The Sunday Magazine

Revisiting Austin Clarke's novel about memory, migration and a chance encounter

For our occasional series about Canadian novels that have not had the attention they deserve, poet, playwright and scholar George Elliott Clarke introduces us to a book by the late Austin Clarke. The Origin of Waves describes one night in the lives of two friends, as they recall five decades worth of memories.
Austin Clarke was a Giller Prize winner, and, as playwright and scholar George Elliott Clarke describes him, a trailblazer for writers of colour. (Dundurn Press/Penguin Random House)

Welcome to episode three of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place.

At the beginning of Austin Clarke's 1997 novel The Origin of Waves, a man bumps into a friend he hasn't seen in 50 years in the middle of a Toronto snowstorm.

The two men grew up together in Barbados. Their lives had taken them in different directions — but now, deposited them back in the same place.

They go to a bar on Yonge Street, and begin to fill in the missing pieces. They talk about love, sex, regret and money. They swap boasts and tall tales.

But as the night goes on, a deeper and more complicated truth about their lives starts to emerge.

He blazed a trail for immigrant writers of colour, black writers, trying to come to voice in a country that did not want to hear from us.- George Elliot Clarke

Though the action of the novel is confined to a single night, it contains 50 years of memories from both men.

In episode 3 of The Backlist, poet, playwright and scholar George Elliott Clarke spoke to Michael Enright about Austin Clarke's approach to writing about memory and the past.

"Waves themselves originate somewhere. They travel some distance ... and along the way, might be thought of metaphysically as carrying some memory of their origins. But I like to think of this also as a metaphor for immigration," he said.

"In a sense, I think this novel is about thinking through fifty years of waves of memories associated with the migration."

He described Austin Clarke as a pioneer and an elder — a figure he looked up to and reckoned with as he began his own literary career.

George Elliott Clarke is a poet, playwright and scholar. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"He blazed a trail for immigrant writers of colour, black writers, trying to come to voice in a country that did not want to hear from us — because I think a lot of folks expected we might not have much good to say," he said.

Clarke spoke to Enright about Austin Clarke's understanding of the relationship between race and class, the pressure his black male characters often feel to present embellished stories about their success, and why he thinks Canadians should read this novel.

The Origin of Waves was published by McClelland & Stewart.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. In episode 4 of The Backlist, Michael Enright will speak to Doug Gibson about Hugh Maclennan's 1958 novel The Watch That Ends the Night.


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