Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil: fertile ground indeed

foreign soil by maxine beneba clarkeI 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Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award of 2013 for this collection.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.

Read more about the collection and Clarke’s writing in this SMH article and more about the collection at Sydney Review of Books.

australian women writers challenge logoThis is the fifth of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
Previous reviews:

Ballarat by the share plate: three great restaurants

The month-long Ballarat food festival is half over, but it’s a worthy occasion on which to suggest these restaurants at which a share plate is the way to go.


fu man lou restaurant in ballarat
FU MAN LOU
Fu Man Lou is a dumpling palace in Camp St, close to the city centre, and parking’s not usually too bad. We go there a fair bit. It can be pretty busy; a couple of times we’ve landed about 8pm and pulled up a stool at the bar to snack away while we’ve waited for a table. I’m holding out for them to put pork buns on the regular menu, but the fare is wunnerful: a variety of dumplings plus other plates, suitable for fingers or chopsticks, and cider, too. They do takeaway as well. Friendly staff and attentive service.
>> Get the background at The Courier.

CAFE MEIGAS
Cafe Meigas is a cosy Spanish restaurant tucked away in a lane near the Bridge St Mall (so plenty of parking nearby in the shopping centre), and it’s awesome. We’re repeat visitors here. The food is prepared according to family recipes, the staff are friendly and happy to give advice on the dishes; they do a mean sangria, too. Probably pay to book late in the week.
>> Read more at The Courier.

CAFE MERKAMA
Cafe Merkama specialises in Ethiopian. We’ve only been there the once — it’s a little out of the way on Doveton St, opposite a swanky steak place, and it’s another labour of love. The tasting plate we had with selection of curries served with bread was damn tasty, and came with a nice tea, too. Service was very friendly but a little slow and far from pushy, so probably not the spot if you’re in a hurry; easy parking, though, and well worth a visit.
>> Get the skinny at The Courier

2015 Calendar of Australian Literary Events

calendarSure, it’s only October — Halloween, in fact — but with many of the marquee literary festivals having already booked in their dates for next year, it seems worthwhile to put up the 2015 calendar of literary events. Plan ahead, my friends!

It’s quiet in November and December, naturally; why muddy the waters with next year when you have still to run this year’s event? Check out the 2014 calendar for the schmoozing yet to be had.

As always, updates, notifications and corrections are appreciated!


Oculus: quite a frightful sight (in a good way)!

oculus movie Putting my head above the parapet to share some quick reflections on Oculus, director and co-writer Mike Flanagan’s superb horror flick from last year worth looking into.

As the puns suggest, it is about a mirror. A haunted mirror. It is no laughing matter.

Dr Who‘s Karen Gillan and Aussie Brenton Thwaites play Kaylie and Tim, reunited after Tim’s got out of a psych clinic years after a horrific incident of apparent domestic abuse.

The movie cleverly merges that past trauma, with young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan giving wonderful performances, with the present as the nature of the mirror is revealed.

Illusion, obsession and confusion reign. Horror results.

Do not watch this movie if you’re feeling down.

Unlike this year’s similar and, indeed, similarly superb, Aussie effort Babadook, there’s precious little hope or light to be found here — it is perhaps my only quibble, from a thematic basis. But the narrative plays out truthfully and unapologetically.

I loved the quiet, building dread of this movie (enhanced by its subtle score), and the brilliant editing as timelines meet — no cheap, screaming string section; no gotcha! jump cuts.

The relationship between brother and sister is well drawn, their actions and reactions believable and intelligent. And by the end of the movie, boy, did Kirstyn and I hate that mirror.

Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff is also among the cast, but in this instance, it’s a case of no cigar for her character.

It’s great to see some clever, psychologically astute horror films around. Another recent viewing was this year’s Irish movie The Canal; alas, it didn’t hold together as tightly as the two mentioned above, and was soundly let down by its bob-each-way ending. Worth a look, though — there’s a public toilet that Candyman would be proud of.


Cthulhu: Deep Down Under — it’s coming

cthulhu deep down under

You might have seen some ripples on the interwebs, but now it’s official: Cthulhu: Deep Down Under is rising!

Editors Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce Stevens have assembled 24 writers with accompanying artists to provide Lovecraftian tales with an Australian flavour.

They’ve also got UK horror doyen Ramsey Campbell to provide an introduction, and of musical note among the contributors is a prose poem from Steve Kilbey, of The Church fame.

My story ‘An Incident at Portsea, 1967′ is reprinted in the anthology, with artwork from Paul Mason.

The project is now assembled, with stories in, artwork provided. All that remains is the crowdfunding to pay for printing. The program launches at Armageddon in Melbourne on October 18-19 — a bunch or writers and artists will be on hand to talk all things Cthulhu and hand out signed promo material.

You can join the crowdfunding program here to help take this project out of the ether and into physical manifestation for your reading and viewing pleasure, and find out more about the details at Horror Australis.

Getting published … a blog series

the darkness withinNicole Murphy (also writing as Elizabeth Dunk) is running a series of posts at her blog about how writers were first published. It’s yet another reminder of how diverse the routes to getting that first book out are, and how varied are the reasons that people want to get published.

One of the bumps in the road my first novel, The Darkness Within, suffered was a switch of editors between the structural and the copy edit. I enjoyed working with Dmetri, found his advice and feedback highly useful, and would’ve liked to have seen the project through with him. I’m chuffed to be working with him again on my next novel, The Big Smoke, coming out mid next year. It’s also worth noting Dmetri is running a workshop on horror writing later this month for Writers Victoria, encompassing general techniques as well as the peculiarities of the genre.

You can read more about The Darkness Within‘s detours, as Nicole so nicely puts it, at her blog.