Sharp, Dark, and Startling: In This City

clarke-city-225So, more work creeping into the list at this point as I am falling behind the pace in my dissertation work. But Austin Clarke’s 1992 collection of short stories In This City is a great read. If you don’t know Clarke’s work, you need to go and read some of his stuff. He is probably one of the most under-rated Canadian writers. He was writing hard-edged black fiction for almost 40 years before he finally received some recognition in his 2002 Giller Prize win for The Polished Hoe. His Toronto trilogy (consisting of The Meeting PointStorm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) is worth picking up if you can find it.

Enough gushing about Clarke, on to the stories of In This City. The collection is set almost entirely in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the recurrent motifs in the stories is the shooting of a Jamaican man by the Toronto Police, an event that sends out ripples of fear and catalyzes the growing anti-racism movement. If you didn’t know, Toronto unfortunately has a long history of racist police brutality leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee in the wake of the 1988 Lester Donaldson shooting (see this page if you want more on some of the violence that has occurred). The characters in Clarke’s collection vary in age, gender, and politics with some hoping to just get by and others furious and protesting this racist atmosphere. Where some writers can let their politics overtake the narrative, I think Clarke is much more sophisticated than that. The opening story, “Gift-Wrapped,” centers on a young girl from Timmins who is trying to make it in Toronto. However, her skin colour seems to have limited her job opportunities to just getting by in an office tower on Bay Street. As Christmas approaches, she feels alone, having almost no friends except a lesbian co-worker who took a pass at the narrator and a former roommate who has left the city. Her white boss once took a pass at her after taking her out for drinks as well, and the story seems to be heading towards the maudlin. However, Clarke throws a twist I did not see coming when *spoiler* the same boss shows up at her door on Christmas morning because his wife knows that she has no one in the city on Christmas day. This action is wonderfully ambiguous: does Bill actually mean well in this action, or has he been forced into it by his wife and some form of potential guilt? But I also think that it is an uplifting gesture of humanity when the narrator has seen how cold and indifferent the streets of Toronto can be in the winter. Similarly, “I’m Running for my Life” paints a complicated picture of a black domestic’s relationship with her white employer whose wife has just left him.

Clarke is a powerful writer and the stories in In This City will open up new views of Toronto. I read some of these stories while wandering the city’s streets and the city that Clarke explores is very different from the one in tourist brochures. These stories are particularly eye-opening if you, like me, are white and sheltered from the raft of problems that come when poverty, racism, and violence meet. 

I highly recommend Clarke’s collection of stories for any fans of CanLit and especially for the citizens of Toronto.

Clarke, Austin. In This City. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992. Print.

 

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