By AMANDA GIBB
Former Toronto Poet Laureate Elliot George Clarke’s recently published book, Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir, weaves a narrative about his experiences growing up Black and part Indigenous in Nova Scotia.
Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, and raised in Halifax. Today, he’s a Beach resident and English professor at the University of Toronto.
Clarke was Toronto’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2015, and the National Poet Laureate of Canada from 2016 to 2017.
Toronto’s Poet Laureate attends events in the city and attracts people to the wonders of the literary world. Toronto’s Poet Laureates are chosen based on the excellence of their work and themes relevant to Torontonians.
Clarke is an accomplished author and poet with many published works before he decided to chronicle his early life in a vulnerable, insightful way.
Clarke said he started writing his memoir while in a little Italian town called Tropea in 2017, and that his first draft covered his entire life and explored the significance of particular objects.
He said his editor, Amanda Betts, suggested it was too broad of a subject, and recommended he start on a narrative covering the first 20 years of his life.
“Finally I’m once again in Tropea but it’s 2018 and I start to write it more appropriately with a greater sense of direction and just trying to write about those first 20 years. It was great advice because I suddenly started to realize or to remember…It really took that directive…for me to actually begin to get the memories that were really important to come back,” said Clarke.
He said that’s why the book begins as it does, and that he realized in the place he was born and nearby there was an incredible landscape filled with mountains, food, agriculture, creativity, and best of all, his family members.
“All of them (aunts, uncles, grandparents) were so present in my childhood…to me they lived in a paradise, a utopia,” said Clarke.
“One of the hardest things about writing this memoir was coming to an end. Every time I would think that I was finished and it’s done, I had reached age 20 and I’ve got all the revelations out I needed to get out, another memory would come up.”
The memoir focuses on cultural and family dynamics as well as the unique experiences that shaped Clarke’s life in the Black community centred in Halifax that he calls “Africadia.”
“I would love for people to feel entertained, as well as edified, and informed. I want them to know more about my particular community, which is not very well known…I want people to know about the historical African Nova Scotian community, the people I call Africadian. We’ve been part of Nova Scotia’s history for 200 years,” he said.
Clarke said that his family lineage in the Maritimes on his mother’s and father’s sides go back at least 200 years or more.
His great-grandfather, William Andrew White, was the first Black officer (non-commissioned) in the British Army. From Nova Scotia, White served as a chaplain for the British Army in the First World War.
Clarke’s Indigenous heritage goes back to his Mi’kmaq and Cherokee family members. “Thousands of Africadians are also Afro-Metis – a term that foregrounds our Indigenous heritage,” he writes in the book. “It is not to be confused with the mainly Euorpean/Caucasian derived Metis Nation of Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. We possess our own culture, of which we are – at long last – proud.”
Clarke said he feels strongly connected to his Nova Scotia roots.
“I do feel that connection and I am rooted and feel like I belong. The reason why I live in the upper Beaches now is that I want to be as close to Nova Scotia as I can get without having to leave Toronto,” he said.
Clarke said that the prevalence of seagulls and all the places in the Beach to grab fish and chips, beer, and rum remind him of the East Coast. He said that he can imagine other Atlantic Canadians and Black Canadians call the Beach home partly because of its similarities to the Maritimes.
“I know there’s more than just me, and we’ve probably been drawn to Toronto for the same reasons…In my own observation, there’s something in the air and the sense of an oceanic vista and the sense of a boardwalk on Queen Street East,” he said.
“There’s a sense of utter democracy at work with everyone being a neighbour on the boardwalk, a neighbour on the sand, and that brings me back to Nova Scotia.”
Clarke said that despite long episodes of discord between him and his father William Lloyd Clarke and sometimes his mother Geraldine Elizabeth Clarke, he said that he’s blessed to have had them as parents.
“I would like my readers to understand that every word out of this book came from deep respect and appreciation,” he said.
Clarke illustrated the contrast between his parents in his memoir. He said that his mother was a phenomenal and powerful woman who started daycares, dressed fancily, and loved to listen to The Temptations and The Supremes. His father was a stern, hardworking man who worked on an overnight train, with a love for classical music, the written word, and creating art.
“It was a glorious, multicultural education in one household because they were both really keen on exposing my brothers and I to experiences,” said Clarke.
“This book is about how a young Black kid in Halifax grows up to believe that he has potential to become a poet of all things,” he said.
To see a preview of Where Beauty Survived and to learn more about Clarke’s story, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/548303/where-beauty-survived-by-george-elliott-clarke/