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Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award of 2013 for this collection.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 sixth and last of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
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Reject hate

Caught this bunch of tossers on the news this morning — the usual hate and vitriol that does no one any good. You might notice this particularly ugly little branch of ‘Christian’ zealots have venom to spare for gays as well as Muslims. You can almost see them in your mind’s eye, these pathetically scared little people, grasping at their vile belief in some attempt at making themselves feel better. Dictators know very well the power to be gained by getting your flock to hate someone else — we all like to feel that we’re a wee better than someone else, don’t we? That little superiority complex to prop up our inferiority complex. Feeling left out? Economy not so good? Life’s a bit shite? Here, follow me, son, and I’ll make you feel better about yourself by hurting someone else. Jackboots or a crucifix, it’s all the same. I can imagine how they’re relishing the attention, too; lovin’ the self-inflicted martyrdom that comes with uttering such vile inanities. I don’t trust zealots, no matter their creed. I wonder if there’s a way to get them to break out of their little boxes of myopic belief and see the true wonder of everything the world has to offer.