Thursday, 15 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: Canadian Experience by Austin Clarke

Card Drawn:

(Another heart! I'm on a roll!)

R.I.P. 1934-2016

2016 has been a cursed year with Donald Trump being elected president and so many deaths of notable figures such as David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, the list goes on. Just the other day, Alan Thicke passed away. I can't help thinking who might be next to kick the bucket before the year is done. Although, it is probably safe to say that Kirk Douglas has nothing to worry about. He'll outlive us all. Anyways, we also lost another big name this year and a towering figure in Canadian literature  (albeit, tragically, he is lesser known to those outside of Canada): Mr. Austin Clarke. Before him, there were not many established Black-Canadian writers and he basically paved the way for other writers of color such as Dionne Brand, Rohinton Mistry, George Eliot Clarke (not related despite sharing the last name) and many others to become recognized on the literary scene. Austin Clarke's death marks a tremendous loss in Canadian literature, leaving huge shoes to fill for anyone brave enough to pick up the torch. I really regret passing up the opportunity to see him speak or give a reading in Toronto (his home city) but his memory will live on through his excellent written works, and one of them is this short-story: Canadian Experience.

There is much to say about this thematically rich and heart-breaking story so please bear with me. First off, one notices almost immediately, that Clarke is unabashed in his anti-multicultural stance. Canada prides itself on its open immigration policies and multiculturalism but Clarke is adamant to expose these false misconceptions. The immigrant is not welcomed to this country with open arms and warm embraces. Rather, systematic barriers are set in place to exclude these "outsiders" from centers of wealth and the dominant culture. Social mobility is limited or increasingly difficult and for immigrants like George, the protagonist of the story, his dreams of achieving prosperity in Canada are shattered because he is a black foreigner in this country. George has lofty ambitions to make it big in Toronto but the cultural mosaic marginalizes black men. John Porter's "vertical mosaic" is an important intertext and reveals the intersection between culture and class. Hierarchy is based on class and ethnicity; thus, opportunities are circumscribed to the impoverished lower classes. George is black and his poverty is an indictment of this cultural mosaic. His dreams were thwarted before he even stepped foot in this country.

Secondly, pay attention to laughter in this story. This is a bleak and depressing story and there is nothing funny about George's situation but why is he always laughing? For Clarke, this "laughter" has metaphorical implications. The immigrant's forgetfulness turns to laughter, it is a marker of subjugation (powerlessness, colonization), an involuntary "tick" that represents the immigrant failing to accommodate to a hostile society. This is a country that would rather have immigrants laugh than protest; a fatalistic expression of resignation. The loss of self that has become fractured by cultural alienation is inextricably linked to George's blackness. Race is accountable to his failure since class and heritage determine success. He blames himself for his own failures and cannot shake off the slave mentality, which eventually leads to the tragic ending. I am not spoiling anything here since it soon becomes clear that there is only one way this story can possibly end. 

For anyone who has ever visited Toronto and experienced our horrible transit system (TTC), Clarke does an excellent job of portraying the underground subway as a a literal and figurative hell akin to Dante's Inferno. Clarke is cynical about the "Canadian Dream" that seduces the immigrant and ultimately, destroys them because of these problematic class hierarchies. This story is far from an enjoyable read but it is incredibly enlightening, offering a unique perspective of the black Canadian experience that one does not often come across in literature.


  1. It sounds like an interesting critique but I wonder why the content of Canadian authors often seems so bleak. It makes me want to avoid them, but thanks to you and your patriotic reading habits, I'm getting exposed to many more of them than I otherwise would have. It's probably time I steeled myself and read more Canadian content. Hmmm .....

    1. An astute observation and I do agree with you that dark or bleak subject matters seems to be a recurring trend in a lot of Canadian authors. I'm not sure if it is an inherent pessimism or inclination to depict Canada, both literally and figuratively as this cold and hostile land.

      This is a great story and I obviously highly recommend it to all but I have a sneaking suspicion that you would feel differently.

      Despite all the reading challenges that I have to catch up on, I shall take on another one: to convince you to read more Canadian works!