An Interview with Austin Clarke
June 2003

Kelly Hewson

In addition to receiving the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Austin Clarke is the winner of the 2002 Giller Prize and the 2003 Trillium Prize for The Polished Hoe, a bestseller in Canada. The author of six short story collections and nine other novels, Clarke was born in Barbados and migrated to Canada to attend the University of Toronto. He was a key figure in the civil rights movement in Toronto and a significant contributor to the emerging black cultural movement in North America. Clarke has served as visiting professor at Yale, Brandeis, Williams, Wellesley, Duke, and the universities of Texas and Indiana, as well as serving in prominent cultural and political positions in his native Barbados. He is also the winner of the 1999 W.O. Mitchell Prize, which is awarded each year to a Canadian writer who has produced an outstanding body of work and served as a mentor for other writers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Austin Clarke on the occasion of the awarding of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in Calgary, Alberta in May 2003. Part of our conversation began there and continued by e-mail, with the able assistance of Mary Jo Macdonald.

KH: At the Sandstone Bar in the Hyatt Regency Calgary before the winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2003 were announced, you expressed that, while it was fine indeed to have won other literary prizes for The Polished Hoe, you really wanted to win this prize: the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Can you tell us why this particular prize was so important to you?

AC: It was important for me to win the 2003 Commonwealth Prize, in spite of the fact that I had already won the Giller Prize, the Ontario Trillium Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book for the region of Canada and the Caribbean, because of two expressions of what I call malevolent animus made when I won the Giller Prize, and secondly because I am, culturally, a member of the Commonwealth, having been born and raised in Barbados, at that time a colony of Great Britain.

When I won the Giller Prize — and I was not as shocked to have won as I myself might have insinuated that night of November 5th — but I think I expressed that sentiment because of propriety and what my Mother used to call “decentness,” that it “was poor” to have blurted out my unreserved expectation to win. I felt that at least, I had a very good chance to win the Giller, based upon the fact that all the major reviews of The Polished Hoe singled out the novel for praise and literary association with the acknowledged major writers of all time: Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, and even the Greek tragedians. And I felt that, unless this opinion was written simply for the sake of writing it (and this could not be the case since the Canadian literary establishment is not disposed to giving praise to the fiction writing of West Indians, at least not in generous significance), with this unalloyed praise for the novel — calling it a “definite” masterpiece, and, alternatively, a “possible” masterpiece — and since none of the other four books short-listed had received this universal acknowledgement of literary greatness, I could reasonably assume that I had a chance to win.

Now the animus I referred to earlier lay in the reservation on the part of those who insinuated, very strongly and with malevolence, that I had won the Giller more as a result of someone's intention to agree with the concept of affirmative action, or that it was given to me on the basis of my body of work — a kind of reward for a lifetime achievement — more than for the fact that the book could have been the best amongst the five being considered for 2002. I personally resented such a nasty, neo-racist comment, which suggested that the best writing in Canada is done only by white people.

The second reason for wanting to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book award for The Polished Hoe, is related to the first reason I mentioned: being adjudged by an international jury to be the author of the best book for 2003 put the lie to the insinuation that because of affirmative action and a lifetime achievement measurement The Polished Hoe somehow squeezed through to win the Giller Prize. The point is that the book had previously beat out all of the books short-listed for the Giller, including novels by Guy Vanderhaeghe and Rohinton Mistry, which were not short-listed. I felt, I am sorry to say, vindictive. Now, to feel vindictive, and have a tinge of vengeance in my sensibilities, is not a healthy disposition to have to admit to. But as I have said, the animus surrounding my having won the Giller, though despicable, was unsavoury, to say the least.

Then, to acknowledge the glory, or the celebrity status that the Commonwealth Writers Prize has brought — and I am not so immodest as not to face this — means that despite reservations that might have existed in the minds of some, in insinuating that the creative writing of West Indians (and black people) is not equal to that of other regions of the Commonwealth that are white (even though we might have used these very regions' literary output as the models for our own work, at the beginning, in the 40s and early 50s), still the record of the Caribbean Literary Renaissance that took place — ironically in London — between 1950 and 1970, with V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Edgar Mittelholtzer, Jan Carew, Wilson Harris, Earl Lovelace, and others, had already established us world-wide as a formidable literary force.

So, my association to the Commonwealth, in a very real sense, added to my enthusiasm to win the Commonwealth Prize. It really has nothing to do with getting even, although one might very well come to that conclusion. The writer can do nothing about that, in the same way as the writer can do nothing about a contradictory interpretation of his novel to the one he has, once the novel has got into the critical arms of a reviewer or a professor of English Literature.

To put it bluntly, the Commonwealth is a larger, and more diverse society than is Canada; and from that width, I feel, comes — other things being equal — a disposition of depth: The Polished Hoe was up against a tougher competition, because of the geographical-cultural-literary dimension of the Commonwealth of Nations, than the Giller could ever be, for obvious reasons.

KH: You are having over for a dinner, for the first time, a person you very much admire. Could you give us a sense of what your preparations might consist?

AC: If I were having a person I admire very much to dinner, for the first time, I would try to reflect in the ambience the clarity of my affection for that person, so that the food I cooked would re-emphasize the sincerity of my affection for the person. I would worry about the menu, what to serve, and how to serve it. Not because I did not know the tastes of the guest, but because I would have so many “foods” from which to choose. And it would depend upon the time of the year — summer is not a good time for entertaining. Summer is too informal and casual. September, with the colours and the chill in the air, and the quiet and the dramatic change in the light of day and of night, and the tendency that people dress with more care and style in the autumn: all this would militate against what I do, or, perhaps I should say, all this would affect my preparations.

Let us say then that I am entertaining — “cooking food for” — this person whom admire, in September. I would still prepare a West Indian meal, more than a meal that could be called European, or international. Lamb is a favourite meat of mine, but I doubt I would cook that.

My preparations would begin at about nine in the morning. I would walk from where I live to the Kensington Market, at Spadina Avenue just south of College, and roam through the Market, not with a fixed menu in my mind, but I would select the food items, “ingreasements,” as I came upon them in the open-air stalls. If I am in a good mood, for mood is everything in a host, as it could be in a guest . . . I would choose the food to reflect that mood.

I would choose asparagus, red grapes, lettuce, green onions, fresh thyme, fresh parsley, cilantro, fresh hot red peppers, avocado, small tomatoes, ginger, nutmeg, salt fish, West Indian sweet potatoes, a tin of Jamaican ackees, and some fresh ox-tails. Chinese sticky (glutinous) rice and Basmati rice . . .

The house would be filled with red flames, incense; wine glasses put for white and red, cheese and cashews (unsalted); snifters for the cognac afterwards, all these would be laid out. Candles would be lit, and music would be playing. . . the music would change during the dinner. I would not play classical music, nor music that might be considered seductive — in case the guest was a woman.

I would serve a little Jamaican ackee and salt fish, with a white wine, and a salad of Boston lettuce, a slice of avocado, and a light but piquant dressing. The next course would be fried plantain and one ox-tail, with sliced tomatoes generously covered in thinly sliced green onions. This would be eaten with a Bombay Gin sapphire martini.

The next course will be asparagus, sprinkled with fresh parsley, and lemon squeezed on them, and some blue cheese and Cambozola sliced beside the asparagus.

Main course would be more ox-tail, rice (Chinese mixed with Basmati), fried thick slices of tomatoes. . . . This would be eaten with red wine.

At this stage, both of us might very well be drunk, so the cognac would come out, (if the person is a smoker, then cigars or cigarettes), and the music would change to calypso, probably Crazy; and naturally — or is it natural? — the conversation would be about politics, with no mention of writing, or reading Canadian Literature. . .

KH: What do you see at this moment as you look out your window, assuming you have a window to look out at the world on?

AC: My Study has two windows through which I look, most of the day, and even at night right until four or five or six, very often. I see the Park, Moss Park, sometimes a dreary, and dangerous-looking place — men and women criss-crossing the playing field and the grass; children on the swings during the day when it is “safe” and, at night, these same swings are taken up by men and women. I know now, through custom and regular observation, that many of these persons are prostitutes and pimps, or just plain homeless persons. The character of the sidewalk across from my windows changes during the day and night. Early in the morning, the people are well-dressed, look urgent, and give the impression they are not like those who hang out in the Park, all day. Then again, there is a change when the sportsmen, (footballers, baseball players, joggers) take over the fields; and women have gardens in the Communal Kitchen Garden area; and there is a tennis court.

Now, two years ago, every morning at eight, and until eight in the evening a man, whom we named “Mike” appeared on the sidewalk opposite — always on that same sidewalk — with his possessions in a bag strung across his chest, and he would walk very slowly, taking an hour to move fifty yards, as he stood and looked, and never spoke. . . and he did this every day, every day of the year, for two years. The neighbours, pretending to be creative writers, speculated that he came from a middle-class home up in the suburb of Scarborough and that his daughter brought him to the Salvation Army Hostel around the corner, and deposited him there; and the reason he stands and looks every day of the year, is that he is expecting his daughter to come back for him. Mike disappeared two years ago. He turned up in Winnipeg!

Nowadays, there is another, more malevolent-looking character. A man who has a big belly, a pony tail and a vicious dog, the kind of dog we had in Barbados, which my Mother called a “brute-beast.”  This man has this dog on a tight leash, and I get the impression that he is vicious enough to tear your guts out. The man, in the winter, unlatched the gate to the tennis court, and let him run around. He snarls at other dogs most of the time. When he was apparently warned not take the dog in the enclosure of the tennis court, he took him to the enclosure of the Communal Kitchen Garden, because it was winter. Now, the kitchen garden is planted up. And there is no man and no dog. . . . The neighbour to my East, who knows everything that happens in the neighbourhood, named, quite ironically, The Garden District, says that he is in jail where he goes regularly during the winter for “beating up people.”

Women come out as early as five o'clock in the morning, and end up in SUVs, Mercedes-Benzes, and BMWs, and if you look carefully, you can see the springs of these expensive vehicles moving to the rhythm of what my Mother called “carnal knowledge.”  But it might very well be nothing more than the imagination of the novelist.

So, from my two windows, I see degradation, I see raw and unadorned, hasty love, I see voluptuousness, sex — never violence; never-ever molestation of any kind. I see poverty. Homelessness. And I see bad health. And people glorying in the luck of having borrowed a cigarette from a stranger, equally disadvantaged. Those less fortunate bend down to the gutter and pick their half-smoked and discarded cigarettes up from the street.

In a nutshell, I see Toronto, and Canada, and the world, from my windows. For we are all depraved — deliberately or vicariously.

KH: When, after witnessing your engaged, enthusiastic participation in the CWP week, I made a comment to you about the stamina, vibrancy, and lust for living manifested by you and a friend from Trinidad, you thanked me for the compliment but suggested that the thanks really should go to the West Indies. Could you elaborate?

AC: When I said that the “stamina, vibrancy, and lust for living” demonstrated by my “good buddy” [Earl Lovelace] from Trinidad and myself, that you were obviously impressed by, I was remarking quite simply on the West Indian approach to life — that it is to be lived so fully as one can contend with. In the West Indies, where material soundness is less pervasive in the society than it is in Calgary or in Toronto, we have learned how to “improvise” upon our fortunes, or lack of fortunes, and make the most of things. And a paramount disposition towards doing this is to know how to enjoy oneself, and glory in the enjoying of oneself.

That training, or that education to cherish one's lot, is almost religious; certainly it is moral. So, we rejoice in the simple fact of happiness and of laughter. But we were brought up in a tough culture, which is more than insular, and is in fact international — certainly it embraces the European and the African at the same time; and since much of it has been deployed in the West Indies with us, either as witnesses or as participants, we have learned “how to live.”  Derek Walcott has a poem, “A Far Cry from Africa,” in which he discusses the importance and the place of multiculturalism, certainly of dual-nationality — African and European — that exists in all West Indians, and he asks the question to pin down the ambivalence:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the veins?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

It is more than a rhetorical question. I think, however, that Derek has the answer, knows the answer, but is playing with our honesty and with our morality; and, at the same time, is deliberately complicating the choice and the reasoning that must be engaged in, in order to give the answer that makes the choice. But I think also that the answer is personal. Earl Lovelace may not agree with my answer, and I with Earl's.

Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

When Derek won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was asked to explain how such a small place, St. Lucia, could produce so many Nobel  Laureates — as a matter of fact, two! — himself and Sir Arthur Lewis,  the economist.

Derek said, “It is in the food we eat.”  He did not mean fish, which is plentiful in the West Indies.

Yes. It is in the food we eat in the West Indies that we are so resilient. But our resiliency does not relate only to the physical aspect of food, but embraces the other kinds of  “food.”  The food of instruction, in the laps of our mothers, in the embraces of our sisters, in the “learning” that we receive from these women.

KH: If the West Indies is responsible for your stamina, vibrancy and lust for living, among a host of other things, what has Canada, or more specifically, Toronto, been responsible for?

AC: Canada is responsible for my ability to be patient, to be reflective, to be forgiving, and to be impulsive. Canada, meaning Toronto — since in my opinion Canada is merely a macrocosm of Toronto — is responsible for my being ambitious and competitive; it places me at the centre of such “virtues.”  I do not mean “virtues” to suggest only good things, moral ways of looking at self, and others; I mean “virtues” to include badness, nastiness, even something like the animus associated with my winning the Giller. Toronto has provided a means, with less frustration and exertion of energy and anxiety, than could have been the case had I returned to Barbados, or any other West Indian country, to do my writing. That is to say, to be there as an intellectual and a artist, criticizing the society in which I live.

There is an anonymity that disassociates you from the ideas and opinions you yourself proclaim, that separates you as the thinker from you as the person, which is impossible in society that is so small, incestuous, tribal as we have in the West Indies.

Toronto, in blunt terms, allows me to be “free” — to do whatever I like. Even breaking the law, for which I know, as an intelligent person, the consequences of that behaviour. So, I won't embark on that anti-social behaviour, as a new career; but shall stick to my present one, and relish the anonymity of being a Toronto-Canadian writer that I mentioned.

KH: This interview will be published in a new online, open-access journal called Postcolonial Text. To quote: “it [Postcolonial Text] is one of a new generation of electronic journals committed to publishing critical and creative voices within and across disciplinary boundaries, edited by a team spanning three continents, and backed by a highly regarded international editorial board representing the best in postcolonial, cultural and literary studies.” Whew. And to further quote: “This journal's content will be free to read and globally indexed, making it readily available around the world.” Do you think an interview has less prestige if it's not “in print?”

AC: I do not understand what you mean by “not in print.”  But assuming you mean an interview not printed on a regular page, as in a magazine or in a newspaper, then I think that in this modern electronic age, where the e-mail has already taken the place of a personal letter, to go one step farther, and present an interview electronically, that is to say “online,”  I feel, is equally effective in getting the message across to the reader. The other advantage is that the interview might be referred to more regularly because it is accessible. One would hardly fold up such an interview and put it on the morning of garbage collection in a tidily parcelled blue-box!

If, however, you imply in your question that, if such an interview as this were published, traditionally, in a magazine like Vanity Fair, which has an established prestige, then it is likely that, unless the online service had a similar reputation, one would say that Vanity Fair outstrips the online service. But I do not think it matters one way or the other. What matters is the content and the erudition and the clarity of thought expressed in the interview. Where it is published, other things being equal, is of less consequence.

KH: What does the term “postcolonial” mean to you?

AC: I do not like the term “post-colonial.”  I think it has not the meaning that academicians ascribe to it. I feel that if I say “colonial,” I am referring to a precise state of mind, or state of imposition, a state of declared superiority. And even if “colonial” — which refers to the vehicle of that mentality and that oppression — is no longer couched in the administration of the despicable attitude known as the “colonial,” until there is no trace recognizable of that attitude; and if, as in fact is the case, there are strong remnants of “colonialism,” then “post”- colonial is an absurd term.

I understand, that, in the tendency amongst academicians and intellectuals, for the sake of economy, and, in order to categorize things and topics and concepts neatly, the term “post-colonial” is functional; but I do not think that it describes what those very academicians and intellectuals want it to connote. Or is it, to denote?

In the 1940s when Barbados was still politically and socially and culturally a colony of Britain's, our way of life, in fact our entire life, was “colonial.” Now in the year 2003, when Barbados is constitutionally independent, but only politically and as a administrative entity, there is still a “colonial” mentality irredeemably woven into every aspect of social behaviour and social intercourse in that country. This “colonial” behaviour is caused by our history and our acquaintance with (perhaps, also, our acceptance of) that history. Without that “colonial” history we would not then be Barbadians. What then is “post” about this attitude and behaviour and mentality, that endures long after constitutional independence?

KH: In what has been deemed the age of globalization, do you feel  “the local” is disappearing?

AC: The only usage of the term  that I am acquainted with is its reference to a favourite place of drinking with friends.

If this is what you mean, then I should like to say, that in my humble opinion, the “local” is very much alive and thriving. In my own case, I do not like strange places, having come from a society which, ironically, favoured “clubs”, even private clubs, into which Barbadians earlier on were not admitted, as part of the British colonialist racist policy. This racist policy obtained throughout the Commonwealth. I was reading recently of a lamentable situation in Kenya in the days preceding independence when a British family, wife and husband and one child, farmers on land previously owned by Africans, administered “beatings” regularly without the British Administration's reproof, beatings which ended, once, in a tragic way: the “boy,” beaten with a part of a car tire, died. The farmer family was tried for murder. The court’s evidence showed that this was a common practice amongst white farmers throughout Africa, at that time of colonial rule, and up until recently. What I find interesting about this episode, which involved the British family, the Selwyns, is its closeness to my novel The Polished Hoe, which is more a novel of the imagination, than it is a historical novel. And yet, almost verbatim, this culture of brutality and beatings of the native population, all of whom were called “boys,” prevailed in a part of the world, on the opposite side from Barbados.

But to get back to the point, the favouring of “locals,” euphemistically known as “private clubs.”  Clubbish-ness is nothing to fear, or to feel is anti-feminist. I feel that men need to be with men only, at certain, important times. And the same with women. Naturally, the clubs established by Barbadians of a less privileged class than the expatriates, could not, in any way compete with the Aquatic Club, or the Bridgetown Club, portrayed in my novel, The Polished Hoe.

In my “local” which becomes a “club” in the sense that, on the same day, usually a Friday, I will sit with the same people — writers, businessmen, friends — in the same place at the bar, drinking the same drinks, talking the same things — “old-talking,” as the Trinidadians call such banter. This is healthy for the watering of a friendship which is cultivated. And this gathering on Fridays at the “local” does, in no way, challenge any group which may be averse to such a gathering. The “local” does not remain the same establishment. For the same camaraderie exists when we move the “locale” from, say, The Grand — my latest “local” — to Bistro 990, or to Bigliardi's, or to Vagara Bistro. One justification for a “local,” which probably is not universally admitted to, is that it gives privacy to the “patrons” who, had they been drinking in a more public location, would not have their predilection to the hard stuff noticed by the hoi-polloi.

KH: What does it mean/has it meant for a country to enshrine multiculturalism as a value, where we have at our base, ideally, a shared national identity as well as relations, if you like, to many elsewheres?

AC: It depends on how you define “a shared national identity.”  If this means the two so-called “founding nations, or founding cultures,” then — even if this were the truth years ago, the fact of French and English as two distinct and non-involved cultures where you can see the purity in that historical lineage not fading into the other so-called “founding” lineage — then the point is made. But I do not think that, for some time now, one can reasonably identify a “founding” culture as exclusively French, and the other as exclusively English. The ambitions and the futures of the two have now been melded into a “Canadian” nationality. But this is compounded and made a fool of by the insertion of people from cultures which are in direct cultural opposition to, if not hatred for the two so-called founding cultures, or races.

The second point in the question seems to suggest a confrontation of attitude, of belief, of intellectual contention that the two “founding” cultures are no longer important to identify, and that the multi-origins of the new inhabitants of Canada dispel not only any historical continuation with that belief in two founding peoples, but render the suggestion to be absurd, if not completely racist.

The third point which comes in my analysis of the entire question, is whether your concept of multiculturalism is not a misunderstood government policy. I feel that there is a great qualitative difference between what a cultural policy advocated by a government means and is supposed to mean, and that which comes naturally out of the mingling, and the natural gathering in one place of peoples from various cultures, and what those peoples, the participants, mean by the same term, multiculturalism.

I would venture that the most precise meaning and example of “multiculturalism” comes from the voluntary intermingling of many cultures on the same landscape, a social interaction which is not characterized by the normal racial tension, or what Frantz Fanon calls evidence of a “psycho-existential complex,” but is unfortunately not the character of Canada.

KH: If you could take a trip right now, where would you want to go and why?

AC: If I were to take a trip right now, to a place that I like, I would want to go to. . . let us say, Trinidad. There is something about Trinidad’s mingling of races and cultures that I find to be the supreme example in the world today, of the possibility of people living together.

Of course there is killings, but in which society today, is there not killings? Of course there is racial resentment, but where in the world is there not this enigma: in some places it is referred to as religious, or cult, or tribal animosity.

A positive result of this racial intermingling, evidenced in clear, precise, public expression, is the stunning beauty of men and women who carry this inter-mingling of races in their blood.

KH: You have been working at writing for many years now, not only producing novels but essays and short stories, the oft-anthologised “vehicles” through which many of us who are teachers/professors came to know you. I want to thank you for these riches before I go off, and ask you which are your personal favourites and why?

AC: My personal favourites amongst the things I have written (novels, short stories, essays, talks) are:

The Toronto Trilogy (The Meeting Point, 1967; Storm of Fortune, l973; The Bigger Light, 1975), because they are the most comprehensive, and still relevant, literary documentary on the experiences of the first significant West Indian population in Toronto. Some of the problems, views, dispositions and attitudes of these newcomers of the late 1950s are still relevant today.

When He was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (collection of short stories, 1980), because it is my first foray into the short form of fiction, and these stories portray the day-to-day anxieties and wonderful moments of the same West Indians discussed in The Toronto Trilogy. Humour and banter and self-reproach play a more literary and psychological role in the stories than in the novel.

When Women Rule (collection of short stories, 1985), to me my second best collection, which shows the degree men (immigrant men) are at the beck and call, at the mercy of women who, as immigrants also, have learned faster how to deal with the system, and in so doing, deal with their men. The men are at a disadvantage here: and they take out on the women the frustrations with the system. But the system is a man who is white. So their vindictiveness is aimed also, consequently, at the white man.

Nine Men who Laughed (collection of short stories, 1989): my best collection, ever, in which I discuss the “laughter” that distracts the “arrows” of racialism directed against black immigrants, and how this “laughter” provides a protective bark against future assaults.

The Origin of Waves (a novel, 1997), a commentary on the deceitfulness of language in personal conversation.

The Question (a novel, 1999), the second phase of the point made in The Origin of Waves, but with the difference that this novel investigates differences in culture, in social behaviour, of people who come from islands and from large continents, the latter meaning people who are more “civilized.”

The Polished Hoe (a novel, 2003), the culmination of all the themes I have been dealing with in my writing since 1964.

KH: You have been working at writing for many years now, and are, it is said by important commentators, reaping your just rewards. Do agree with this formulation?

AC: I agree with the contention, but would add that I was not waiting for this public adulation, as I had even then great confidence that the work I was doing would last, and eventually would be publicly acknowledged. But I did not rely upon this public adulation for the encouragement or the impetus to continue working, in isolation, personally in a small study,  or the public recognition of the hours spent in that personal isolation.

KH: You have been given a lifetime achievement award by the National Griot Society in Edmonton. After hearing what Kerri Sakamoto called your “fireside chat” at the Markin-Flanagan dinner in Calgary, after seeing you pull off a wonderfully eloquent and unprepared speech/story at the CWP gala dinner and, last October, after listening to you tell stories about black history to Mount Royal College students, I am not surprised. In this age of truncated narratives, cut to bits to fit this-or-that format, it is an absolute pleasure to listen to something from someone that swoops and swirls, digresses, recovers, runs-around, pauses and is, finally, substantial. My question: what makes for a good story and/or a good telling?

AC: Those of us brought up in the era before television, and with the warm companionship of the radio, plus the beautiful voices that told of narratives of history and of historical invention, were schooled in the art of speaking. We spent most nights, during the week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday “under the street lights,” talking and listening to the older boys talking and telling us of places across the seas, that they had seen in person “with their own two eyes!”, or had seen in the pages of the books they had borrowed from the Public Library, about the mysteries in the Far East, the Near East, and in mysterious India. We therefore always had, by this example of reading books about foreign countries, an ear, and an appetite for the adventurous was cultivated. And with the adventurous, there was bound to be an adventurousness about language and about writing and about talking. We were after all, fundamentally, an oral society. A talkative society.

A good story therefore, takes into consideration every aspect of a man's life; and the telling of that man's life, the narrative, must be a duplication of the nuances and the twists and turns of life, not only of that man's, but the life of any other man. A good story must have pacing, rhythm, riffs, flavour for the dramatic and the bizarre, it must have context; that is to say the story must appear to be rooted in a specific place and theme and plot, and the story must be magical in its presentation of the facts — and the facts need not be facts in the historical sense. The facts could all be invention and all lies. But the pacing of a story being told must echo the speaker's comprehension of the vicissitudes of the life of the person being talked about. There therefore can be no separation of the speaker and the person spoken about.

The ingredient of a good story is the story's story. Obviously, all stories do not have this historical structure, so the storyteller will have to invent one. Invention, or improvisation, as it is known in jazz, and in immigrant life, is the gist of the narrative. And a love of language, a working knowledge of the use of language by the great speakers and the great essayists in the world.