A wonderful short story collection from an original Australian voice that probes how it feels to be the ‘outsider’
Who it’s for:
While the issues covered in this book are relatively adult, I can see older teens benefiting from the read, as it deals with dispossession and disenfranchisment – states of being which often manifest in the young adult years.
Ten short stories. 272 pages.
What the back cover says:
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 warpath 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…
What I say:
On the face of it, Maxine Beneba Clarke and I should have plenty in common. We are both women. We are from Sydney. We are in our thirties. We are mothers. We are university educated. We love words and writing.
But Maxine is black. I am white. And this basic, aesthetic difference means our experiences of living in Australia are, I suspect, wildly divergent.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know what it’s like to feel dispossessed or disenfranchised. Not truly. But I want to. I really want to understand how it feels to stand at the outer edge of society, because I believe that empathy is the first step towards change.
This is why Foreign Soil is such an important work.
Yes, there’s the beauty of the language where Clarke allows her poetic ear for language to soar. And yes, there’s the phonetic representation of accent that imbues the characters voices with incredible authenticity.
But more than this, is the idea that disposession and disenfranchisement cannot simply be explained by skin colour or economic circumstance; in Clarke’s work the pregnant, unmarried white woman is perhaps more vulnerable in Uganda, than the pregnant and unmarried black woman in Jamaica. In short, anyone – rich or poor, black or white – can feel powerless or lost, given a certain mix of circumstances and contexts. Though it may be more prevalent in certain communities, dispossession isn’t necessarily a cultural condition, but a human one.
Such insights are important. Literary fiction is a genre of power. It shapes the way we see our culture, and thus, influences change. And as with most things powerful, it has tended to be dominated by white men, thus producing a skewed view of how life really is.
If you think I’m wrong, google a list of the most influential novels of the last 100 years and count how many were written by women of colour.
Of course, this is changing. And Clarke is among an emerging group of literary writers, who represent a diversity of views and backgrounds.
But it’s slow progress, and bias still exists, as evidenced by the final (and most autobiographical) story of the collection – ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’ – a terribly clever meta-narrative in which two children squabble in the remnants of the day, while their mother attempts to write a short story about a little girl – Avery – stuck upside down on the monkey bars.
The writer’s family is financially vulnerable. Their apartment shakes and rattles with every passing train, as rejection letters mount up in an emerald green milk crate ‘…like echidna spikes, literary armour…. Your writing is genuinely astonishing, but I’d like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality. Ordinary moments. Think book club material.’
If this is not word-for-word copy of a rejection letter Clarke herself has received, I have no doubt it encapsulates the spirit. What’s so outrageous is the inherent gender bias (can you imagine Christos Tsiolkas being asked to write ‘uplifting’ material?) and the assumption that readers only want to have their own experiences reflected back at them.
At the end of ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club,’ the little stuck girl, Avery, lets go.
‘She wonders what it will feel like, the playground bark splintering in her head, her neck jarring on impact. Halfway to the ground her body flips suddenly, bending at the waist. Avery gasps, somersaults, lands somehow, both feet facing forward, arms swung out in front of her like the gymnastic girls she and her mum watched together on telly last year when the Olympics were on. Avery pauses a moment in shock. Laugh out loud, flushed cheeks almost bursting. She did it.’
Just like her character, Avery, Clarke has fortunately had the last laugh. Foreign Soil won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award 2013 and has now been shortlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize.
It would be a worthy winner.