Quite a polished performance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 November, 2004, 12:00am

Since he won last year's Commonwealth Literary Prize for his novel The Polished Hoe, Austin Clarke often hears himself described as one of Canada's literary sensations. Clarke has become so widely recognised that he can barely travel in Canada or the West Indies without total strangers claiming him as an intimate friend.

But whenever the 70-year- old Barbadian immigrant hears praise, he remembers the ecstatic reviews for his 1967 novel, The Meeting Point - and the silence that greeted the arrival of every novel he released for the next 35 years.

'What happened to all those people who were put on guard for this hot new novelist back in 1967?' Clarke says, with a laugh. 'Now, suppose they'd been watching and saw nothing for all those years until 2002. It just goes to show what can happen.'

Plenty was happening to Clarke in those years, though. He became a broadcaster and visiting professor of literature at Yale and Brandeis. He also served as an adviser to the prime minister of Barbados and cultural attache of the Barbadian Embassy in Washington.

His diplomatic skills were called on when resisting the urge to mention the colonial themes of The Polished Hoe during his audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth this year. Nor did the queen 'even hint at the title of my little memoir, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack. It was a conversation that took no risks, as I expected it would not. It was just a nice little chat, a little add-on to all the plaudits and things like that.'

The queen may have yet to read his work, but Clarke says he's astonished at the way The Polished Hoe - set in what is unmistakably Barbados - has been embraced by her subjects in the West Indian diaspora.

'A great outpouring of emotion' has erupted since the book won the 2002 Giller Prize, he says. 'In my joy, I had not considered that people from all the various islands would have this strong identification with my success and accept it as their own success,' says Clarke, who says he took such risks in the writing of The Polished Hoe that 'I teetered under the apprehension that I might be writing a lot of nonsense, because I knew that I was doing something new, but if I was lucky it might come off'.

Set on the Caribbean island of Bimshire - a nickname for Barbados that refers to its close links with Britain - the novel opens when a middle-aged local woman named Mary Mathilda phones her former childhood sweetheart, now the village police sergeant, and confesses to a murder. She claims to have killed a Mr Bellfeels, the brutal village plantation manager for whom she has worked for more than 30 years and borne a son, Wilberforce.

Unnerved by his unrequited lust for her, the sergeant must confront his own past as Mary Mathilda confronts hers in a meandering confession that lasts 24 hours and involves several generations of island history.

Clarke says he usually avoids writing about Barbados. 'I did not feel I could command a firm enough grasp of my country, so I wrote about Barbados in Canada.'

Save for his memoir, two early novels written in the 1960s and The Prime Minister - a satire about his political exploits in Barbados - 10 of his novels and six short story collections are set in Canada, the home he adopted as a 19-year-old.

But something shifted in 1994. While holidaying in Barbados, he stayed with a friend who lived in an old sugar plantation house. Catching a taxi into Bridgetown, 'I saw this woman alone in a large field and she was dressed exactly as I describe in the book. She was wearing a long dress under which were trousers tied at the ankles to prevent the encroachment of centipedes and things like that. And she had a broad brimmed hat, which added some regal touch to her posture, and she had this hoe in her hand. Then I thought, 'How does this woman see me in a taxi going into town to drink rum when she is working so hard?''

He immediately began trying to find the woman's voice, by writing on sheets of paper borrowed from his hostess. 'I'd never done that before, but my hostess had no typewriter and no computer, so I had to resort to that sure way of writing,' says Clarke. 'And you know, there's hardly a change from that first draft to the printed version. I found that I was armed with a new, let's say, loosening of the tongue.

'I was trying to see whether I could not claim English as the language of the Barbadian, and have the Barbadian express this bilingualism neither as dialect or broken English nor as an imitation of traditional English, but as a new language.'

Clarke readily acknowledges his debt to Faulkner - 'one of my favourite writers'. Mary Mathilda's willingness to digress seems similar to her author's penchant for weaving answers into a story or three. Ask about his own past, and it's hard not to be reminded of scenes from the novel, as he shares his memories of going to the store with his mother and not having enough money for food. He speaks of having to borrow wood or steal to cook. Food became 'more than food'.

While promising to send copies of his celebrated food memoir, Pigtails n Breadfruit: the Rituals of Slave Food, he detours into 'the very, very heady days' of radical politics in the 1960s and his friendship with Malcolm X and Forbes Burnham - days when 'I saw myself as a black man, not as a West Indian'.

He then segues into the slavery that held sway in Barbados until 1830, before moving on to his travels to Toulouse and Venice, cities whose wealth and grandeur owe much to the slave trade.

'What I find much more interesting is our - meaning West Indian or black people's - misunderstanding of history and our inability to see our past reflected in the glory of architecture in places like this, or in Havana, or Amsterdam, not to mention England. I think we need to understand that we are joined in a more Siamese manner to the other than we think, or perhaps we might want to think, or that the others might want to accept.'

Clarke then returns to his novels, and says that these days, although the political impulse still burns strong, 'writing is more important'.