One Griot Speaks Out: The West Indian-Canadian Connection: Interview with Austin Clarke

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Austin Clarke was born in Barbados, the West Indies, on July 26, 1934, the son of the late Kenneth Trotman and Gladys Irene Clarke. He is a distinguished author, educator and social activist. A prolific writer during the past three decades, his works include: The Survivors of the Crossing, 1967; Amongst Thistles and Thorns, 1965; The meeting point, 1967; When He Was Young and Used to Wear Silks, 1972; Growing Up Stupid Under The Union Jack, 1980; Under The Sandbox Tree, 1981; When Women Rule, 1985; Nine Men Who Laughed, 1986; Proud Empires, 1986.

Austin Clarke has received numerous awards for his writing, including The President's Medal, The University of Ontario 1965 Fiction; Saturday Night--Belmont Short Story Award 1965; Canada Council Literary Award, 1967, 1972, 1974--Fiction; Americas Literary Prize, 1980--Fiction; Toronto Arts Award for Writing and Publishing, 1991

Between the late nineteen sixties to early nineteen eighties Austin Clarke lectured at several universities in Canada and the United States of America; 1968-71 he was Visiting Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University; 1970-71, Visiting Professor of Literature, Brandeis University; and Professor of Black Studies, Duke University; 1974-75, Visiting Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of Texas; 1975-76, Writer-in-Residence, Concordia University, Montreal; and from 1982-83, Writer-in-Residence, University of Western Ontario. In 1974 Austin Clarke served as cultural attache to the Barbados Embassy in Washington, D.C. Clarke returned to Barbados around the latter part of the seventies to head up the Caribbean Broadcasting Association. He later returned to Canada and ran for political office. In 1987 he became a Multiculturalism Advisor to the leader of the Ontario Progressive Party. From 1988-93 he was a member of the Immigration and Refuge Board of Canada. Austin Clarke has recently published his eighteenth book, The Origins of Waves, McClelland & Stewart

Goddard: Austin Clarke, one of Barbados' well-known authors, has been living in Canada since 1955 and has been successful not only in his writing career but also as a public figure. Austin, basically what I want to discuss with you is your writing career, which I have been following for many years, and one of the things that strikes me most is your concern with the immigrant in Canada. In most of your writing you talked about social and cultural displacement, racial tension and the nature of the immigrant. What are your views on the immigrant's place in a country such as Canada?

Clarke: Well, I think that the immigrant's place or role, in Canada, is a very positive, elevated place. It's because when I look at an immigrant, not only from Barbados but from other West Indian countries, I see a man who is accustomed to living in close association with Canadians. He may have had Canadians as teachers. In recent years he would have Canadians as neighbors. And even more recently, he would have Canadians as spouses, et cetera. And always, it seems to me, he has had Canadians as tourists. Of course, there is a very strong link between Barbados and other West Indian countries and Canada based on the exchange of rum and salt-fish.

What I'd like to say about the immigrant is, if he could remember he has come from a society whose institutions, in some cases are older and more established than the oldest institutions in Canada, he certainly should not feel as an immigrant, to use the term in a derogatory light. And obviously, he should not feel as a person who is displaced.

Now if he does feel as an immigrant, and if he does feel as a person who is displaced, then it is not his fault. It is the attitude of the host society toward his foreignness and strangeness. And then of course, as soon as you've been living here for some time, you realize that Canada is, in itself, a country of immigrants. So that when you discuss the discomfiture that an immigrant feels, you would have then, it seems to me, to feel that this discomfiture is based, in blunt terms, on racism. …