spoke it. So those were the things that were going through my mind when I sat down to write.
I wanted to be able to do for Barbados what Chamoiseau did for Martinique and, one could say, what James Joyce did for Ireland. But it is interesting that I would go back to Barbados. When you're not born in the country in which you are living, when you think about it seriously, there are lots of very small things you never know and learn which, when you multiply them, really is the crystallization of the fact that you are a foreigner.
Mary-Mathilida, in the book, growing up in the village was the girl who bloomed, who attracted the attention -- amorous or sexual -- of all the boys her age. And even the men. I remember, growing up in Barbados, in my neighborhood I suppose every two years there was one girl, you know? And since it is a kind of open air society -- and, of course, homogenous, everybody in the neighborhood would know this girl.
What do you mean by homogeneous in this instance?
In the sense that everything done in the neighborhood is known and understood by everybody. When the neighborhood was settled, everybody was the same class. Socially, etc. Culturally and ethnically it was... and ethnically I mean to imply that even if there were -- as in my family in Barbados -- light skinned people, light enough to pass for white or be regarded as white, they were still Barbadian. In the identification of families, certainly of neighbors, we did not have this reservation about color.
In Barbados you have a majority of English, but you also have Germans, French, etc. And the other part of that is, when you live on an island, I think you spend most of your time thinking of leaving the island, because of the restrictiveness and the clash of cultures. In my case in Barbados my intention was to go to university in England. But, because of money, I changed that. Money to the extent of being able to pay for the passage by boat and then the fees and living. When I was discussing this with a teacher -- the first science teacher in this high school in Barbados -- a Canadian, from Alberta. Allan Welles. The first white man to teach at this school. So we would talk, and he would tell me about Alberta. So that Alberta became real, since I had just left school myself. And we thought that the geography of Canada was more interesting than the geography of Australia. And the master had who taught geography used to come to Canada every summer. Your summer, of course. [In Barbados] we have no summer.
Up until that time in Barbados there were no apartments. You lived at home. You'd didn't rent an apartment. The term didn't exist. And there were no summer jobs. Students went to school. In the summer you played games. There were no jobs. So when he said to me: You can have a summer job. It was a different [way of thinking]. And, of course, in England at that time students did not work. Because education at that time, at that level was considered to be the right of the privileged.
When was that?
In the 1950s.
The Polished Hoe is your sixth novel or your eighth?
I really can't remember. I've read somewhere where it said the 11th. I've read somewhere where it said the 10th. I've read somewhere it said the eighth. I don't really know.
That's what I encountered, as well. Different numbers.
I'm going to sit down one of these days and count them. [Laughs]
Are you a disciplined writer?
In what sense?
Do you write every day?
If I'm not traveling, yes. At the same time every day, for the same hours at least. when I'm not traveling I would begin at nine o'clock. In pajamas. Summer or winter. And I would stay home -- and this is the only good thing about living alone -- I would stay home and during the time I'm writing I would walk from the study to the kitchen and make tea. And when I used to smoke I would smoke a pipe or cigarettes. And around five o'clock -- probably because there's a difference in the light and the people on the street -- I would think of stopping to think about food. I don't eat every day. And I can't cook and sit down and eat by myself. I have a tenant who is a fantastic cook. A gourmet cook. And he makes a gourmet meal for himself and sits down and eats. I said: You've got to be kidding. This is madness. So I would eat if I had friends [over]. That is when I would cook. Then around 11 o'clock, after the news, I would go back to work and then work until three or four o'clock in the morning. And still get up at seven.
But nowadays I can work equally well during the daytime or during the nighttime. I think you're best, because you're rested, in the morning. Now years ago, when I started out and was married and had children -- I mention this only to show the precariousness of earning and the precariousness of the profession. You don't know if you're going to succeed, you're still wondering if you should go back and do law or go home to the West Indies and be a politician or something, or get a job.
My wife at the time was a nurse and I had two children in the home. I would get the mail, of course and usually bills and I realized that if I opened a bill, I couldn't concentrate because it was a case where I didn't have money and being a man and a West Indian, it was a bit demeaning to lean heavily on a woman, even if the woman was your wife, you see? So I would collect the bills and hide them. [Laughs] And not open them. Because if I'd open them I couldn't concentrate for the whole day. So then what I would do to get over that was to write letters to my friends between eight and 10, by which time the postman would come. I developed a very interesting correspondence over the years with two very great friends of mine, both of which are dead unfortunately, too young. Nowadays of course, I don't have to do that. But I would still, if I could not concentrate on my work, I would still write letters -- and these would be long letters, six pages -- I will sometimes write them all in Barbadian language, because the people I was writing were either from Jamaica or Trinidad. And even Canadians. My good friends I write in Barbadian language.
What's Barbadian language?
Is it the same dialect that's in The Polished Hoe?
In this book the usage of dialect is not the pure [Barbadian]. I thought I could not do that because [Mary-Mathilda is] a woman who has moved up in social status and who has been broadened by the snippets of information gathered or garnered from her son and the exposure -- even though it was not an equal, democratic exposure -- to the solicitor general and the reverend and all these big, important people. Her language would therefore have changed. But, since she's Barbadian and black, she would retain the essence. And that's the way she talks to the constable. When she talks to the sergeant the language is different. And this is interesting because if you went to Barbados right now and you were talking to some white [Barbadians] they would retain the flavor if not the rhythm of the Barbadian language. The best examples of this are to be found in Jamaica where people of all social groups, colors, ethnicities talk the same way. And Trinidad. And that shows you something. Those two cases are the examples of what you might call multiculturalism, more so than in Barbados. Because in Barbados a teacher would talk as if he was in England.
At the time that Mary-Mathilda is giving her interview -- the current time in The Polished Hoe -- I gather it's the late 1940s.
Not necessarily the late 40s. Let's just say the 40s. But even though she is giving the interview in the 40s, which would suggest she is a certain age, I did not stick to that so there's no authenticity, which means that it can not be called a historical novel because my uses of time [are] more psychological than historical.
Did she grow up in slavery, then?
No, but her parents. You see, that is a very tricky word.
I was thinking about that a lot as I read. Because there are elements of what would be thought of as slavery, as ownership. And yet...
It's a tricky word. I remember my grandmother -- my father's mother -- who would walk from where she lived and her dress would be below her shins. And she would have shoes and she would have a head tie and a hat and long sleeves because she was a Christian, meaning she went to church. Walked, always with a basket and an apron. I don't even know if at that time in Barbados they paid pensions to old people. Perhaps there was some kind of help from the vestry. This woman would walk the distance -- three miles -- every day during the week to come and see me at school. And she would have a conversation with the [school] master. I never talked to her in a sense of finding out but by putting two and two together I got the impression that, since she was not an educated woman that she herself had to have worked in the fields or in somebody's kitchen. And when I look at that life -- her life -- and the life of another woman my mother's age I could see quite clearly semblances of slavery. And what is slavery? Apart from the obvious grinding reality of physical and psychological domination, it could also be measured by the provenancy of poverty amongst a certain group of people in Barbados.
When did slavery end in Barbados?
But in Mary-Mathilda's world there are overseers and plantations and you can feel the oppression.
Yes. And there were, for instance, this may not be regarded as an aspect of slavery in a strict sense, but I think it is. Slavery had not only a portion of duty, expectation and everything from the whites to the blacks, slavery also divided the loyalties amongst the blacks towards one another and certainly towards the plantation.
We have not really discussed slavery the way it ought to be, or could be. If you believe as many do that England became powerful because it exploited the cheap resources of the West Indies -- in other words, all that wealth from sugar cane -- then that's the Industrial Revolution, you see? At one point the slaves were not producing as much and they realized it was food because they want to feed these slaves with a kind of food that would not cost too much but would make them productive, if not reproductive. So the British government made some inquiries and they got a certain captain of a ship that was part of a triangular trade -- England, Africa, West Indies -- it was Captain Bly of the Bounty. Bly had an interest and obsession with plants. And on the way to Africa he stopped at Haiti or some place like that and got the breadfruit. I'm not quite sure how they cooked it in those days, they probably just boiled it. But nowadays it's become a delicacy, the same way that chitlins are a delicacy called soul food. So, what we would do now, you boil it and mash it as Canadians would mash potatoes, with that kind of gadget. And then we stir it into a cou-cou, like polenta. Now, when you eat breadfruit cou-cou you immediately doze off. [Laughs] Hence the term Negritis. Negritis is the sudden falling asleep immediately after eating. So we in the West Indies know that Negritis does not only apply to black people, everybody who eats breadfruit falls asleep.
Breadfruit has certain things in it that would make you work better. So that is what saved the plantation system. We Barbadians continue to despise any association with the functions of slavery. We know that to eat swordfish is to declare that you're poor. In other words, you would not serve swordfish on a Sunday. You would not even serve boiled fish on a Sunday. On a Sunday, which is the day of the best meal, you would serve roast chicken or roast pork.
Are you working on anything right now?
Yes. I'm working on a book with a main character who is a woman, but I've decided to change that to a man. The book is already written. In fact it's been revised six times. And the fact that I've never shown it means that I've always felt, perhaps, that something was wrong with it which I could not see the solution to. But now I have seen. Because, going back to your first question: Why this book now? The most important thing about [The Polished Hoe] is that I learned, in the process of writing this novel, how to write a novel for the first time, after all these years. This is the first time I have understood.
How after six, or eight, or 11 novels, did that happen?
I can't tell you how it happened. I can tell you that I am aware, very clearly, that it has happened. And I think I have solved all problems that have plagued me as an author all these years. That is why I could solve the problem with this novel that I started in 1985. And I could see where I went wrong.
Is that experience? Maturation? A wiser eye?
That is the result of learning the craft, yes. But some people don't, you know? I think I had to throw out a lot of the things that I did in the previous novels. And I had to begin as if I was a novice. I'm very comfortable with The Polished Hoe. The novel took quite a lot out of me. I was working on the computer, a laptop. I lost the first 500 pages and I was so ignorant about laptops and computers I did not know that there was someone who could retrieve it. I found myself three weeks later, during which time I was trying to memorize and rewrite the thing from the beginning. And then the book was accepted and we had finished revisions and I was polishing and things like this. I had six more pages on this particular Friday to complete part three. It must have been fatigue, but I pressed a key and the whole thing disappeared. So I took the computer, which I had just bought, [and] they spent two hours and couldn't find [what I'd lost]. I had the disk, but I wanted them to have found what I had revised. And since they didn't, I had to go back and revise from the beginning again, so it took quite a lot. Emotionally too. It took quite a lot.
When you talked about Texaco earlier, you mentioned the double entendre of that book's title. It made me think of The Polished Hoe, whose title also might be thought to be a double entendre. Was that intentional?
You know, to be quite honest, it was not. This was brought to my attention when I went to the States and [when I was] introducing the book, everybody started laughing. My brother was in the audience, so afterwards I said to him: Why are the people laughing? And he said: Don't you know? Then he started laughing. And it was that certain black Americans pronounce the word "whore" as "ho." As in: She's a ho. You see? So I said: Yeah, if anybody asks me, I'll say I intended the double entendre. [Laughs] But I did not. I never thought of it. | November 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.