Books

Maxine Beneba Clarke
Foreign Soil

Any decent gardener will tell you that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. The protagonists of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s stories are human beings who find themselves on foreign soil at what we might charitably call unpropitious moments. As an analogy, though, it is only half true: Clarke’s men, women and children do not have the luxury of roots. Instead they heave along on stunted radicals, torn from any fixed ancestry, drawing bare sustenance from the surrounding earth. Indeed it is this mobility that most offends and terrifies the “natives” whose space they invade. Sometimes menacing, more often abject, they are the Triffids of the globalised present.

Consider Asha, the young mother from the collection’s opener, “David”. I imagine her as one of those Sudanese women caught in blurred outline at western Sydney train stations as I travel from one middle-class enclave to another – a beautiful show-stopping otherness advertised as much by the vividness of her clothing as the colour of her skin.

Asha has spent money she cannot afford on a pimped-up Malvern Star bicycle with a “cherry-red frame, scooped alloy Harley handlebars, and sleek metal pedals” from a shop in Melbourne’s Footscray. We know little about her at first, aside from the fact that she is street-savvy and alienated from her community as a result of running off with an unsuitable man.  

The story proceeds, as do many in the collection, in split-screen: the suburban monochrome of the First World present, intercut with the technicolour horrors of what came before. Asha, we incrementally learn, had a husband, children, and a life back in the Sudan, interrupted by the child soldiers of the Janjaweed who murdered, for a laugh, a son named David, an obsessive bike rider. 

The purchase for which we are first invited to condemn her turns out to resonate with Asha’s loss, and the woman who is the agent of that condemnation – an older African, big-boned and swaddled in home-country dress – confronts Asha about her purchase before revealing her own subversively non-traditional urges. The translation across time and space is both a desecration of memory, with its clinging griefs and losses, and a liberation that makes us cry and laugh. 

This combinatory process drives many of the pieces in Foreign Soil. Take its standout story, “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”, which takes a National Geographic image of Sri Lanka and injects it with all the postcolonial venom of which Clarke is capable. A teenager is taken from his parents in the dead of night to fight for the Tamil Tigers. His refusal to rape a young girl provided for him by the rebels leads to the loss of a finger; an initial attempt at escape leads to the loss of a second. The first person to note his deformed hand is an attractive redhead, middle-class, kind of heart, and unhappily married to a true-blue Australian dickhead. 

Much as Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful Questions of Travel takes its sweet time in bringing the twinned stories of a Sydney woman and a Sri Lankan asylum seeker into proximity, Clarke’s story ends only with a brief, unsatisfactory meeting between the two: just long enough for the boy to purloin a hairpin from her, which he uses to sew his mouth closed in the yard of Villawood detention centre.

There is a quality of pain in which Clarke specialises; that of the stranger hurt by the peculiar circumstances of the grand diaspora of the poor world towards the rich. Yet the palette she employs is marvellously broad. There are white women who find themselves trapped by black partners in landlocked African countries, and there are black girls who, charged with the protection of newly arrived Asian students at a Sydney public school, treat them with a contempt that puts any truly racist white counterpart to shame.

This is the horror and the marvel of Clarke’s fiction, a sense that no one, irrespective of colour, will be excused from an obligation to hate on the Other. True, there are honourable exceptions – as its title indicates, the story “Hope” suggests that the wish to alter one’s circumstances for the better might yet occur, as long as the scope of that desire is properly modest, diminished to the very basics of existence. But, for the most part, misery and hurt are accepted as universal markers. “It isn’t that there is no right and wrong here,” suggests one of V.S. Naipaul’s narrators. “There’s no right.”

And yet the language this pessimism is couched in may be joyous. Some stories are written in patois, for example the Creole of postwar Jamaica (Clarke’s original home) in “Hope” and the Southern vernacular of New Orleans in the long story “Gaps in the Hickory”. Others owe closer fealty to the tidy realism of the Anglosphere short story. Sometimes a story contains an uneasy mash-up of the two. 

The weakest of these suffer from an excess of world data: they seek to explain their reality instead of trusting that readers can bear a little confusion about people or places or times distant to them. There are purplish patches, too, though these are soon cauterised by the suddenness with which Clarke can sign off on a tale, slicing hard through the connecting tissue of narrative. 

It is this creative ruthlessness, this willingness to invert the usual liberal pieties, that saves Clarke’s stories from being politically impeccable agitprop, and it is the anger and despair stalking her characters, possessing them in an almost demonic fashion, that stays with the reader even after the words with which they were summoned fade away. 

Clarke’s final, quasi-autobiographical narrator acknowledges this. She worries that her stories aren’t uplifting enough – that they aren’t “book club material”. It is the best argument I can think of for why they should be.  AF

Hachette, 272pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Maxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil". Subscribe here.