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George Elliott Clarke turns to father's 1959 journal for inspiration

The Motorcyclist: Freewheeling dreams of a 1960s Halifax man

George Elliott Clarke says it wasn’t until his father died and bequeathed him his diary that he had an understanding of the man.

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George Elliott Clarke says it wasn’t until his father died and bequeathed him his diary that he had an understanding of the man.

When George Elliott Clarke’s father died in August 2005, the loss hit him harder than he ever imagined. Their relationship had been strained and, like many children, Clarke never felt he really understood who his dad was. 

So when his dad bequeathed him his diary, Clarke found an opportunity to get to know his parent in a real way. But it took the Toronto author and poet many months before he felt emotionally ready to open the journal, which covered 1959, the year Clarke was conceived.

Therein he discovered a father he had never known — a self-taught artist who loved women and his motorcycle in equal measure, trying to make the best of his life living in economically depressed and racially tense Halifax.

Most importantly, Clarke discovered a man “who was vulnerable, uncertain about himself and indecisive,” completely dissimilar to the overly confident father with whom he would constantly argue.

This young man would form the core of Carl Black, the lady-killer protagonist in Clarke’s new novel, The Motorcyclist, published by HarperCollins.

Clarke, who was recently appointed the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, is the most prolific and well-regarded documenter of the East Coast Africadian community. His 2001 poetry collection, Execution Poems — about his cousins, who were hanged in 1949 for the murder of a New Brunswick taxi driver — won the Governor General’s Literary Award and introduced many readers outside of Atlantic Canada to an often overlooked black history. (Clarke later adapted their story into the novel, George and Rue.)

About 13 years ago, Clarke says he changed his creative process by reading his words aloud while writing. For The Motorcyclist, which pounds like a drum or the revving of an engine, Clarke recited each sentence, often twice, trying to “figure out the cadence, rhythm and musicality of a line.”

The biggest challenge in writing the book, says Clarke, was getting some distance from his dad’s story.

He imagined what it must have been like to be part of the “On the Road generation”  — immersed in the freewheeling beatnik spirit of Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, but remaining confined by geography and economic realities. His father’s generation came of age just before the advent of the pill, where sexual experimentation meant the risk of unwanted pregnancies, and, often worse, marriages.

“How did those aspirations for greater freedom or liberty translate into the milieu of the Maritimes?” asks Clarke. “These were relatively small cities and folks, who may not have travelled very much or had much education, which was certainly true of the black community.”

While much of Carl’s journey comes from his father’s life, Clarke says he is a composite character made up of the experiences of young Nova Scotian men of the era. “Carl became a way for me to explore a well-read young man with an interest in the wider world,” says Clarke, “and how he navigated the somewhat narrower byways and highways of Halifax and Nova Scotia.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine