Austin Clarke is just finishing a long-distance phone chat with his brother and a lunchtime glass of red wine in his upper-floor apartment in a downtown Toronto house. In the living room, where two long walls are covered with bookcases holding everything from classics of the Western world to A Lawyer’s Life by Johnnie Cochran, he talks about winning the $25,000 Giller Prize for his latest novel, The Polished Hoe. The book is a stream-of-consciousness exposé of racism and slavery in 1950s Barbados. Was he surprised by his win? Based on several newspaper reviews, he says, “I thought I had a chance.”
A big bear of a man, he plays idly with his salt-and-pepper dreadlocks as he recalls his time at Trinity College. Born and schooled in Barbados, he came to Trinity in 1955 and was admitted to the second-year honours program because of his high academic standing. He chose Trinity because it was “the closest thing to Oxford” and remembers those times, when students wore gowns to classes and the residence was only for men, as “devastatingly happy, sweetly snobbish and comforting.” Some of his poems were published in the Trinity University Review and won a literary award. He spent the prize money of $5 on a bottle of gin and potato chips for his engagement party. He left university in 1957 to marry and earn a living. Over the past 45 years, both the prize money and the accolades have improved for Austin Clarke – just like a fine wine.