Excerpt Book Summary From a new voice in international fiction, a prize-winning collection of stories that cross the world - Africa, London, the West Indies, Australia - and express the global experience "with exquisite sensitivity" Dave Eggers, author of The Circle. In this collection of award-winning stories, Maxine Beneba Clarke gives voice to the disenfranchised, the lost, and the mistreated. Her stories will challenge you, move you, and change the way you view this complex world we inhabit. In the bestselling tradition of novelists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Marlon James, this urgent, poetic, and essential work announces the arrival of a fresh and talented voice in international fiction. They knows I can take care-a myself. An sides that they knows they come anywhere near me, my mama gon hunt them down an break every bone in they sorry body.
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Speaking and writing, in Foreign Soil, are never simple acts. Both are, of course, embedded within the body, and as such are deeply personal and even instinctual; but they are, at the same time, inextricably implicated in wider social circuits of violence, of bodies politic, of privilege and power.
Yet it is difficult, as a reader, to know at times what to make of this faculty with voice, hard to gauge the effect of these shifting speech patterns across the breadth of the collection. As a critic, it is even harder to write about them.
It is uncomfortable, because it is impossible to ignore that so many different issues, so many conflicting and interrelated agendas and ideals, are always tied together in any conversation we might try to have about voice. And voice is certainly a complicated matter in Foreign Soil. But reading across these incredibly disparate uses and configurations of English is also a disorienting experience. Between stories, huge shifts in voice and rhythm occur, and as each new pattern begins to unfurl the reader is forced to adjust, and quickly.
The speed and extent of these adjustments in voice also mean sometimes that other details — differences in location, in gender, and especially in historical setting — are flattened out in contrast.
Clarke wants us to be uncomfortable, to lose our bearings; she wants us to squirm. She wants us to have to adjust our expectations and learn the different languages in which her characters speak. She wants us to feel different and out of our depth. And she wants us, above all, to learn how to listen.
We have to listen, because speaking, alongside its more devastating counterpoint, silence, is a theme in each of the ten stories that make up the collection. The protagonists struggle with language and their ability to own or to have agency in their own narrative.
Or else they are trapped somehow by silences, enforced or otherwise. One character even stitches his mouth shut in desperation and despair. Silence figures here as a kind of suspension; it is the gap, often, between what the characters want for themselves or their lives and what is realistically available to them as outsiders, as migrants or refugees, as women or as people of colour. It is set in a small, temporary apartment in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, where a single mother is struggling to balance the demands of her small family and her as-yet-unpublished writing — a collection of stories called, of course, Foreign Soil.
This is part of a scene from the story-within-the-story, which sees the seven-year-old daughter of a grieving, alcoholic widower playing alone in her school playground after the bell.
Because 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. And yet what rescues Avery, eventually, is bodily instinct. When fatigue forces her to let go of the monkey bar, her body flips itself mid-air, unconsciously. Because beyond silence, beyond the complicated and intensely political problems of language and story and voice, beyond discourses of disadvantage and power, there is still, and always, the body and its own grace.
Equally important in Foreign Soil, though, are the always-contested acts of writing and reading that recur throughout the stories. Reading and writing often figure as the means by which the characters — poor, provincial and otherwise marginalised — are able to improve, or at least change, their situations, or are able to find some small glimpse of hope. Similarly, the tragedy at the heart of her story comes about because her employer withholds letters written to her by an absent lover, each week, for months.
But more importantly, reading and writing give the characters in Foreign Soil a means by which to tell their own stories, and shape their own sense of their lineage and history.
Here, the chief protagonist Solomon re-interprets stories from the Bible to trace an almost-heroic history of black slavery, as part of an education program for young Panthers. At the same time, however, BBC journalists are standing outside the building, writing their reports on the audacious squatters and the violence and danger the Panthers represent to mainstream England: in other words, they are re-presenting the very discourse that the young Panthers are angrily rebelling against.
Many of the stories are about the Afro-Carribean diaspora. They are not stories, not representations, that we are used to reading in Australia; it is something of a blind-spot in our literature. Yet recent increases in migration to Australia from countries such as Sudan, the Congo and Eritrea mean that Africa is becoming ever more important to our population. Please could you send some more of your writing, maybe on a different theme? Imagine if that day of the Tottenham riots was ultimately the wake-up call that got an angry black kid back on the straight and narrow?
In itself, this is no criticism: even though the politics around telling the stories of other marginalised groups are complicated and highly emotional, Clarke always writes with great empathy and with an awareness that she is bringing to the foreground people and issues that are often elided by mainstream Australia.
Asanka has fled the more than year-long civil war in Sri Lanka. He is a Tamil, a member of the persecuted ethnic minority, who was conscripted into the guerilla Tamil Tigers at gunpoint, at the age of fourteen. His morning routine within Villawood is also outlined in excruciating, humiliating detail. But there are inaccuracies or implausibilities in the story, moments when it is clear that this act of representation comes from the outside. Early in the story, Asanka is befriended by an older refugee on the boat, a man named Chamindra.
Chamindra is a Singhalese name that belongs to the majority ethnic group that governs Sri Lanka, even though the character is Tamil.
Similarly, a reference to the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo means that Asanka lived in an area where enforced conscription by the Tigers, while not impossible, was incredibly rare. He also remembers fishing on the beach with his grandparents in Gampaha, a town that lies inland. Most importantly, the stilt fishermen that form the recurrent and poetic metaphor at the centre of the story are described as something almost mythical and no longer in existence, even though they are still a common sight: Asanka had thought they were extinct, the stilt fishermen of Kathaluwa.
He learned about them back in school. There were photographs of them in his geography book, perched atop their fishing stilts, the salt-sprayed sinew of their shiny brown muscles set against a flat blue background. It feels churlish, of course, to focus on these factual errors in a work of fiction: they are small, and unlikely to stand out to anyone less interested or invested in Sri Lanka — another place largely absent from our national imaginary.
Arguably, they do not matter in the broader context of the story. But they do highlight precisely how fraught, how problematic a matter representation is. It is the accrual of small inaccuracies, after all, that alienates people from the ways in which they are represented, from the ways that other people have told their stories, and forces them to reframe their narratives before they can begin to give them voice.
And yet Foreign Soil is not a book about foreignness. It is not a book about class or gender or race, or even difference, even though these things are present beneath the stories, almost the scaffoldings upon which they are built. It is a book about self, about being and belonging in a violent and unjust world, about surviving after trauma, about finding a path for oneself that is fitting and right, regardless of the pressures and judgments of wider society.
And it is about honour and compassion, at a time when our national political landscape is largely bereft of both. Foreign Soil is problematic at times; it is flawed. But it presents a vision of the world that too easily falls into invisibility when we do not choose to pay attention. It is this act of attention, of looking and actively listening, that Clarke is trying to impress upon her readers, in the hope that we might learn to check those blind spots in our own imaginary, to make space for a national narrative that is broader, more expansive and more complex than the one we are used to encountering in our literary and media landscapes.
Listen: Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
In most cases these are not stories of immigration or immigrants, these are stories of people who are different from "the norm" in various ways and from the point of view of various countries. Clarke inhabits her characters in interesting ways. She takes various perspectives and really comes across as authentic. Though we probably should expect it, she an Australian poet turned Foreign Soil is a really great short story collection that takes a look at otherness through eyes of various countries. Though we probably should expect it, she an Australian poet turned author and seems to be able to empathize with different points of view and presents an understanding if not an agreement with the characters that she writes about. David had cobbled together a bicycle that he rode proudly. When the village is overtaken, he goes back to get his bicycle.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Larger text size Very large text size In her bedroom next to the railway line in Footscray, a young single mother is trying to write a story. Down the corridor, her two children sing and dance to the television. When a train passes, the tiny apartment shakes. For months, she has had rejections from publishers. They love her work, but they want something different.