People

Respect for a ‘gift from God’

Tanya Davies June 14 1999
People

Respect for a ‘gift from God’

Tanya Davies June 14 1999

Respect for a ‘gift from God’

Acclaimed author Austin Clarke is honoured for nurturing young writers

People

Tanya Davies

Shortly before the legendary Prairie writer W. O. Mitchell died last year, he learned that a new literary award was to be named in his honour. “Give it to someone who didn’t quit,” was Mitchell’s typically gruff advice. Last week, the Writers’ Trust of Canada, which administers the $15,000 W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize, did just that. In a ceremony in Calgary, Austin Clarke, 64, became the second annual recipient of the award (Toronto novelist Barry Callaghan was the first). A native of Barbados who emigrated to Canada in 1955, Clarke overcame racism to become one of the country’s most acclaimed authors. But Clarke says the W. O. Mitchell prize holds special significance for him. In addition to recognizing a writer’s body of work, it places equal emphasis on mentorship. “I consider my writing to be a gift from God,” says Clarke. “And one way I have of respecting that gift is to help younger writers.”

Toronto-based Clarke has a long list of literary accomplishments: eight novels, including The Origin of Waves and The Bigger Light, six short story collections and three memoirs that richly evoke the black immigrant experience. He has also enjoyed a distinguished teaching career at, among other institutions, Yale, Brandeis and Duke universities. However, behind the lofty résumé is a history of adversity. In a 1963 article published in Macleans, “A Black Man Talks about Race Prejudice in White Canada,” the universityeducated Clarke wrote about his inability to find a decent job and of being routinely snubbed by waitresses and sales clerks in favour of white customers. Such disappointments, he wrote, soured him on applying for Canadian citizenship.

Clarke finally did become a Canadian citizen in 1985— an acknowledgment, he says, that while racism persists, federal and provincial governments have at least passed laws officially prohibiting discrimination against visible minorities. But Clarke, whose forays into journalism over the years include television documentaries on such civil rights leaders as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, has only mellowed so much. “Coming from a colonial background,” says Clarke, “I have found that one cannot indulge in the leisure of seeing any separation between literature and politics. They are one and the same.”

The lone director

American director John Sayles is known as a pioneer in the wilds of independent filmmaking. And lately he has been going off the beaten track in more ways than one. His 1990s’ movies have taken him to the Louisiana bayou (.Passion Fish), the Irish coast (The Secret of Roan Inish), a Texas desert {Lone Star) and the Mexican jungle {Men with Guns). But when Sayles decided to shoot his new movie, Limbo, in the Alaskan wilderness, he ran into unexpected interference. “It was the only time I’ve had to say ‘cut’ because whales were spouting behind our actors and upstaging them,” recalled the 48-year-old director as he surveyed

the Mediterranean from a hotel terrace before Limbo’s première in Cannes last month.

The movie features Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as a folksinger who gets stranded in the bush with her teenage daughter and a fisherman portrayed by David Straithaim. It rained almost constantly during the shoot, which suited the script but not the crew. When the grips complained about lugging equipment into the forest, however, Sayles told them it was a picnic compared with filming Men with Guns in Mexico. “In Alaska there is this spiky low-growing bush called devil’s club,” he says. “But you can avoid it. In the jungles of Chiapas everything is spiky. There’s nothing you can grab onto that’s not going to put a hole in your hand or give you a disease.”