Review: Fiona Wrighton Maxine Beneba Clarke

Listen: Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Within Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, there is a constant shifting, a continual and often uncomfortable interplay between acts of speaking and acts of writing, between text and voice and back again. 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.

It is unsurprising that Clarke’s book is so intensely focused on voice. She is a performance poet and a member of the Melbourne spoken word community; she had won several slam poetry competitions before the manuscript of Foreign Soil took out the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished work. She is keenly aware of the rhythms and cadences of speech, and many of the stories in Foreign Soil are written in rich and textured patois – be they the New Orleans drawl of the extended family in ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, or the lush musical Jamaican English of Nathanial Robertson in ‘Big Islan’. Nathanial’s voice is one that is able to describe something as mundane as his stevedoring job on Kingston’s banana boat wharves as work that aims

te smooth ovah de process, meyk it run like de inside ov a clock, windin and turnin easy … imagining de still-green fruit slow-ripenin …

Even when the stories are not narrated in the first person, the utterances of the characters always capture their accents and inflected syntax, from the careful, present-perfect constructions of a Ugandan house servant in ‘Foreign Soil’ to the clipped, abrupt sentences of Shu Yi, the new and only Chinese student, struggling to find her feet in a western Sydney school.

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. It is skillful, and it is beautiful, even poetic; but Clarke’s insistence on writing in dialect at times makes her characters come across almost as simple-minded or obtuse, even though they are only inarticulate because of the limited access they have to a language that is not entirely their own. ‘Please, I sit with you today,’ says Shu Yi; ‘I have second husband. I very lucky,’ says the Sudanese refugee Asha in ‘David’.

The choice is both stylistic and ideological: the epigraph to the book, by Chinua Achebe, states: ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard things with it.’ Unheard is important here: Clarke is interested in articulating both the loaded silences and the idiomatic, accented language that is the stuff of these characters’ lives. 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.

And yet this dislocation is exactly what gives Clarke’s voices their power. The constant shiftings of rhythm and intonation, the continual disorientations enact another experience that so many of the stories’ characters have in common: upheaval, defamiliarisation, linguistic or cultural exile. Nathanial Robertson dreams of the bigger possibilities of the big island of Australia from his home on the small island of Jamaica; Asha struggles to negotiate her place within yet at odds with the Sudanese refugee community in Melbourne; Delores, the transgender protagonist of ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, dreams of the home, wife and family in New Orleans that she was forced to leave behind in order to restart her life as a woman. 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. Clarke’s protagonists are all left hanging, somehow, in their attempts to make their own meaning and negotiate the world, when the language that they must use to do so is never apolitical.

This suspension is made literal in ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’, the final and most self-reflexive story in the collection. 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. The story opens with the line ‘Avery is hanging upside down on the monkey bars’. 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. ‘Stuck as buggery’ is how she describes her situation, using a phrase she has picked up from her rough-edged, working class father. This is typical of the kinds of speech Clarke’s characters often resort to: pieces of overheard and almost unthinkingly adopted language that reveal much about the unconscious social interactions of the characters that use them.

But in this story, Avery’s stuckness is important more for what it reveals about how Foreign Soil is operating as a whole. The narrator, the over-burdened writer working on Avery’s story, says:

This story is not going to be sent out in any case … Certainly not published and read. 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.

Avery, like all of Clarke’s characters, is at risk of hurt, does not live in a world where it is possible to be unharmed. 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. It is learning to write that allows Millie, the beautiful daughter of a small-plot farmer in ‘Hope’, to leave the provinces for a steady job in Kingston. Her writing is described every bit as lyrically as the domestic work and childhood games of her sisters: ‘her long tapered fingers pressed the pencil firmly down on the paper’. 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. It is learning to read that allows Nathanial in ‘Big Islan’ to dream of a better job, to dream of leaving Jamaica for the Edenic vision of Australia as it is portrayed in the sports pages of a newspaper. A library is the refuge for Ava, the only African child in the suburban primary school in ‘Shu Yi’.

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. The best example of this occurs in ‘Railton Road’, a story set in a Black Panther ‘rebel hub’ in 1960s Brixton. 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.

This focus on writing as a means of self-definition, even empowerment, is strongly influenced by the work of the activist and theorist bell hooks, who sees literacy ‘as a radical agenda for politicisation’, because ‘degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what we see, how we interpret it, what it means for our lives’. Being able to read, and to read critically, the kinds of representations created by people such as the journalists in ‘Railton Road’, allows marginalised, outsiders like Solomon to see the structures that oppress them, to step outside of them. Being able to write allows them to fight, to create their own ‘new and exciting representations’, as hooks puts it.

This is the most interesting and the most striking feature of Clarke’s collection. 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. A simple but striking example of this occurs in the story ‘Hope’, when the young protagonist’s father plants a crop of sugar bananas in their backyard, hoping that the sale of the fruit will fund ‘dere passage fe a new life’ for the girl. The girl, Millie, is subsequently dubbed ‘Banana Girl’ by her siblings, who take to humming the ‘Banana Boat Song’ whenever she passes. In this story, the song’s lyrics – ‘six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch, daylight come an we wan go home’ – are revealed as the plaintive chant of homesickness and loss that they are, a revelation that is even more ironic given that the song is known in Australia as the advertising jingle for heavy-duty sunscreen. Elsewhere, in ‘Big Islan’, the reader is given a terribly double-edged vision of Australia in 1961, as Nathanial reads about the ‘Calypso Summer’ West Indian cricket tour and the celebration of his fellow countrymen. ‘In dis country, dis Owstrayleah,’ he thinks, ‘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.’

Similarly, we don’t tend to think of the Brixton Panthers or the 2011 England riots (as figured in the story ‘Harlem Jones’) as being connected to our own national imaginary, even though stories of migration and racism do feature on its fringes. 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. We don’t want to think of the Klansmen of ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ as being at all related to anything that happens in Australia. We don’t want to think about the stories of people like the refugee Asanka in ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’, who is a former child soldier, now detained in Villawood Detention Centre.

The short story writer in ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’ keeps her printed-out rejection emails, written in response to these very stories, in the milk-crate that serves as her bedside table, and she quotes them at length:

We have not seen work like this for some time. Please could you send some more of your writing, maybe on a different theme? Or is there anything else you’re working on?

Your writing is genuinely astonishing, but I would like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes … Think book club material …

The title character in ‘Harlem Jones’ … what if he didn’t hurl the Molotov in the closing paragraphs? 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? … These are very minor edits … We hope you would be open to this.

There is dark humour here, certainly, but Clarke’s point is clear: these are representations that are new, that sit uncomfortably, and that is exactly why they are important.

Representation is never a simple issue – especially because not all of the ‘new and exciting’ representations Clarke offers in Foreign Soil are written from the inside, as it were. 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. But it is a risky businesses nonetheless – and Asanka’s story, ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’, is a case in point.

Asanka has fled the more than 25-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. Clarke describes, in horrific detail, Asanka’s journey to Australia in the cramped hold of a fishing vessel – at one point, riddled with dysentery and semi-delirious, Asanka is towed behind the boat in a lifejacket so as not to infect the other passengers – as well as the torture inflicted on him by the rebel army he is trying to escape by coming to Australia. His morning routine within Villawood is also outlined in excruciating, humiliating detail. Asanka’s story is important, and Clarke is attempting here both to understand it, and to bring it into the prominence it deserves.

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 seems almost petty to pull apart these poetic, expressive details when they are intended to humanise a story about a refugee, when refugees are frequently demonised across our politics and media, but if Clarke’s project across the book is one of reclaiming voices, of re-writing otherness from within, of adding complexity and individuality to narratives of race, then these small inaccuracies reveal the very real difficulties and limitations of that task. 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. It is about being answerable only to one’s self, about knowing one’s own soil. 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.

Read the correspondence for ‘Listen’.