Austin Clarke, the award-winning Barbadian-born author who wrote about the immigrant experience and being black in Canada, died on Sunday at the age of 81. Clarke won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for his 2002 novel “The Polished Hoe.” The novel tells the story of Mary-Mathilda, a black woman who confesses to a brutal crime years later.“Certainly, there is no other black Canadian author who has been so heartily embraced as Austin Clarke,” wrote literary critic Donna Bailey Nurse in a 2003 profile published by the trade magazine Quill & Quire.
Austin Chesterfield Clarke was born in St. James, Barbados, and moved to Canada in 1955 to attend the University of Toronto. He soon turned to journalism and subsequently to fiction.
During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Clarke became a visiting lecturer at a number of major U.S. universities, and was among the professors who founded Yale University’s Black Studies program. In 1975, he returned to his homeland to become general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corp., returning to Canada in 1976. He failed to win election as a Progressive Conservative candidate for the Ontario legislature in 1977.
Clarke didn’t become a Canadian citizen until 1981. Asked why he had delayed seeking citizenship for years, he commented at the time, “I was not keen on becoming a citizen of a society that regarded me as less than a human being.”
In the ‘90s, the accolades began coming. In 1997, his novel “The Origin of the Waves” won the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. And his 1999 novel “The Question” was nominated for the Governor General’s Award.
In 1998 Clarke was made a member of the Order of Canada. After he was announced as the winner, Clarke said he could not have become a writer without the support of his wife.