Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

isbn9780733632426-detailForeign Soil

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hachette Australia

Sydney, NSW, 2014

ISBN 978-0-73363242-6


Sometimes we read prose – a novel, perhaps, or a short story – and we think I bet this writer is a poet, too, and then we turn to the page that tells us of the author’s past publications and awards and, more often than not, we reward ourselves with a silent and motionless fist-pump because yes, the writer is a poet. These things we do not know; these things we can hear. And so it goes with Maxine Beneba Clarke and her collection of short stories Foreign Soil. Turns out Clarke is the author of two collections of poetry and is a spoken word artist. This, you can hear. Listen:

‘She had a shiny cherry-red frame, scooped alloy Harley handlebars and sleek
metal pedals.’  (1)

‘Harlem legs it from the job shop soon as the sour bitch pushes the button for security.’ (16)

‘The driver Mukasa had booked had gone to look for a luggage trolley and Mukasa was busy speaking in Luganda to the woman behind the customs desk, so Ange decided to go and look for a toilet.’ (60)

These are the opening sentences of three stories from Foreign Soil, a collection that gives voice to those living as Others in a world where ‘misunderstanding’ is sometimes just the easiest therefore most acceptable route to take. Clarke takes us to places as far-reaching as London, Jamaica, Uganda and Sri Lanka, while also showing us our own Melbourne neighbours. And the voices are strong. Just like the prose, they have rhythm and sass. Clarke has signed each page with true spoken word-confidence, and it’s the first thing that drew me into the collection.

Foreign Soil opens with two fast-paced, high-hitting stories: ‘David’ and ‘Harlem Jones’. Both highlight the plight of the first-generation migrant in opposition to their migrant elders. While one offers a resolution of finding, unexpectedly, a common ground, the other accentuates a dangerous anger, ingrained from centuries of racial hurt. Yes, the language is stylized and addictive in a hyper-urban sense, but if you sit with it long enough to grasp a plot, you’ll find that there’s more to appreciate in the telling than how it sounds. I found that I cared about the two women in ‘David’ firstly because I could hear them, but then because I could see them. I cared about the indignant youth in ‘Harlem Jones’ because I know him (however from afar) through the broadcast news. Luckily, I am wise enough to know that, despite old George Dubbya’s efforts at convincing me otherwise, no one is inherently evil; the ‘evil’ wrong-doer is just a normal person with a damned interesting story. It’s something I had to remind myself of when I got to the title story, ‘Foreign Soil’, where a Ugandan man living in Australia respectfully conforms to Western ideals of gender equality and class sympathy, then reverts to emotional and physical bullying of his Australian ‘wife’ and long-suffering servants once returned to his home country. I’m thinking of the old adage that ‘you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy’ and I’m intrigued at Clarke’s challenge to its nursery rhyme-like meaning. The story suggests that we are not only shaped by our cultural surroundings – which leaves room for malleability and amalgamation – but informed by our cultural surroundings – pointing to a more rigid, rule-abiding conformity. In this story, as in others, there is a hero and there is a villain, and neither deserves to be heard more than the other; they both have stories to tell. Clarke is giving everything she has to make sure they’re told. I suppose here is where I point out that this collection is passionate. That might fall back on the poetry, once again, or it might fall back on the Australian author’s own Afro-Caribbean descent.

Clarke is sure to point out that anger comes in many forms, as does racism, and sometimes anger is incredibly confusing. In ‘Railton Road’, anger is not so much felt but deserved. In ‘Shu Yi’, where racism is taught through peer pressure, anger is not felt, but it is assumed, as if it is a birthright. With Foreign Soil, Clarke opens up the wounds that each of us carry inside, where racism lay either dormant or ready to attack, and we are the white fearing the black, the black fearing the white, the black fearing the black who loves the white, or the white fearing the multi-coloured state that our world is.

With ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, the author goes beyond race, beyond ethnicity, and moves toward gender. What if the person caught in ‘foreign soil’ is a woman in a man’s body? The inclusion of this story in the collection is an important one as it presents different concepts of ‘alien’ and ‘Other’, though I wasn’t entirely convinced of the narrative voice. The black Louisiana-born Ella speaks the same as the white Mississippi-born Delores. True, they are both from the Delta in the Deep South, but there are nuances between white and black races that make the language different. The tenses, for instance: both might say ‘He done gone to heaven,’ but it is unlikely that a white character speak in the same way her black neighbour does when saying, ‘He the one who left.’ And Ella is ‘six going on seventy’, so Clark does try to explain her precociousness, but no six year old I’ve come across has the capacity to think, let alone talk, in the same way as this one does. If I am going on too much about minor points it is because there are very few minor points to go on about and I’m going to focus on them while I can. So I will also say that the longer, fifty-page stories in the collection meander quite a bit compared to the more succinct under-twenty page stories. I hope this is rectified in due time as I would like to be one of the first readers to buy Clarke’s debut novel (fingers crossed there will be one) and I would like to slam it down after finishing it with a triumphant ‘fuck yeah,’ which is a fitting hyper-urban term, and one of which I think the author would approve.

I must mention two stories: ‘Hope’ and ‘Big Islun’, which are embedded in Jamaica and do not venture outside Jamaica, making them anomalies to the collection. Both reach toward Anglo-lands, such as England and Australia, as idyllic dreams rather than geographical realities, and the final punch is that we, as readers, have by this point read enough of the collection to know that the characters should certainly not migrate. ‘Big Islun’, written in a severely challenging vernacular, tells the story of a discontented Nathanial, who sees a photograph of famous cricketers in a magazine and thinks perhaps he should seek a new life in a new land:

Long beach is stretch out behind de cricket team, waves breakin gainst de juttin rocks, like dem could easy-easy swallow up de roof ov de two-storey buildin Nathanial now sittin in. It nyah look like de same sea dat Nathanial pass every day. Look rough, an wild, an capable ov anytin. Look exciting, dat sea, an like it a different body ov water altogether. Nathanial survey de faces ov de cricketers. Look like dem in paradise, dem so delirious-happy.

            ‘Wat country dis, dat offah such reception te black West Indian man. Treat us like we kings!’ im whisper citedly te imself.  (189)

It is Australia, and Clarke so deftly decided to place the story of a Sri Lankan boy in an Australian detention centre directly after it.

The final story is a journey into meta-fiction, as the author positions herself as the main character: single mother struggling to meet the financial needs of her family with an emerging writer’s freelance income. Next to her computer is a printed-out email referring to the story ‘Harlem Jones’:

We are enamoured of your writing. Your prose is startling poetic. We have not seen work like this for quite some time.
Please could you send some more of your 
writing, maybe on a different theme….something you’ve written that deals
with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality….Think book club material….Unfortunately, we feel
Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.

Australian readers are characters like these, so well done to Hachette Australia for recognising this; well done to the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award for recognising this; well done to Maxine Beneba Clarke for proving the ‘fictionalised’ letter-writer wrong. This is an important work, where anger is lyricized and racism is tested and, not only that, it sounds fantastic.

HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON is a US-born, Adelaide-based poet, critic and novelist.