How Much More Can We Take?

Austin Clarke, More (New York: Amistad, 2010); 300 pages; ISBN 978-0887623530 (paper).

• April 2011

More is the latest novel from Austin Clarke, one of the most prominent and prolific Caribbean Canadian writers. After the critical success of The Polished Hoe (2002), which won several high-profile awards, Clarke has returned in his new novel to a Toronto setting, as well as returning to several themes that are central to his body of work. A timely text, More was first published in 2008 when the infamous “Summer of the Gun”—the period in 2005 during which there was a massive amount of media focus on gun violence in Toronto’s mostly Caribbean-descended black community—was still fresh in the minds of Toronto residents. With More, Clarke responds to the mainstream media’s sensationalist reading of the community by foregrounding the voice of one of those who has until now only been seen weeping and gesturing over the bodies of dead children: a mother.

More is the story of a woman in an abusive relationship with the city. Idora Morrison—Bajan by birth, Torontonian by virtue of the need for domestic servants in the 1980s—spends the majority of the novel in her basement apartment in downtown Toronto, her mind roving restlessly through her history, her churches, the city, her desires, and her relationships with her friends, her son, and “that man” who left her for America. Her contemplations build to form a burning indictment of the city as she vacillates between loving it and hating it. The novel begins when Idora awakens to the first day she will not get out of bed. She is alone in her apartment—her husband left her years ago in order to look for permanent work in New York City and now her son has disappeared, though it is not clear whether she kicked him out or he left of his own free will. Idora’s phone rang several times in the middle of the night and she did not answer it. The narration switches back and forth between free indirect discourse and large chunks of Idora’s first-person quoted speech, providing a narrative that is as intimate as it is complex. Like many of Clarke’s works, More has a relatively simple plot and takes place over a rather limited amount of time, in this case from Thursday to Sunday, but within these limits repeated motifs as diverse as the biblical story of Jonah, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and the sounds of bullets and bells are woven into the narrative, piecing together an image of a life defined by fear and passion.

Clarke pulls readers into the troubled mind of Idora, a finely drawn character who challenges the representation of black women within the Canadian media as either suffering saints or wanton child neglecters. Idora is a woman within whom fear (of the death of her dreams, of men) and passion (religious and sexual) war for supremacy. Idora’s life is inescapably shaped by colonialism and white supremacy in Barbados and Canada, and, like many former colonial subjects, she has a complicated relationship with these forces. The key areas where this fraught relationship is evident are her church-going practices and her relationship to her body. Idora’s attendance at both a staid Anglican Cathedral in the heart of the city and a small Apostolic church on the city’s periphery and her decision of which church to attend on any given Sunday is an obvious example of this internal conflict, as is her fondness for both her emphatically African curves and whitening pancake makeup. Living within such contradictions, Idora pours her passion into her religious practices and tries to distract herself from her sometimes suppressed, sometimes thwarted sexuality. The other driving force in Idora’s life—fear—is more uniformly damaging. Fear of young men, especially young black men, has become such a part of public consciousness that Idora is unable to see how giving into this fear that makes enemies of boys like her own son perpetuates the system that kills them.

Police brutality toward young black men is a theme that has long been present in Clarke’s writing, particularly in some of his short stories. In More, Clarke situates police brutality within an overall history of violence that is woven into the fabric of Canadian society. Idora recalls reading Canadian Murders magazine (which as far as I can tell is fictional) back in Barbados, and the police-perpetrated murders of West Indian men are repeatedly returned to throughout the text. Idora has kept a newspaper clipping of one such incident for many years after it happened and it also serves as a topic of conversation and commiseration among the patrons of a beauty shop; the text makes it clear that even when these acts of state-sanctioned violence have passed from the general public consciousness, they haunt those communities that are targeted, remaining as whispers of doubt and unbelonging. Possibly a response to the oft-repeated complaint that the black community doesn’t cooperate with the police when they are investigating shootings, Clarke reminds his readers that there is substantial reason for the community to be wary of, if not hostile toward, the police. Idora’s friend Josephine, a white graduate student, serves as a window to the complicity and ineffectualness of the average white Canadian in the face of the overt racism and violence perpetrated by some members of the police force. Most significantly, the climax of the text poses the question as to whether it makes a difference whether one is shot by gang-affiliated black youth or by racist white police officers—in each situation, justice is beyond the reach of the average citizen and, in each case, one is still dead.

To fully engage with the context of these conflicts, Clarke writes the city in a detailed and intimate way. This approach, however, makes it quite jarring whenever he slips up. Some instances of this are insignificant, but others, particularly those where he unsuccessfully tries to present the youth vernacular, are more insistently bothersome.  A Toronto teenager is quoted as saying, “You’re not my fucking muvver”; this and other uses of contextually inappropriate dialect underscore the fact that Clarke is more equipped to voice convincing middle-aged immigrant characters than young people. Fortunately, Idora’s voice doesn’t suffer from the same problem; her voice is dynamic and poetic without being unnatural. Perhaps the text’s unsteady grasp on the voices and perspectives of youth actually contributes to the strength of the story, insofar as it mirrors Idora’s own inability to understand and reach her son.

More talks back to the media’s oversimplified interpretations of violence within the black community while also representing the power it wields to create fear within that community. By foregrounding police racism and brutality, the distrust that necessarily results from these forces, and the way that skills developed for coping with the constant disappointment that can be a part of the immigrant experience run the risk of perpetuating familial and social dysfunction, Clarke offers his readers a far more nuanced understanding of the roots and results of racialized urban violence.

 

Asha Jeffers is a Canadian soon-to-be-PhD student who received an Honors BA in English from the University of Guelph and an MA in cultural studies and critical theory from McMaster University. Before returning to academia, she is traveling the world.

 

Related Articles