From Choosing His Coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke
Multiculturalism is a myth we console ourselves with. We pat ourselves on the back and bandy about bromides concerning tolerance, acceptance, and diversity, while continuing to engage in practices such as racial profiling by police and the preservation of institutional prejudices that prohibit certain groups equal opportunity for advancement. Not for nothing is the protagonist in Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach denied a restaurant promotion from busboy to waiter because “Tu es un peu trop cuit pour ça (you are a little too well done for that).” In other words, while the white diners will accept a dark-skinned busboy, they are more reluctant to do likewise for someone actually serving them food (notwithstanding the fact that the dark skinned man would still be the one doing the serving, not the eating).
This is the reality that many immigrants to Canada’s most populous city experience daily. The May 2015 issue of Toronto Life magazine featured a cover article by Desmond Cole focusing on the extraordinary number of times he has been stopped by cops in the city, not because he is a criminal, but because as a black man, his skin tone makes him an automatic focus of suspicion. Far from a refuge of tolerant acceptance, this is the quotidian reality many ethnic minorities face in Toronto the Good.
Austin Clarke has been writing about this aspect of the Canadian experience for more than six decades. Now in his eighties, Clarke is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.: he marched with Malcolm X and participated in rallies with Stokely Carmichael. Donna Bailey Nurse points out, in a profile for Quill & Quire, that in his rebellious heyday in the 1970s, the Toronto Star dubbed Clarke “the angriest black man in Canada.”
That anger is on display in his fiction, particularly in stories such as “Canadian Experience,” complete with its blisteringly ironic title. The story is about George, who, like his creator, is an immigrant to Toronto from Barbados. George has come to the city searching for the good life but has been rejected at every turn. Now in his thirties, George spent his first five years in Canada among the ranks of the marginally employed, bouncing around a series of menial jobs (the only kind someone like him could land). Having now wound up squarely in the category of the unemployed, he spends his time in the reference library reading room, scouring the newspapers’ job ads.
It is important to note that Clarke does not stack the deck in George’s favour. George lacks formal education (though “he still consider[s] himself well-read”), and was once fired from a job delivering flyers because, out of boredom, he simply dumped the advertisements in the trash. His supervisor, we are told, “did not trust immigrants” and “carried out a telephone check behind his back.” The implication here is that the supervisor is racist, which may or may not be true; what is clear is that George’s firing was for legitimate cause.
It is also clear that when George applies for a junior executive job at a Bay Street bank, it is a position for which he is manifestly unqualified. “The successful candidate,” the ad reads, “must have a university degree in business or finance, or the equivalent in business experience.” Given that George’s own “business experience” consists of neglecting to hand out the flyers that he then dumped in the trash, securing an executive finance job seems at best a stretch.
To score an interview at the bank, George fudges his education on his resumé, which he considers “a satisfactory and imaginative rendering of the facts.” He decides that, at his age, his “desperate circumstances” dictate he cannot be picky about the job he takes, notwithstanding that it is a “junior” position, where he feels he would be more satisfied with a senior job. There is egotism here, no doubt, and what an unsympathetic reader might consider self-deception. George’s illusions come crashing down when he actually visits the bank to attend his scheduled interview: he finds himself unable even to exit the elevator at the appropriate floor.
The scene in the elevator is telling. It is crowded with people who have been granted access to the corridors of power due to their earning potential and – not incidentally – the colour of their skin. As he ascends, he notes a man in expensive alligator shoes and a woman carrying a bag from a tony fashion store. (Earlier, George wishes his own pink shirt was cleaner for his interview at the bank.) When the doors of the elevator open on his floor, he is confronted with “glass and chrome and fresh flowers and Persian rugs and women dressed expensively and stylishly in black, with necklaces of pearls.” Frozen, he allows the doors to close and the elevator to continue its ascent to the building’s top floor.
Significantly, George feels much more comfortable – “braver,” in the words of the story – going back down. He recalls the end of his work day as a janitor at a building not unlike the one he is currently in: “He remembers the new vigour he used to feel at the end of three hours working with wax and mops and vacuum cleaners with Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese, going down the elevator. He will ride it to the bottom.” George is explicitly aligned here with subservient, manual labour, and his place in the social echelon is defined as residing at the bottom of the heap.
This is something that has been determined for him, and there is nothing he can do to change it. His lack of formal education is a MacGuffin; in Toronto’s social hierarchy any access to the mechanisms by which he might better himself are closed to him. He is no more able to gain an office job in a Bay Street tower than the protagonist of Dorothy West’s story “The Typewriter,” who dreams of a corner office but ekes out a living as a janitor. If he displays a sense of entitlement in his idea that he should be allowed to simply walk into the bank and be given a junior executive position, it is only because others – with white skin and the resources to access private school education – are able to do exactly that.
Even Pat, the unemployed actress who lives in the same rooming house as George, manages to better herself, albeit in a more modest way. She applies for and gets a job as a waitress in a local restaurant “where a lot of television and radio types eat” – that is, she is granted the foot in the door that George is prevented from achieving.
It is significant to note that neither George nor Pat is named until late in the story; they remain anonymous for the bulk of the narrative, like the anonymous denizens of the city’s underclass. Pat is white, with ugly red cold sores on her back; George Elliott Clarke has suggested the red and white pallor of her skin makes her a stand-in for the ugliness that is Canada in Clarke’s story. This may be so, but the story also insists on a resemblance between the two characters: it is difficult for either a black man or a white woman to succeed, though the white woman has a marginally easier time of it due to the accident of her heritage.
The story’s final scene features yet another descent, this time into the subway, where George will take his life by throwing himself in front of a train. As he does so, he notes the “happy eyes” of the driver, who is gainfully employed and on his way home after the last run of his shift. In the final moments of the story, the engine’s headlights are compared to the sores on Pat’s back: if George Elliott Clarke is correct in his assessment, this final metaphorical moment sees Canada – in all its multicultural glory – ultimately flattening one of its hopeful immigrants for good.