The blurb of Foreign Soil tells of a young black mother, writing short stories “in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train lines”. In her collection, a desperate asylum seeker paces the hallways of Villawood detention centre, a black history teacher finds his place in 1960s Brixton, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy finds freedom in a patchwork bike. Of course, her collection is this collection, the woman is the author Maxine Beneba Clarke. In reality the story of the single mother, her beautiful children, and all of her rejection letters, isn’t until the final tale and it’s an interesting way of framing and homing the collection, in a rather meta way.
Maybe because I just moved to Footscray myself that I found this framing instantly grounding and relatable. I’ve moved inter-state, into a suburb so completely different to the one I left, so my adventures around my new home are almost displacing, overwhelming, exciting. I’m already bedding down new routines, relishing the difference, thriving in the raised voices of so many different languages around me. It is this feeling that seems to tie up all the stories in Foreign Soil: a seeking feeling of home, a new world, something to express in a space that doesn’t feel like your own.
It’s hard to speak about the writing style Beneba Clarke has here: there are so many different voices in this book, from so many different places, worlds and times. Each story is so distinct, complete and whole. There are consistent themes, undercurrents, of otherness, displacement, difference, but each story told from such unique, clear spaces. The narration style fits so well with each characters’ time and place, from Mississippi to Brixton to Jamacia, to Melbourne. “Gaps in the Hickory” is set in the swelling, immeasurable heat of the Summer Still in the south of the US:
New Orleans trap this kinda heat: it collect on the concrete an brick, sink into the tar an breed more of its own. Ain’t no way to scape this kinda hot – they jus gotta wait for the breeze to break it some way.
In another story, Nathaniel Robinson, being taught his letters by his too-clever wife, experiences the first stirrings of wanderlust, of wanting to see the world outside of Jamaica:
‘Bottom ov de world, dem say. British rule, apparently. Big, big islan’… A is fe Owstrayleah.
The way Beneba Clarke manipulates language to make the voices to clear and true is masterful. The stories are told from a genuine place for each character, and she has worked hard to make that place distinct and direct. This is sharp, tender storytelling, voices from the streets startling in their familiarity, written with empathy and knowledge but without sentimentality or excuses.
And some of these stories completely broke my heart. Each voice makes the narrator so human, so unequivocal, that these distilled stories can immediately hit right on the mark. “Harlem Jones” is just thrumming with that furious inexpressible teenage boy rage, whirling around, not fully formed, smacking out at the disparity and unfairness of life. In the title story, Ange has left Sydney for Uganda, living in the compound home of her boyfriend’s family, trapped like a zoo animal, increasingly isolated. There are other stories, like “Railton Road”, sent in 1960s Brixton, that didn’t land for me; and “David”, the story of a Sudanese woman borrowing a bike, remembering her boy, is an odd story to open with. That said, I re-read it after finishing the book, came full circle – opening and closing the collection in Footscray – and appreciated it in a different way.
Here Beneba Clark has clearly, sharply shared distinct, different experiences. So many unique characters in such diverse places and times. It can be difficult speaking about otherness, belonging, home, race, but instead of speaking about it she has just told some people’s stories. And it seems a very real, rare collection of stories.