Foreign Soil
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Foreign Soil

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award 2013.

In Melbourne’s western suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories.

The book is called Foreign Soil. Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s' Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way.

The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…

Review

Recently, and rather controversially, a reviewer of Black Inc.’s The Best Australian Stories 2013 complained there was little that was memorable amid last year’s crop of ‘best’ short fiction. Be that as it may, I was reminded of those remarks when reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut short-story collection, Foreign Soil, for of all the things reviewers will say about it, I’m sure this charge won’t be one of them. Without a doubt, this rather remarkable book is as vivid and unforgettable as – and in several respects indeed resembles – that extraordinary collection from Nam Le: The Boat.

In an early story, ‘Harlem Jones’, Clarke lobs a Molotov under any reader expecting a literary comfort zone. The eponymous main character, of Caribbean descent, meets up with a mate to attend a protest in London over the police shooting of a black man. For all Harlem’s simmering rage and violent urges, it is his despair at centuries of historical abjection as a member of an underclass that resounds.

There is so much to say about each of the 10 stories here. The settings range from grimy Footscray backstreets to white-picket fence, small-town Australia to the Villawood detention centre; from a wealthy enclave of Kampala in Uganda to a down-at-heel New Orleans apartment block, from Brixton in London to Kingston in Jamaica.

These are tales of sheer storytelling prowess, and a deeply ambivalent take on hope and despair in the modern world. This is not to say I had no quibbles with a couple of the stories – sometimes I thought they didn’t quite gel in their conception – but paradoxically, it was these stories that lingered the longest: namely, ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ and ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’.

‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’, the final story and a sort of coda to the collection, – reflects on whether what has gone before is suitable ‘book club’ fare. It’s an amusing – as well as plangent – step into meta-fiction. I have no doubt this book will be widely and fulsomely celebrated and discussed. Foreign Soil, which won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, marks the arrival of a major new voice in the Australian literary landscape.


Martin Shaw is Readings’ Books Division Manager. This is an edited version of a review first published on Books+Publishing.

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