Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

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Realist Short Stories, Cultural : Mixed

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author of Afro-Carribean descent, and her collection, Foreign Soil, confronts the different forms of cultural divide. Her stories tackle really important themes of race & identity, the feeling of being alienated, displacement & longing, and in the process shedding light on the darker crevices that divide people.

Each story so incredibly unique not just in style and structure, but in the setting, place language and characters. My absolute favourites from this collection are Hope, Foreign Soil, Shu Yi, Gaps in the Hickory, Aviation, The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa and The Sukiyaki Book Club. The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa reads like a novella. It took a while for me to get a hang of what was going on. It follows a fisherman refugee from Sri Lanka and how he lands up in a mental asylum in Australia. It’s heartbreaking and as you progress in the story, you realise the central character suffers from schizophrenia which is never directly indicated but you sort of glean that from the story. I felt the way it was crafted was just remarkably intelligent! Gaps in the Hickory is also a longer form short story, and the way she explores gender in that is just so fascinating! Her stories take a while for you to completely grasp what really is going on, but when that realisation strikes it just blows you away! Another aspect I loved is the way she finally wraps her stories up. It’s perfect.

My only qualm with the collection is that some of her stories are written using the phonetic slang which is a little tedious to follow. For instance, the story Big Islan went over my head. No matter how many times I tried, I found it really hard to follow the story as it was completely written in a different slang. I understand that she’s tried to create that authenticity to the character and place, but I ended up feeling distanced from the story. On further research I got to know Clarke is a spoken word, slam poetry performer as well, so I get why she’s used a style that emulates the local dialect in a few of the stories. However, not all the stories are written that way (that would have drastically reduced my enjoyment of the book).

I always like to give a little tease of the writing style, here’s a description of a city rebuilding itself after a quake.

‘The earth cracked in so many places that there was nowhere left to run, the ground parting wet and panting like a thousand lusting mouths, suctioning lives and livelihoods into fierce vacuums of quicksand. Refugees moved inland, away from the death rubble and decay, and the smaller village of Kingston swelled to the occasion, gathering up those who had lost everything. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, and years into decades. One day people looked up and a city had been built around them, bustling between the mountains and sea. Old people were buried, new life birthed, and eventually, all talk of leaving ceased.’

Final Verdict: 4/5 stars. It’s definitely a collection I’d recommend.

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