Thursday, December 29, 2016

Foreign Soil: And Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hardcover, 272 pages Jan 3rd 2017 by Atria / 37 INK (first published April 29th 2014) Orig Title Foreign Soil ISBN13: 9781501136368

The extraordinary sense of dislocation we experience in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s first short story collection is intentional. Every story describes a different type of “foreignness.” Clarke takes on the voice and persona of every nationality of yellow, brown, black, or white person, those with red hair, chestnut, or soft black curls. Each story describes a pain, an experience that is commonplace enough among the natives she describes to be recognizable. Clark makes us uncomfortable. Slipping on the cloak of “other” isn’t always convincing, but her work is always an interesting and effective challenge to readers.

Clarke writes from Australia, but from an Australia that feels unfamiliar even in its English. Her stories put us on the back foot, and make us query. We are constantly scouring the words she has given us to divine her meaning. It feels sometimes as though she left us clues, but the cultural markers are not the ones we are familiar using. We have the experience of being the “other.” I grew to admire the discomfort Clarke evoked in me, at how many unfamiliar incidents she forced me to look at closely. If she did an insufficient job of navigating and communicating that episode, why am I so sure and how would I do it? Oh yes, she’s a clever one.

The most absorbing and impelling, while still not entirely comforting, was the title story, “Foreign Soil.” An Australian hairdresser falls for a client and accompanies him back to Uganda. Cultural habits learned from childhood start seeping into his behaviors before he is even out of the airport. By the time she discovers she is pregnant, she knows she is not going to marry this man.

Many of Clarke’s stories could easily be turned into a classic horror stories. They have that feel. We grow afraid to peer around the next page, wondering what damage will be done to her characters in the meantime. Even in “Foreign Soil” we wonder if the wife won’t be walled up, literally and forever, inside the doctor’s quiet, lonely compound in Africa.

The story “Shu Yi” likewise has a horror pedigree reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, or other horror greats. An Asian immigrant without good language skills must navigate a white middle school which hosts one black adolescent. The black student is asked to interface the two groups, but is unwilling to risk her position of safety, an invisibility she feels she has earned. Observing, or putting ourselves in place of the black student—any road will get you there—deliver unto us the most vivid discomfiture.

Some of the stories are interlocking, or self-referencing. For instance, we may discover one of the stories being discussed later in the collection, as in “The Sukiyaki Book Club.” The emergence into metafiction is entirely consistent with the self-acknowledging feel of the whole work. Clearly no one author could have experienced, or even known people who experienced, all these different lives.

The stories, therefore, are a suggestion, a question-mark, an initial attempt to understand what others’ lives are. Readers are meant to take the fútbôl and run with it, changing what needs to be changed, adding flourishes and corrections until we finish up together, panting and laughing and sure we did our best, win or lose.

An example of an early story which put the wind up was “Harlem Jones,” about a young angry black man determined to make his mark in a London demonstration, even to the point of “cutting off his nose to spite his face.” This story did not seem to quite capture the mind of a young man: there was not enough fear and, at the same time, immortality, in it.

Dissatisfied, I moved on, only to discover this was a thread, a kind of authorial technique. Clarke wanders in over her head, and looks to us. I grew to like her relying on us to think, to add our own understanding and our own spices. I did, though, also see room for greater clarity in style. Writing as a profession presumes we have something to say, but also that we say it well, and clearly, so that it is not mistaken. There was room for greater clarity, even supposing Australian and American are two different languages.

Clarke is a slam poetry artist, Australian, of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her Australia is unlike any I have encountered before. She has three books of poetry published or shortly due out, has won awards for this story collection even before it was published, and has a memoir, The Hate Race, just published August 2016 in Australia. She has talent and plenty of room to run with it. Expect to hear more from her.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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