Hachette Australia, $24.99 pb, 272 pp, 9780733632426
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we have her first collection of short stories, Foreign Soil – the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript – and it is a remarkable collection indeed.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.