Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Tuesday, May 13, 2003  

Good lord. Austin Clarke's The Polished Hoe has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

I'm a few days late with the news, having just heard; but had I heard before, it probably would have taken me this long to write about it, as I would have needed the time to recover. Regular readers of this blog would know that when The Polished Hoe won the Canada and Caribbean leg of the Prize, I blogged about it, saying that I had tried to read it before but couldn't make it through, and would try again. Well I did, and made all the way through, all 450+ pages. Then I reviewed it for the Trinidad & Tobago Review (alas, not online); a largely negative but diplomatic critique. I reasoned that the book's metropolitan success was due to the fact that it had been written for a Canadian audience, who would relish the book's "exoticism" and colonial themes, but that as fiction it had been (in my estimation) very much found wanting. It was tedious and overwritten, more monograph than novel, I said. And, might I add, I wasn't alone in thinking so.

Well, as we say in Trinidad, who send me? The Polished Hoe has now won three prizes, will be celebrated on every hand, and Austin Clarke will become everyone's darling. Now, not for a moment would I say, as Naipaul used to say about the Nobel committee (before he won the Nobel) that the Commonwealth judges are pissing on literature from a great (or any) height. It is amazing that literary tastes could be so disparate, but there you go. They loved the book. I didn't. They said why they loved it; I said why I didn't. I certainly would never tell anyone not to read it (would that I could have such power!). In fact, I look forward to hearing what people who will now be reading the book for the first time have to say about it, particularly the English reviews.

Some say what matters most is not agreement on a book's greatness, but on its influence. Austin Clarke certainly has been a great influence on Canadian writing over the years - specifically black Canadian writing. In fact, one of the black Canadian authors who holds Clarke in high esteem is Dionne Brand, who happened to chair this year's panel of judges for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Not that I'm implying that had anything to do with anything. Oh no. Perish the thought....

posted by Jonathan | 12:44 AM 0 comments


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