Thursday, September 25, 2008


As I found a seat near the back of the classroom where Austin Clarke's reading was to take place, a women standing next to me asked, "Would you like me to take your assignment up to the front for you?" I hesitated, looked around at all the unfamiliar faces in the cramped, sunlit room, the empty desk in front of me, and thought, I've had this dream before.

She then said, "Never mind, you're not one of us." And I thought, I've had this dream, too.

As it happens, the classroom where the reading took place was near full with students studying Austin Clarke. I hadn't read much of Austin's work, only a short story from the Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories, so I am not that familiar with his work.

But after he began speaking, introducing his new book, More, I quickly began to realize what a fascinating man he is, and how much is embedded in the pages of his fiction.

He began by giving a bit of background on his main character, Idora, who is a female from Barbados living in Toronto. He spoke about the experience of Barbadian women moving to Toronto, and how Idora is modeled after these women.

He then read a section, his voice assuming Idora's slight accent. When finished, he went on to introduce the next bit he was to read, and he spoke about some of the images used in the section and what they conveyed.

Idora lives in a basement apartment and the only window is above her head. As she looks out the window, everything she sees is skewed, disjoined. The basement apartment, Austin noted, is meant to suggest she is down on her luck, and the skewed view she has of the street outside her apartment is just as skewed as her view of the world she lives in.

After his second reading, after he looked up at a room spellbound by his voice, he had to remind everyone to breathe. We laughed, and so did he.

After fielding a few questions, a woman near the front asked him about race and poverty and violence in Toronto and whether or not he sees any improvements. He said no. She asked if him if he has an solutions. He said not really, but then he offered a wonderful story of his trip to Winnipeg.

He flew, and seated behind him on the plane was a baby that cried the whole time. People were noticeably frustrated. After a while, he began to wonder if the pin holding the baby's diaper had slipped and was poking the child in the side (he joked that, of course, diapers don't have pins anymore, but that's not the point). He added that, when he was a young father, he was home one day with his child and the child cried and cried all day. He couldn't figure out why and was feeling very frustrated. He then realized, some time later, that the bottle his child was holding had a piece of plastic blocking the liquid from getting out and the child couldn't drink it. It was the child who was frustrated, because of a mistake he had made.

Whether you are looking to read some well-crafted fiction or you are looking to learn something, to experience something, Austin Clarke's More seems to have a great deal to offer. I can't wait to read it.

* * *

Brad Hartle likes books. One day he may try to write one, though nothing is certain. For now, he spends his days in the basement of a big stone building in Downtown Winnipeg and his evenings in a big brick apartment in Crescentwood, where he lives with his wife, two cats, and a scattering of toothpicks, needed because he refuses to see a dentist. He is almost always happy.

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