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we have her first collection of short stories, Foreign Soil – the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – and it is a remarkable collection indeed.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
Susan Midalia is a Perth-based author of three short story collections, all shortlisted for major Australian literary awards, and a novel called The Art of Persuasion (2018). Her new novel, Everyday Madness, will be published early in 2021. She is also a freelance editor and mentor, and has been a judge of the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards and the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, as well as numerous short story competitions.
From the New Issue
The Louvre: The many lives of the world’s most famous museum by James Gardner
Fire Flood Plague: Australian writers respond to 2020 edited by Sophie Cunninghamby Adele Dumont
Lowitja: The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue by Stuart Rintoul