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Foreign Soil

December 30, 2016

Foreign SoilMaxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil, Hachette, 2014

Maxine Beneba Clarke is a master of voice.

In the first story of this collection, a young woman from a Sudanese family has taken on Australian ways. She has just bought a new pushbike: “Those wheels were gonna change my life, I knew it. Sure fucken thing.”

Wheeling it into the street, she meets an older, traditional woman: “This young woman, she walking down Barkly Street with that red bike, brand new and for herself even though she look like she Sudanese and a grown mother too.”

The story alternates between the viewpoints of the two women. The older woman is shocked, but at the same time fascinated, by the bike. (We find out why by the end of the story). The young woman resents being judged, and in her mind she hears other older women criticising “these children, born in this country [who] think they can behave like the Australian children.”

Clarke’s skill in writing different voices makes the culture clash between the two protagonists clear and believable. The clash then takes an unexpected and moving turn, which filled me with wonder that so much could be fitted into such a short story.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)

Two stories are set in Jamaica. One uses Jamaican patois for dialogue, and the other, Big Islan, is written entirely in patois. In the story, Nathaniel’s wife is teaching him the alphabet: “Since J fe Jamaica, everytin aroun Nathaniel seem like it nyah quite de same. Since J fe Jamaica, de ocean bin callin, nyah calmin, de young man.” At first, this might appear difficult, but I found that once I immersed myself in it, I could read and enjoy it quite quickly. I am grateful to Clarke for painlessly introducing me to this patois. The story also illustrates how literacy may create dissatisfaction.

While Clarke is Australian, her parents’ original home was Jamaica. Most of the point of view characters in the stories are from the African diaspora, people now living in London, Jamaica or Australia. However Clarke also channels two white Australian women (a hairdresser and a social worker), two white American women, one of whom is transgender, and a Tamil boy who flees Sri Lanka as a refugee and ends up in Villawood Detention Centre.

Can authors write characters of different ethnicity to themselves? Of course they can provided, as Louise Doughty says, they do due diligence. When we step outside our own skin, we should do it properly, with acres of research, whether we’re channelling a Sri Lankan or a neurosurgeon.

This issue has recently been in the news, thanks to Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in which she claimed, wrongly, that she had been accused of cultural appropriation and that she’d been told she shouldn’t write characters of different ethnicity. She was responding to a review of her latest book which, in fact, did not make those accusations. Rather, the reviewer was criticising her use of racist stereotypes. Shriver had not done due diligence.

Maxine Beneba Clarke confronted Shriver at the Festival and called her a racist. Has Clarke done due diligence in her stories? My impression is that she has put enormous efforts into getting it right, with painstaking research going into each story. Clarke herself has said, “For a while, I knew everything that happened in Jamaica in 1949.”

In an otherwise positive review. Fiona Wright notes that “telling the stories of other marginalised groups … is a risky business”, and points to what she considers minor inaccuracies in the story of the Tamil boy. Clarke has replied with a convincing rebuttal of Wright’s claim.

Interestingly, Clarke sees limits – she would not write a first-person indigenous voice. ”I feel, even though I’m a migrant of colour, I’m a beneficiary of the colonisation of Australia.” That statement indicates how scrupulous she is.

Clarke’s skills, particularly in creating voices, make these stories a pleasure to read, even when painful things happen to the characters. I’m particularly taken with the longest story in the book, Gaps in the Hickory, set in New Orleans and Mississippi. In my memory it takes up a space as big as a novel.

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