Although Barbadian-born Austin Clarke is widely known for his novels, the prolific writer also wrote several collections of short stories which helped to propel him into literary fame in Canada. When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, published in 1971, is the first of these short story collections and is centred upon the experience of immigration to Canada, stemming both from Clarke’s own experiences and his discussions from other Barbadian-Canadians, many of whom travelled as domestic workers for rich White families. Although most of the stories in this collection are written from a male perspective, Clarke’s story, “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto” deftly captures a feminine voice as she speaks on the phone to a friend, Clemmie, regarding an event to which she had been sent in her employer’s stead. While the speaker notes that the event was on to which she would not normally have access and was sent dressed in one of her employer’s coats, the enchantment was soon to disappear when she discovers that the gala to which she is sent is at which her island, Barbados, is being sold to white tourists. The white sand on display for the attendees to feel slip between their fingers is all too telling of the ephemeral nature of their attraction to the island nation of Barbados; while they appreciate the island during their vacation, it does not remain part of the white tourist as it does for the emigrant of the nation. Additionally, the narrator’s lack of access to the flying fish laid out for the consumption of those in attendance due to the white man in who has positioned himself in front of the food is demonstrative of her alienation from the food of her youth; as the speaker in the titular story of Clarke’s collection suggests: “there are many commercial and irrelevant soul food kitchens these days in … Toronto” (107). Although accessible, the commercial nature of these kitchens means that there is some essential, personal element missing from their food.
While Clarke captures the feminine voice well in “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto,” the majority of his female characters leave something to be desired. In “The Motor Car,” for instance, the Canadian woman to whom Calvin, the story’s protagonist, is attracted is often called “that Canadian thing,” highlighting her objectification and lack of established character. In addition to Calvin, the police who approach Calvin at the end of the story clearly do not pay and mind to the Canadian woman in the car when they transport her, neck broken, into their own cars, instead focusing on the apparent good deed Calvin has committed and commenting that they wish the “coloured people” (74) in Canada were more like those from the West Indies, clearly demonstrating their own racism.
The racism of the officers is telling in this story, where Calvin has attempted to assimilate himself into the Canadian culture, clearly indicating an “us” and a “them” in his first letter to his friend Willy, back in Barbados, following Calvin’s immigration: “The steering wheel [in Canada] as you know is on the left hand side, and we drives on the right hand side of the road up here, not like back in Barbados where you drive on the left hand” (56). In this statement it is clear that Calvin associates himself with Canada moreso than with his home nation of Barbados. However, this association with Canada is not concrete as it is clear to the aforementioned Canadian police officers that Calvin is from the West Indies, even if he self associates with Canada. Additionally, the narrator of this story makes it clear that Calvin is charged double the rent of the others who live in his building even though his apartment is smaller. This discrepancy is demonstrative of the economics of belonging as is depicted throughout many of Clarke’s works within his collection.
In addition to Calvin’s landlord charging him double rent, when Calvin tries to go to a calypso club in Toronto the doorman wishes to charge Calvin $3 which Calvin refuses to pay, instead he “curse the fellow and leff [SIC]” (58). In this moment, Calvin realizes that he no longer has unquestionable access to his own culture and must instead consume it as a commodified luxury, similar to the white tourists to Barbados in “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto.” Calvin is thus doubly alienated: his participation in Canadian culture is purely through economic means – clearly a critique of the West’s dependence on and reverence of capitalism – while his participation in his own, Barbadian culture is mediated, again, by economics and his willingness to pay the cover fee to enter the calypso bar. We can clearly see, then, that Clarke critiques the alienation that came with his, and others’, experiences with racism and lack of access to integration into the so-called Canadian mosaic of multiculturalism.