Country Focus: Barbados
The Polished Hoe
By Austin Clarke
Originally published by HarperCollins, 2003.
My edition: Amistad, 2004.
Acclaim: Winner of the Giller Prize, The Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and The Trillium Prize; finalist for The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award; Nominated for the 2004 IMPAC Award
Time period: 1940s
To make a long story short: Like Sandor Marai’s Embers (Hungary), The Polished Hoe takes place during the course of one night, during which one of two distant friends goes on at length about the past and reveals a secret.
The talkative character in this case is Mary-Mathilda, who has called the authorities to come out to her home in the Plantation’s Great House. Both the Constable, who arrives first, and the Sargeant, who takes over, assume that she has murdered the much-despised plantation owner Mr. Bellfeels. Percy, the Sargeant, dreads taking her statement – he has secretly desired her since he was ten years old. Mary-Mathilda would never be his or any other black man’s. Mr. Bellfeels laid claim to her at an early age, just as he had claimed her mother.
In exchange for making her his whore, Mr. Bellfeels gave Mary-Mathilda the luxurious Great House to live in, a personal maid, and the best education for their son Wilberforce. Mary-Mathilda describes the lonliness and the vulnerability of her everyday life to Percy and attempts to seduce him. Torn between his lust and his official duty, Percy discreetly suggests a cover up of her crime. What will the dawn bring?
“There was no feminine-suffrages in my time, Constable. But we still knew what was happening to us, in this Island. As women, we didn’t comport ourselves with the talk of English suffrages-women. But that voice was buried inside our hearts. And although we could not, dare not, shout-0ut a dirty word in Mr. Bellfeels face, or pick up a rock-stone and pelt it at Mr. Bellfeels, and break his arse … pardon my French! … and watch his head burst open like a watermelon, and watch blood spurt-0ut like the water from a water coconut, all those thoughts and buried acts, and stifled wishes concealed in our craw, were always near the top, near to erupting. We couldn’t act like this modern generation of dark-skin women I see walking-’bout this Village, in dresses of African print; and wearing their hair natural; uncomb. But the plot of defiant words and Africa was already hatching inside our heads. Yes.”
The armchair travel experience: In The Polished Hoe, Barbados is commonly called “Bimshire” According to Clarke, Bimshire is a local name for Barbados that riffs on Barbadians’ penchant to be extremely English in nature (Barbados was an British colony from 1627-1966).
Both Mary-Mathilda and Percy vehemently assert that slavery in Bimshire was nowhere near as pervasive and brutal as slavery in the American South, but their personal experiences indicate otherwise.
Sugar cane is the staple crop of the Plantation, and much mischief occurs in the “cane trash” (the crushed stalks of sugar cane left behind after harvesting).
The characters speak in a mild (and long-winded) patois.
The author’s relationship to Barbados:
Austin Clarke was born in Barbados in 1934 and lived there until he was 21. Clarke was named the Cultural Attaché of Barbados in Washington in 1973 and Acting General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in Barbados in 1975. He has written several other fiction and nonfiction books set in Barbados.
My opinion: Austin Clarke has produced a solid storyline about a worthwhile subject. His characterizations are perhaps some of the richest and most complex I’ve come across.
If only Clarke could have been as succinct in his narrative as he was with his double entrendre title. The Polished Hoe plods. The novel’s length and lack of pop are made even more noticeable by the lack of opportunities to put the book down: there are only three breaks within its 462 pages (Parts 1-3). Clarke’s sentences follow suit. Why end a thought when there is a punctuation mark to encourage it to continue? Colons, semicolons, ellipsis and commas abound.
Marai held Embers at a slim 213 pages. Clarke should have done the same.
In my book (or what Barbados means to me and maybe you, too)
Grateful for grapefruit
My grandparents loved ruby red grapefruit and fed it to us whenever we visited. We’d slice it in half, carve out the sections, sprinkle on sugar and dig out the bite-sized sour triangles with our spoons. I wouldn’t have that memory if it wasn’t for Barbados, where that citrus fruit originated.
“Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
More props to Barbadians for their invention of rum, my choice of spirits. (Admittedly, I drink Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, a product of Puerto Rico.) A 1651 document from Barbados states: “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” The Barbadian brand Mount Gay Rum, the rum that invented rum,” has been imbibed since 1703, almost 200 years before Robert Louis Stevenson penned Treasure Island and the above pirate-speak.
Rihanna to Barbados: You can stand under my umbrella
At a mere 19-years-old, Rihanna became the first Barbadian to win a Grammy Award. “Barbados I love you,” she said while accepting the 2008 Grammy for her hit song “Umbrella” featuring Jay-Z. Barbadian Prime Minister David Thompson rewarded Rihanna’s patriotism by bestowing upon her the honorary title of Ambassador for Culture and Youth in Barbados and by making February 20 “Rihanna Day” to honor the pop star’s birthday. This past summer, Rihanna signed a multi-year deal with the Barbados Tourism Authority to promote her country as a tourist destination.