‘The Polished Hoe’
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JEFFREY BROWN: A sugar plantation, in colonial Barbados, just after the Second World War. A place of black field workers, white overseers, and a strict social system that has them living close together, but keeps them far apart. This is the setting of the novel, “The Polished Hoe,” in which a woman named Mary- Mathilda talks through the night with her friend, a policeman, in a grand plantation house like this one. In her often troubled life, Mary-Mathilda has gone from field worker to mistress of the white plantation manager. As they talk, we slowly learn of the brutal crime she has committed. Even more, we learn the history of power, sex and race in this part of the world. The book has won two prestigious fiction awards: Canada’s Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was recently published in the U.S.
AUSTIN CLARKE: No matter how long a time I spent… have spent in Canada, I needed to see how I was brought up.
JEFFREY BROWN: The author is 69- year-old Austin Clarke, born in Barbados, but a Canadian citizen and a resident of Toronto for more than 45 years. “The Polished Hoe” is his 18th book, including fiction, short stories and memoirs. We talked in Washington, where he worked during the ’70s at the embassy of Barbados.
JEFFREY BROWN: Austin Clarke, welcome.
AUSTIN CLARKE: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is a place, a time and people who rarely make it into literature. Why did you want to tell their story?
AUSTIN CLARKE: There has never been a story told about this system… the plantation system in Barbados certainly, perhaps also in America, in which an ordinary woman who works in the fields was given the opportunity to narrate what her life was like. And I felt that to have the story told by a woman in particular would add to the irony and the effectiveness of the story.
JEFFREY BROWN: She, your main character is, in a sense, caught between these two worlds.
AUSTIN CLARKE: She has found herself in a very contradictory situation. One would argue that she has sold her soul, because she has left or been compelled to leave the laboring class to live on the plantation.
JEFFREY BROWN: To be the kept woman.
AUSTIN CLARKE: The kept woman — with status. And that is a characteristic of the plantation society, which is very contradictory in itself. She may rise to a certain level, but beyond that she cannot. And the fact that she has risen so high is based upon her having produced a son for the plantation manager.
JEFFREY BROWN: There is a mix in your book of a kind of… I would call it almost a high poetic language, a very formal language, and then a dialect, the way they would talk to each other.
AUSTIN CLARKE: This comes from our being English. It is a very obvious thing, if you went to Barbados. We were taught by the English, and their language, of course, was different from ours. And in order to be close not only to them, but to what the education was saying to us, we imitated English language. And there are men still living today who went to school with me, who never left Barbados, who talk in an exact Oxford language.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why don’t you read a passage for us? Give us a sense of the dialogue.
AUSTIN CLARKE: This is a section where she is reminiscing. “I was telling you of a narrative told to me by ma, which she heard from her mother, Gran, who I am sure heard it told by my great-great-Gran, and finally, handed down to me. These narratives are the only inheritances that poor people can hand down to their off- springs.
The rich people and the plantation people have land and trees, pigs and coals, money in Barclay’s Bank, Dominion, Colonial and overseas, and money hidden in wells all over this island, on this very plantation. But all that we possess to hand down is love and bitterness, and blood and anger, and all four wrap up in one narrative. Stories I would hear at night in kerosene oil light with mosquitoes coming and going like commas and punctuation marks. And I, under my crocus bag blanket, shivering from the cold and from the blackness in the stories.”
That is very poignant, if I may say so myself, but more than that, it is autobiography. It is as if Mary-Mathilda has looked at the body of the plantation, which is a human body, has cut it in the section where a surgeon would cut searching for the heart, and has gone in with her bare hands and ripped the heart out.
JEFFREY BROWN: And everything is handed down and told through stories.
AUSTIN CLARKE: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s the way you structured your novel.
AUSTIN CLARKE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you why you as a writer– you’ve lived in Toronto for a long time, almost 50 years– why did you want to go back to this land of your birth to tell this story now?
AUSTIN CLARKE: I think it was a casual visit, a change in scene. And I wrote the book, but I still feel that the book is not a Barbadian book but is a Canadian book. In the sense we have established ourselves in Toronto to such an extent that our contribution is known.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’ve seen you described as a father of the renaissance of Canadian writing, particularly among immigrant writers. Your adopted country has… the literature has changed quite a bit.
AUSTIN CLARKE: Well, yes. It would have to. For instance, I find it particularly fascinating and inexplicable that in Toronto at the moment there are about 10 great poets, all women, who come from Jamaica. And I’m trying to find out, why are they all women and why do they come from Jamaica? So that is part of the renaissance. And it has taken a long time. My first book was published in ’64. I have remained writing without the present glory and celebrity and all that sort of thing, which I do not object to.
I am trying to be able to wallow in this with an even mind and not allow it to hamper my view of the world and hamper my writing another book, for instance. But I think we are all sort of comfortable in being regarded as Canadian writers. When you say Canada, you are talking about a diverse number of people, and of course, Canada was founded on the strength of immigrants.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Austin Clarke, thank you for joining us.
AUSTIN CLARKE: It is my pleasure. Thank you inviting me.