For our May 2013 read, we shall be travelling to mid-20th century Barbados through the work of Austin C Clarke. Amongst Thistles and Thorns was originally published in 1965, this edition from 2011, has been republished by the Leeds based publishers of Caribbean and black British writing Peepal Tree Press.
Join us on Sunday 26 May 2013 3pm at Waterstones Piccadilly. We shall be on the 5th floor - out of the lift or at the top of the stairs, turn left and we should be at the big table on the right hand side.
What's it about
Set in Barbados in the early 1950s, this uncompromising novel depicts the pain of childhood in a world where poverty and blackness are despised, and kids are treated as objects on which adults can take out their self-contempt and frustration. Milton Sobers is a nine-year-old on the run from a series of sadistic beatings from both his schoolmaster and his washer-woman mother. Dreaming of a life in Harlem, which is predominately black, open, and free, Milton encounters many comic and sad adventures that inevitably return him to the situation he was trying to escape. Originally published in 1965, this pertinent portrayal of the destruction of innocence explores the commonality of physical violence in the lives of Caribbean youth while offering hope for the intelligent child protagonist.
About the author
Born in Barbados in 1934, Clarke was educated at Harrison College and became a schoolteacher before moving to Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. Beginning in 1959, Clarke worked as a freelance broadcaster for the CBC, for which he recorded a series of interviews and documentaries on racial issues in North America and Britain. This began a prolific period in Clarke's career, during which he wrote several short stories and the novels Survivors of the Crossing (1964), Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965), and The Meeting Point (1967); followed by the novel Storm of Fortune (1973) and a collection of short stories entitled When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1973). In the mid-1980s Clarke published two collections of short stories When Women Rule (1985) and Nine Men Who Laughed (1986), as well as the novel Proud Empires (1986). Returning in the early 1990s to the short story form, Clarke published the collections In This City (1992) and There Are No Elders (1993). In 1992, in response to a riot, Clarke produced Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth, a pamphlet. Also in the 1990s, Clarke wrote A Passage Back Home (1994), a memoir of his friendship with the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, and Pig tails 'n Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food (1999), a “food memoir” that combines recipes with memories of Clarke's formative years in Barbados. Clarke's 1997 novel The Origin of Waves won him the inaugural Rogers Communications Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 1998. Clarke's memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980), won the 1980 Casa de las Americas Prize for Literature. Over the course of his career, Clarke has held many political, professional, and academic positions, including: Cultural Attacheé to the Barbadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; General Manager of The Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados; and visiting lecturer in creative writing and African American literature at Yale, Brandeis, Duke, the University of Texas, and the University of Western Ontario.
I bought my copy of Amongst Thistles and Thorns from the Peepal Tree Press stand in Waterstones Piccadilly, where the Black Reading Group meets each month. It was an impressive selection of books on the branded pop-up stand and we were excited to see it there. The fact is while I am a Waterstone's customer, I've rarely bought books at the Piccadilly branch. [My regular High Holborn Waterstone's was shut down earlier this year.] However, since we met the Waterstone's black books co-ordinator last year, we have paid more attention to their selections and some of us have browsed the black books section that has been developed there.
I know that there is much debate on whether all the black authors books should be in one section, or dispersed throughout the book store according to genre. Wouldn't it be be great it either option was always the case in any bookshop that we chose to frequent? More often than not, the selection is non-existent or limited and its a struggle to find some of the authors we'd prefer to to read. I know that many people feel really strong about this issue - that authors have nothing in common - so it is odd to group them simply based on skin colour. Or that the black book sections create an an unnecessary - non-literary divide. I understand all of that. However the thing is Waterstone's Piccadilly bills itself as the biggest bookshop in Europe and so it would be a real travesty if it did not have a coherent and quality selection of black author's works on its shelves. Now that we know that it is there, it is certainly worth a browse.
Anyway all this preamble is a bit of a diversion tactic. I bought Amongst Thistles and Thorns a while ago, I have yet to start it - I have been diverted by and am now close to the end of Chimamanda's brilliant love & hair story Americanah. I pretty much selected Amongst Thistles and Thorns at random, knowing that there was a feeling in the book club that we should read more Caribbean based literature. It has been a while since we'd read a book set in the Caribbean.
I don't believe that we've ever read anything set in Barbados, but inspired by Andrea Stuart's memoir and history of the island - Sugar in the Blood, A Family's Story of Slavey and Empire my interview with Andrea here, I think that it will be fascinating to see how the island is described in its fiction. Though I appreciate that the title - from God's punishment to Adam after he's eaten the apple, does not suggest that this will be a totally happy easy going read. I did not think I'd read anything by Austin C Clarke, but a quick review of his biography, shows that I do have his food memoir Pigtails 'n" Breadfruit: The Rituals of Slave Food, A Barbadian Food Memoir - the only Caribbean food memoir that I have and I don't remember a thing about it. Here is one of the stories from the food memoir: Bakes