Reading Series at SJU: Austin Clarke

“That was sweet. Now let me disturb you.”

These are the words of Austin Clarke, who performed a reading as part of the St Jerome’s Reading Series. The Reading Series at St. Jerome’s brings Canadian writers to campus to provide a reading of their work. On February 5th, Austin Clarke provided a reading from his most recent novel More (published by Thomas Allen, 2008) and his previous novel The Polished Hoe (Thomas Allen, 2002) which won the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998.

Immediately of interest in both of his readings is that the two selections are written from a woman’s perspective. As Clarke notes, the voice of the woman propels the story forward in a way which that of a man could not.

The opening introductions by Professor Connolly introduced the Reading Series in general, and introduced Austin Clarke and his literary achievements. Having been awarded the Order of Canada in 1998, his novel The Polished Hoe won the Giller Prize in 2002.

Mr. Clarke read selections from The Polished Hoe, as well as his most recent novel, More. His readings were thoughtful, and delivered at a slow pace, which was quite refreshing from other author readings I have attended in the past. While much of Clarke’s readings were interspersed with comments about the story, and amusing insights into the writing process, it was sometimes difficult to determine when Clarke was reading from his story, and when he was providing personal commentary about recent events.

An interesting aspect of Clarke’s readings was the focus on a female perspective. When asked about this after his reading, Clarke at first suggested that this was something that he didn’t consider at the time, but that it was perhaps due to the strong influence of his mother. While growing up in a non-nuclear family, as an only child in a male-oriented society, Clarke performed many chores which were traditionally female roles. This greater sensitivity to gender issues, and the inherent differences in power came across in his reading.Clarke has a great ability to see things from different perspectives. In particular, Clarke’s mediation on dignity was quite interesting. In More, the reaction to the homeless man going through garbage at night shows a lack of dignity for both the black man going through the garbage, as well as for the person seeing it. This action is compared to a physical assault and rape, not of a physical nature, but of a intellectual and emotional nature.
Clarke also related an anecdote about photography, and the relationship to narrative. While in Canadian society, family photographs are ubiquitous, this is not true of other areas of the world, where personal history is related through narrative, rather than through static images. This narrative voice was an essential part of Clarke’s youth, and fostered a strong love of words. Clarke related a tale of his first photograph, taken with sports trophies. Returning home later in life, his younger brother admitted that he had presented the photo to others as a representation of himself, to increase his status.

When talking about his writing schedule, Clarke maintains a regular nine to five schedule of “remaining in the study” followed by heading out in the evening. His writing implements of choice remains the typewriter, especially after several recent computer problems. The advantages of physical backups, and the ability to maintain the technology appear to be contributing factors.

Clarke’s reading was entertaining and thought provoking.