I still can’t decide which of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short stories I found more affecting: ‘David’, the lyrically told story of two women whose pasts and futures meet on the simple yet potent device of a bicycle; or ‘Shu Yi’, one of the most powerful examinations of racism running downhill I’ve encountered.
Those two stories are the heart-punching standouts in Foreign Soil (Hachette Australia, 2014), an extremely strong debut collection from the Australia poet of Afro-Caribbean descent, who comes to publishing through the portal of poetry.
Certainly, the quality of the prose suggests a writer who is concerned with language and its evocative potentials, whether writing in first person or third, common English or dialect. It’s a tour of the world — Africa, the Caribbean, the US, Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia. Two of my favourite destinations was the bleak view of the 2011 Tottenham riots in ‘Harlem Jones’, the Southern atmosphere of ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, but all show a tangible sense of place.
Clarke inhabits her characters, whether a Sudanese refugee, a Louisiana family, militants on the edge, a hairdresser isolated and out of her depth. Most of the protagonists are people of colour.
I was prepared to say it was the first-person tales that carried the greatest emotional impact, but then I hit ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa': a boy flees the Tamil Tigers, psychologically and emotionally scarred by his forced indenture with the rebel group, only to end up in Villawood detention centre. It’s a timely, telling portrait of the inept bureaucracy and general heartlessness of Australia’s failed refugee policy, delivered with all the tenderness that policy lacks.
While the stories are diverse, they are linked through empathy and understanding, an ear for dialogue, stirling prose.
Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award of 2013 for this collection. The last story, ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’, opens a window on to her career through its clear meta content as a writer receives rejection letters for stories remarkably similar to those here.
‘We feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these,’ reads one rejection.
What a sad indictment of those readers, or the publisher’s perception of them; what a victory that Clarke held the line, that — hopefully — this collection proves that naysayer wrong.