Maxine Beneba Clarke is everywhere at the moment. Since releasing her collection of short stories, Foreign Soil, her name has been echoed in magazines, television interviews and award lists. It seems that hers is a voice that’s resonating in society; indeed, her emergence on the literary scene was described by Overland as ‘a small tidal wave crash[ing] into the face of the current Australian literary landscape.’ And a tsunami is a fitting metaphor: there’s something so unique and powerful in Clarke’s language that Foreign Soil is definitely groundbreaking.
The collection of stories includes 'David', 'Harlem Jones', 'Hope', Foreign Soil', 'Big Islan', 'The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa' and 'The Sukiyaki Book Club'. For short intervals readers are able to jump feet-first into experiences far removed from their own. Instead of feeling sympathetic to the vague sufferings of others, we see them up close in all their brutal, honest, provocative truth. These short stories are uncomfortable and beautiful. They’re ones that sit heavy and are not easily forgotten.
'The Sukiyaki Book Club', acts as an allegory of Clarke's real life (single motherhood, struggling to get her writing noticed) and succinctly summarises the thrust of her book. The narrator recalls the rejection of some random publisher: ‘unfortunately, we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these,' and it seems that these are characters that Australia does need to be ready for. The stories are removed from mainstream fiction (there's Muslim, refugee, transgender and West Indian protagonists) with their language and experience coming from the ‘foreign soil’ the book takes its title from. And though the settings of the stories roam the globe, what they discuss is so relevant to modern Australia that it’s clear that the message of suffering and isolation is an important concept for the nation to explore. Now.
The nameless rejection letter continues by suggesting the writer change the actions of the eponymous Harlem Jones, a character who is filled with the rage of dislocation - of being stranded between cultures – and so resorts to violence. His is a story of hopelessness: Harlem lives in London and is marked by the death of a similar young black man in his area, his brother’s incarceration, and his own dwindling prospects. To change his decision at the end would be giving in to readers’ need for happy endings; so leaving Harlem following his destructive path is a purposeful move by Clarke to confront her reader with the reality of so many.
Interestingly, 'The Sukiyaki Book Club' employs an extended metaphor of music to further the point about the need for uplifting stories that end with satisfying closure. The narrator’s children are taught a Japanese song, ‘Ue O Muite Arukou’, but their teacher completely misses the meaning of the lyrics. In reality, it is:
A song about sadness lurking in the shadows, sadness lurking behind the stars and moon. A song about ignoring the tears welling in your eyes, raising your head high and walking on… the class teacher taught them to sing it jovially, with an up-beat tempo, swaying with joy.'
This makes an interesting point about the book: these are characters that face trauma with dignity (mostly), who remember tragedy 'heads high'. To take such a message and turn it into a farcical show tune undermines the point of it all. Readers need to be okay with the very raw, very real experiences of the characters Clarke sketches and not wish for neater resolution.
'David' is an example of this unresolved storytelling that shocks readers with the senseless killing of a child. How better to encapsulate the horror of war and the plight of refugees than by depicting a mother grieving the murder of her baby? The image Clarke’s words evoke is unshakable; this is writing that stays in your bones. Thankfully, Clarke does give her characters slivers of happiness amongst such devastation: this mother, relocated to suburban Melbourne, is able to find the same fleeting freedom her son did before his death, as an older hijab clad woman laughing and crying as she speeds along on a footpath on a borrowed red bike.
Clarke’s stories all follow an emotion connected to cultural displacement: sadness, anger, confusion. In the title story, white Australian Ange is stunned at the disconnection she feels with her partner when she follows him back to his native Uganda:
She began to wonder if the real Mukasa Kiteki was another country entirely, whether what happened between the two of them had always been carried out with the choreographed care and watchfulness brought on by foreign soil.'
It is clear that cultural differences cause rifts. Most of Clarke’s characters feel continents removed from those they are in close proximity to. Some can overcome it. Most do not.
Many of Clarke’s stories employ dual narrators that give contrasting perspectives on events. This is an interesting technique but can become laborious. Its purpose – to make it clear that every story in life has more than one side – feels a bit repetitive at times, but that is because it is a message that needs to be understood. Readers are forced to stop and consider the experiences of others.
The story of Asanka in 'The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa' captures an important duality in society that needs to be looked at through a new lens. Giving Asanka a voice allows readers to examine the plight of refugees with new understanding. Asanka is stranded in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre after escaping his forced involvement with the Tamil Tigers. He is a boy mentally disturbed by his experiences and is desperate for absolution. Loretta is a lawyer who used to advocate for asylum seekers but has been pushed into a corporate job by a husband who has no time for her passion for social justice. Loretta is thus consigned to volunteer work on weekends and feels impotent with the lack of power she has to stop the suffering she sees before her.
It is a haunting story that is heartbreaking in its account of Asanka’s experience as a refugee and its depiction of Australian society’s apathy. This story highlights how easily the suffering of others can be disregarded and dehumanised. Loretta feels ‘hopelessness burrow[ing] into her chest again, its fingernails digging into her lungs, slowly squeezing out the air.’ It's difficult to read a story like this and remain unmoved.
But Clarke is clear that there is hope. In fact, in the story blatantly called 'Hope', Clarke makes an offhand comment about the glory-days of Kingston, Jamaica:
Centuries back, the harbour of Port Royal had been multiculturalism at its fighting best. Swarthy Spanish pirates ate in dark taverns next to Roman Catholic priests before returning outside to deliver leftover scraps to the African slaves who’d been minding their horses.’
Flawed though the social hierarchy is in this example, it seems that this embracing of different cultures is the point of Clarke’s text. By giving so many stories of multiculturalism at its worst in her book, her audience is inevitably challenged: what are they going to do about this? How can they reach a deeper harmony amongst cultures?
In 'Big Islan', readers are faced with Nathaniel’s naïve belief that Australia will be a cultural utopia: ‘but in dis country, dis Owstrayleah, look like dem happy-friendly an nat givin an owl-hoot wat colour skin ye gat wen ye turn up, like dem gat nat a care in de world bout trivialities like dat.' His hope acts as a rebuke; it is ironic because his belief that Australia will be a racism-free haven is not the truth. It can be, though, and readers are left feeling unsettled like Nathaniel: how can his hope be made reality?
Though the obstacles to achieve this can seem insurmountable, Clarke employs the metaphor of Avery - a metafictional character in 'The Sukiyaki Book Club' whose story is being constructed by the protagonist - to give hope. She is stuck upside down on a monkey bar and can’t get down. She’s literally forgotten in this playground but figuratively forgotten in life after the death of her mother and the emotional absence of her father. And the narrator feels unable to finish the story she’s writing: ‘Avery is hanging upside down, and it will all end in tragedy. The only way down is for a scared little girl to hurt herself. I do not know how to rescue Avery gently.' Thankfully, despite her dire circumstances, Avery manages to save herself without injury. Her situation in life hasn’t changed, but this small feat ends the book on a positive note. The experiences of the characters will not miraculously change with this hope - nor will the conditions of those that are haunted by memory in strange, new lands - but it is clear that there is possibility for the future of multiculturalism: that it can defy negative ruts and become something unexpected.
This is a book that must be read, not just for its beautiful use of language and stunning storytelling, but for the message it brings to the reader about the need for a different future and a heightened sense of empathy. Clarke doesn’t give straight answers to the questions that arise when reading her book, but she does challenge her readers to do better.
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- Interview with Maxine Beneba Clarke by Jane Sullivan
- Maxine Beneba Clarke on ABC's The Book Club
- Maxine Beneba Clarke's personal blog
Publication date: 29 Apr 2014
Length: 272 pages