Maxine Beneba Clarke is already a well-known Melbourne voice: a fiction writer and slam poet with an enthusiastic following. Now we have her first collection of short stories, Foreign Soil – the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – and it is a remarkable collection indeed. While its ten stories, ranging in length from fifteen to fifty pages, are unashamedly political, they are never reductively polemical. Nourished by Clarke’s empathetic imagination, her narratives create the lived experience of suffering and despair, resilience and hope, for the powerless, the discarded, the socially adrift. And while the collection focuses on race relations and racial identity – an emphasis perhaps attributable to Clarke’s Afro-Caribbean heritage – it rejects the simple model of white oppressor–black victim. We are shown, for example, the ugly misogyny of 1960s black male activists; the distressing class arrogance of a black Ugandan doctor towards his black servant and white lover; the hard-won solidarity between a young black woman and her white employer. As well as being ideologically complex, the stories also resist easy moral judgements; Clarke encourages us to listen to the voices of those who are typically silenced. These wonderfully performative stories thus have a decidedly old-fashioned but ethically crucial aim: to refine the reader’s sympathies, to educate the heart.
Susan Midalia on Maxine Beneba Clarke
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Susan Midalia has published three collections of short stories: A History of the Beanbag (2007), shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards; An Unknown Sky (2012), shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award; and the newly released Feet to the Stars (2015). She is the judge of several literary awards and a recent peer assessor for the Australia Council for the Arts. She continues to believe, despite the moral poverty of current political discourse and practice, that writing and reading fiction can enhance our capacity for independent thinking and compassion.
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