Listening to Austin

I first came to Canada when I was 19 years old.

“And even if I was in my vexatious moods, I still learn a lot from listening.”
— Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe[1]

    I first came to Canada when I was 19 years old. At that time, I was an undergraduate student at the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) in Jamaica and I received a scholarship from the Canadian government to pursue a short-term exchange. In the fall of 2015, I journeyed to St. Catharines, Ontario, where I would be studying at Brock University. I found accommodation in a small basement room near the university and lived alone in the house for a week until my white Canadian roommates, assisted by their parents, moved in. In the days preceding the start of the semester, I took the opportunity to explore the city. Initially, I viewed St. Catharines as a typical white Canadian suburb. However, my perspective shifted as I would gain more understanding of its historical significance as a haven for formerly enslaved African Americans who sought refuge via the Underground Railroad and Niagara's Freedom Trail, including Harriet Tubman herself. In Brock’s library, I read more about the city’s Black history and found evidence of Black freedom and prosperity in portraits and family photographs taken in professional studios in the late 1800s. As a result, I felt more comfortable in a city where I sensed the presence of a historic communal memory, providing me with a sense of belonging in a foreign space. In that very library, just three days before the start of the semester, I received an unexpected call from my landlord. To my surprise, I was informed that the parents of one of my roommates had requested that I be evicted, with no accompanying explanation. I was stunned and overwhelmed with vulnerability. The landlord offered ‘reassurance’—a signal of his easy acquiescence to the racist demands—that he would secure alternative accommodation for me. In a house across the road, facing the one I had been removed from, I would once again live in a basement. This one was unfinished and later flooded during that semester, destroying most of my belongings. Despite knowing I should have advocated for myself, I did not complain. The reality of my precarity felt overwhelming, so I did what I was told.

    In the face of my precarity, I realized I had two choices: succumb to despair or embrace laughter—responding to the circumstances that sought to marginalize me with laughter, signalling my resilience and continued survival.

    I dragged a suitcase filled with books, black garbage bags of clothes, and all that I brought from Jamaica up the stairs from the basement. I entered the living room where my roommates avoided eye contact and kept silent. Multiple times, I dragged the bags across the road, breaking down in tears in the middle of the street. The heaviness of anger stemming from my experience of discrimination, coupled with the shame of my silence, burdened me profoundly. What made it worse was that I would have to see the people who denied my presence in their home day in and day out, across the street. Amidst all that humiliation, I eventually discovered survival strategies in the writings of Austin Clarke, whom Ronald Cummings, a Jamaican professor at Brock, had introduced me to. In the face of my precarity, I realized I had two choices: succumb to despair or embrace laughter—responding to the circumstances that sought to marginalize me with laughter, signalling my resilience and continued survival. Like the men in Clarke’s Nine Men Who Laughed, who “find no weapon but laughter” to counter the “devious assaults” they experience as Black immigrants in Canada, I too turned to laughter to cope with how much I had become “accommodating to a hostile society” (“Introduction” 4). I consider the convergence of Clarke’s writing and life with my own experiences and those of other racialized peoples in Canada as significant.

    The more I read Clarke’s fiction, poetry, and memoirs during that semester, the more I realized that his writing mapped my entire life in Canada before I even arrived, or at the very least, my experiences were not unique. I recognized my initial experiences in Canada mirrored those of many of his characters. Examples include Dots in The Meeting Point, who is struck by the “technicolour city” (35) of Toronto; the “‘unchristened,’ nameless” protagonist of “Canadian Experience,” who faces countless discriminations while trying to make life (“Introduction” 2); the men in “Initiation,” whose expressions of Black radicalism and masculinities are infused with a vulnerable queer desire; and the personas in his poetry grappling with generational divides among first and second-generation migrants and the indifference to Black life in Canada. Most notably, I saw reflections of my own journey in how his characters had uprooted themselves in search of a better life, only to find both possibilities and hostility in an unfamiliar space.

    Through the process of transcribing—a patient, attentive form of listening—I formed an intimacy with Clarke and his voice and learnt that “listening is not simply an act of consumption; it is also a productive activity.”

    Upon returning to Jamaica in January 2016 after completing my semester abroad, I began working as a research assistant for Dr. Michael Bucknor, the then Chair of the Department of Literatures in English at UWI, Mona, and a leading scholar on Clarke’s writing. In 2017, almost a year after Clarke’s death in June 2016, I was tasked with transcribing an interview that Bucknor had conducted with Clarke in the summer of 2011.[2] The interview took place over several days at Clarke’s Toronto home. The audio recordings capture not only Clarke and Bucknor’s voices but also the atmosphere of his home and community—birds chirping outside the window, doors and floorboards creaking, and bodies shuffling as they adjust in chairs. Their tiredness toward the end of the recordings is evident through moments of yawning, and muted expressions of fatigue which lead to pauses that break the recording into multiple temporalities. I became attentive to Clarke’s voice which welcomed me into the aurality of his home. Through the process of transcribing—a patient, attentive form of listening—I formed an intimacy with Clarke and his voice and learnt that “listening is not simply an act of consumption; it is also a productive activity” (Baucom 22). While transcribing, I realized I wasn't just hearing; I was immersed in a context wherein I was engaging with the voice of someone no longer with us. It felt like a unique opportunity to sit with Clarke posthumously, a privilege of being with the departed in a daily ritual of listening, rewinding, and deciphering accented words and muffled worlds. These routine actions, I believed, constituted a kind of wake, wherein I became “attentive to mourning and the mourning work” (Sharpe 19).

    In the years following that period of deep listening and transcribing, I have considered the other contexts in which Clarke’s voice, both written and recorded, reverberates through publics across time. While one can turn to his fiction, poetry, and memoir for encounters with his voice, I want to bring attention to the presence of his voice throughout his journalistic endeavours. Despite Clarke’s popularity in Canada as a writer of fiction, there has been little substantial attention to his extensive political and journalistic work. Clarke’s work as a freelance radio journalist for the CBC, his involvement in Canadian Black-owned and operated presses such as Contrast and Ebo Voice, and as a columnist and reporter for Toronto Telegram, Maclean’s, Toronto Daily Star, and the Globe and Mail, as well as Pelican in Barbados, is often overlooked. His journalism voiced the anxieties of West Indians in Canada, implicated Canada in racially discriminatory policies and practices, spoke to the challenges of multiculturalism, and connected Black Canada to a larger context of Black diasporic cultural production. Clarke's use of his voice to amplify not only his experiences but also those of other Black Canadians was not passively accepted, not even by the publications that published his writing. In ‘Membering, Clarke notes that when Maclean’s published his essay detailing experiences of racial discrimination in Toronto and Canada between 1955 and 1968, the magazine adopted the “brusqueness of headlines that we were all reading in the American papers, headlines that warned of a black-white race war, or the second American Civil War [and] took the occasion of the publication of my piece about Toronto's and Canada's version of segregation, to use the headline, ‘Canada's Angriest Black Man’” (55). This public framing of Clarke as essentially “Canada’s most anti-white Black man” brought him despair and vulnerability for multiple reasons. Firstly, “he was given no opportunity, in the minds of the readers of Maclean’s magazine, to say why I was an angry black man—not to mention ‘the angriest’ in all of Canada!” (55). Secondly, it made him a visible target in an already anti-Black context and contributed to him leaving Canada intermittently for the United States.

    In the United States, Clarke would produce documentaries for the CBC as a freelance broadcaster. Clarke’s radio productions are significant in understanding his insistence on thinking and conveying Blackness beyond the constrictions of nation-states. In 1963, a year marked by significant events in the American Civil Rights movement, such as the Birmingham Riots, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, Clarke interviewed Malcolm X for the CBC documentary Austin Clarke’s Harlem. The irony of ‘Canada's Angriest Black Man’ interviewing the self-described ‘angriest black man in America’ was not lost on Clarke. He would late reflect that “the ‘angry blacks’ of America and of this world, were the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, the Black Nationalists, who were all, in the eyes of the press, meaning the white press, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Telegram, the Toronto Star, the Financial Post, all black racists” (55). As a result, Clarke used his position at the CBC to do what the “white press” failed to do, which was “to explain that everyone who was black in those days was not a member of the Black Panthers, or the Black Muslims—even though the reality of their lives might very well induce them to taking out membership!”. In other words, he provided a platform for a variety of Black voices to be heard in Canada without the mediation of white Canadian codes of civility, which, in effect, are anti-Black. Indeed, part of why Clarke was able to interview Malcolm X and others is very much because he insisted that the programs produced would allow Malcolm X to speak “in the narrative of his own words” and “publish anything [he said] in the interview” (178-79). This ethics of trust built around a lack of censorship and attentiveness to the authority of Black voices would enable Clarke to further enter radical African American communities. For example, in January 1969, following the death of Black Panther leader John Huggins, Clarke produced documentary, Death of a Panther for the CBC Radio program Concern. His portrayal of Black Power to a presumably white middle-class Canadian audience is significant, as he humanized the struggles of Black people and informed their understanding of Black militancy in the Americas.

    Clarke's engagement with the Civil Rights movement extends beyond his radio documentaries, demonstrating a profound commitment to voicing the struggles and aspirations of the era. In an article published in the Toronto Daily Star on December 12, 1967, Clarke questioned whether the tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. could truly lead to freedom for Black people in the United States. King’s strategies and idealism, Clarke noted, centered on “the integration of an alien revolutionary body into a conservative body” (“Are Martin Luther King’s Tactics…” 7). In another article in the same publication on January 20, 1968, Clarke interviewed LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) before his sentencing to three years in prison for his role in the Newark riots, a sentence later overturned. They discussed the “mind and religious mystique of Black Power” (“The Mind and Faith…” B11), bringing the multidimensionality of Black radicalisms to Canadian readers. In addition to writing about race relations in the United States—where he intermittently lived and worked as a visiting professor or writer-in-residence at several institutions, and cultural attaché for the Embassy of Barbados in Washington, D.C.—Clarke also commented on race relations in Canada through print journalism and television interviews. Beyond the Civil Rights era, Clarke continued to write about systematic racism, publishing a 1992 pamphlet Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth as a response to the Yonge Street riot in Toronto.

    What might listening to Clarke’s voice—both written and recorded—mean for us today, seven years after his passing? How might our understanding of his legacy shift if we were attuned to his multiple voicings, across various mediums, of Black and Caribbean Canadian life?

    Considering the many ways that Austin Clarke’s legacy has yet to be fully articulated for publics, it is worth asking, what might listening to Clarke’s voice—both written and recorded—mean for us today, seven years after his passing? How might our understanding of his legacy shift if we were attuned to his multiple voicings, across various mediums, of Black and Caribbean Canadian life? Additionally, how might we reflect on the importance of listening for Clarke himself? I close this consideration of Clarke’s voice with a poetics that attempts to work through these questions. It takes the form of a cento, weaving lines from The Polished Hoe, The Meeting Point, Where the Sun Shines Best, Choosing His Coffin, and The Origin of Waves to illustrate the many ways that he invokes listening. I re-present them, to hear his voice calling out and inviting us into a praxis of intimate listening. I ask you to consider, what do you hear?

    listening; almost dreaming

    listen to the swishing sounds of footsteps deep
    listen to the news of battles lost
    listen to the way foreigners talk
    listen to my mother’s voice
    listen to the sounds of the night
    listen to this kind of silence
    listen to the folk
    listen to the complaints
    listen to the bells
    listen to the loud-talking friendly butcher
    listen to jazz, a kind of strange noise
    listen to how beautiful these words are
    listen to a sound like water
    listen to that damn fool talk
    listen to the messages
    listen to Coltrane
    listen to Coltrane
    listen to Coltrane
    listen behind the cloth curtain
    listen more careful
    listen good
    listen in awe
    listen again
    listen to the ticking, secure ordering of the meaning of time
    listen to this, and tell me if you don’t see a connection?

    Works Cited

    Baucom, Ian. “Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 42, no. 1, 2001, pp. 15–49.

    Clarke, Austin. ‘Membering. Dundurn Press, 2015.

    ——. “Are Martin Luther King’s Tactics Hurting the Negro Cause.” Toronto Daily Star, Dec 12, 1967, p. 7.

    ——. Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke. Thomas Allen P, 2003.

    ——. In This City. Exile Editions, 2008.

    ——. Nine Men Who Laughed, Penguin Books, 1986, pp. 1–8.

    ——. The Meeting Point. Vintage Canada, 1998.

    ——. “The Mind and Faith of Black Power.” Toronto Daily Star, Jan 20, 1968, p. B11.

    ——. The Origin of Waves. McClelland & Stewart, 1997.

    ——. The Polished Hoe. Amistad, 2004.

    ——. Where the Sun Shines Best. Guernica Editions, 2013.

    Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

    [1] p. 32

    [2] Parts of the interview were later published in the Journal of West Indian Literature, examining the role the CBC played in Clarke’s writing life. The wider interview, which remains unpublished, delves into Clarke’s migration to Canada, the detours taken on his journey to becoming a writer, his literary community and friendships, and his love of Toronto. See Bucknor, Michael. “Austin Clarke and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: An Interview with Austin Clarke.” Journal of West Indian Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, 2017, pp. 108–15.

    About the author

    Cornel Bogle is an Assistant Professor of Caribbean and Black diasporic literatures at Simon Fraser University. His creative writing and literary criticism have appeared in several publications. Cornel is co-editor, with Michael Bucknor, of “Recognition and Recovery of Caribbean Canadian Cultural Production,” a special issue of Canada and Beyond: A Journal of Canadian Literary and Cultural Studies.