Books

Maxine Beneba Clarke
The Hate Race

Sure, I’ve heard of unconscious racism. And my guess is that, being human, I harbour my share of it. Acknowledging that deep-running streak in oneself, a reader of The Hate Race is watchful of one’s reactions. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s account of the racism directed at her as a child, and its lasting imprint, pummels the reader with shocks and kickbacks. Who acts that way? Who says that kind of thing? And to a child! Self-righteousness rears up – “Not me, that’s for certain” – and, next thing you know, disbelief creeps in: “Perhaps they didn’t mean it that way. I can’t imagine anyone being so thoughtless/blinkered/cruel.” Like I say, it makes a reader self-watchful. You read The Hate Race and it reads you back.

Clarke begins her book, the first instalment of a projected two-part memoir, by recounting a horrific incident of racial abuse on a suburban Melbourne street. She was pushing her baby’s pram when a passing motorist slowed to a crawl and sprayed raw hatred through his car window:

You make me sick, you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid! You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off, will you!

It happened earlier this year and what’s almost as shocking as her assailant’s words is that Clarke didn’t immediately realise he was addressing her because, “It’s been about ten months since I was openly abused on a street by a total stranger.” Three-fifteen on a school day, beside a busy road in one of the “better” suburbs, and she’s shattered, undone, shaking with fear, anger, dread. And what’s worse, she wants us to know, it’s nothing new.

Clarke’s West Indian-born parents, an actress and a mathematician, were raised and educated in England before immigrating to Australia as newlyweds. Born in Sydney and fledged on that city’s suburban fringe during the 1980s and ’90s, young Maxine faced taunting, ostracism and worse from the very first day at the kindergarten gate. Blackie. Monkey Girl. Golliwog. Spit balls. Vile notes slipped into her pencil-case: FUCK OFF BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM, framed in a gun-sight. And the response of authority figures only deepened the damage done. A favourite teacher, told about the relentless taunts of “Blackie”, replied, “Well, that’s what you are.” Others insisted it was just “a bit of teasing”. Their discomfort and unwillingness to put a name to palpable, endemic racism confirmed in Clarke that the fault was in her. Her and her “brown body”.

Though not of a churchgoing family, from the age of seven she prayed that her skin would turn white (“I just wanted to be like everyone else.”). When pale patches appeared on her face, she thought her prayers had been answered. But it was vitiligo, a pigmentation disorder, and her blotchy complexion earned her a new nickname: “Patch.” In adolescence, bullied and terrorised, she’d scratch the skin of her face until it bled. “For most of my school life,” she writes, “trauma manifested itself on my skin.”

Unlike her acclaimed collection Foreign Soil, in which polyglot dialects ignite many of the stories, Clarke’s memoir is told mostly in an unadorned narrative voice, the power of which lies more in what it says than how it says it. Even so, Clarke breaks into her own narrative at intervals as a kind of one-woman Greek chorus, evoking “the folklore way West Indians have, of weaving a tale”, and the incantatory cadences of her own poetry and performance are sprinkled throughout:

This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for ...

This is how it broke me. This is how I coped ...

This is how it haunts us. This is how it stalks ...

This is how we shame it. How we make it break ...

This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.

The poet in Clarke manifests, too, in such passages as “those bogongs of doubt beginning their dusty-winged beat beneath my mother’s rib cage”.

The young Maxine was drawn to performance – acting, debating, public speaking – and, in this memoir, a tendency to self-dramatise surfaces from time to time. Having tried out for the role of Viola in a high-school production of Twelfth Night, she landed a different but coveted part for which, Clarke writes, “on a subconscious level, I’d just assumed it wasn’t realistic for me to audition”. Yet she’d auditioned for the lead role, hadn’t she? The lesson drawn is lyricised: “This is how we see ourselves / This is how we’re crushed.” Here and elsewhere, even her successes are recast – out of self-preservation? out of habit? – as failures.

Perhaps that is an inevitable result of relentless self-scrutiny. The Hate Race is no easy read, but it does as its author intends, unflinchingly conveying the lifelong impact of racism – “casual, overt and institutionalised” – on an individual, and “the way it erodes us all”. And in us all, Clarke counts herself. She relates an incident that formed the basis for “Shu Yi”, a story from Foreign Soil, in which the protagonist, herself the target of bullying and vilification, lashed out at one just as vulnerable, thereby winning the approval of her own tormentors. “This is how it entices us,” croons Clarke of her capitulation to the mob; “This is how we succumb.”

In the book’s prologue, Clarke tells how, still reeling from that kerb-crawler’s hateful spray, she confided in another young mum headed for the school gate. The woman was appalled. Wanting to make it better, but unsure of what to say, she stammered, “I don’t know what the hell gets into people. That’s just awful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.” But, writes Clarke:

I don’t want sympathy. I want to un-hear what I just heard, un-experience what just happened.

The inadequacy, the uselessness of being sorry – I get it. With force and grace, by stealth and shock, The Hate Race makes its point, gets under the reader’s skin.  FL

Hachette, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL

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