The Caribbean literary world is in mourning after learning of the death of Barbadian-Canadian writer Austin Clarke. The 81-year-old passed away on Sunday, June 26, 2016.
Clarke left Barbados in the mid-1950s to pursue his tertiary education at the University of Toronto; he became involved in the civil rights movement and began writing, publishing his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing, in 1964. Through its main protagonist, — a canecutter — the story examined the effects of colonialism and slavery on politics and race relations in a pre-independence Barbados, but Clarke was perhaps best known for his novel The Polished Hoe, which won numerous literary accolades, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2002), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall and the Trillium Book Award (both in 2003). Five years prior, he was also made a member of the Order of Canada.
Upon news of his death, tributes began to pour out on social media. Facebook user HoneyJam Barbados posted:
RIP to Literary giant Austin Clarke who died today in Toronto. He won many prestigious international awards for his writing. He was brilliant, witty, fearless, an activist, a poet, a humourist, an intellectual, always questioning and challenging the status quo, always holding people to account, sometimes courting controversy but willing to suffer the consequences of his opinions and convictions. He spoke his mind unafraid, he stirred the pot, he wanted us to know our history, to know our country, our culture, to not be ignorant of it, to look at ourselves and to always strive do better. He was widely acclaimed and celebrated but remained himself always. He was a citizen of the world but always belonged to Barbados. He was a proud native son.
Another Facebook user, Rick Halpern, lamented:
A huge loss. An important voice not just for Canada and the Caribbean but for the world
Indeed, Canadian netizens were also proud to claim him:
#AustinClarke wrote his first novel before Frye said “where is here,” before Atwood, before Munro. He is a foundational Canadian author.
— Bougie Brampton (@paul_barrett) June 26, 2016
Can't emphasize enough how significant a presence #AustinClarke was in Canada's literary firmament in the 1970s. A pioneering voice.
— Adrian Harewood (@CBCAdrianH) June 26, 2016
Trinidadian Jonathan Ali shared the effect Clarke's writing had on him:
RIP Austin Clarke. His very funny memoirs Pigtails ‘n’ Breadfruit and Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack are among my favourite volumes of Caribbean biography.
On the heels of the UK's European Union referendum, one Twitter user cheekily recommended the latter of those titles to Britons:
— Matthew Holmes (@semimatte) June 26, 2016
On the Facebook page Black Canadian Veterans Stories of War, the son of a Barbadian war veteran and poet posted a personal photo of a smiling Clarke in a tuxedo, pipe dangling from his mouth, explaining:
My dad's friend, author Austin Clarke passed away today. Both were born in Barbados and both loved poetry. Sentimemtal shot of Mr. Clarke, taken by my dad WWII veteran and Poet…Owen Rowe.
The Bocas Lit Fest — one of the Caribbean's most well regarded literary festivals — also acknowledged his passing:
— Bocas Lit Fest (@bocaslitfest) June 26, 2016
On Twitter, Austin was remembered as gracious, generous and an authentic literary talent:
— Aislinn Hunter (@AislinnHunter) June 27, 2016
— Sheniz Janmohamed (@ShenizJ) June 26, 2016
Other netizens — prolific writers and avid readers themselves — thought that Clarke's passing required taking a step back. Rhoda Bharath posted a photo of Clarke, saying:
I have to pause for this.
2016 strikes again.