‘Against anything I had ever been told was possible, I was turning white. On the surface of my skin, a miracle was quietly brewing . . .’
Suburban Australia. Sweltering heat. Three bedroom blonde-brick. Family of five. Beat-up Ford Falcon. Vegemite on toast. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life is just like all the other Aussie kids on her street.
Except for this one, glaring, inescapably obvious thing.
My thoughts: This was an enthralling, compelling, complex, heartbreaking read. I grew up a few suburbs away from where Maxine did, and I can honestly say that the level of casual racism she experienced still exists today. Beneba Clarke tries to explain how a lifetime of racial slurs and taunts can slowly accrue, wearing the person down (‘This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.’).
Beneba Clarke’s voice is clear and simple, reminiscent of a child’s voice. It fits, given that she primarily covers her school years. The voice drives the emotional punch that this memoir delivers, reminding the reader that childhood is a time of innocence, or rather, it’s supposed to be. ‘Maxine, you are a very, very nasty little black girl,’ the mother of Beneba Clarke’s childhood bully informs her when she tries to stand up for herself. This is balanced against the familiarity of childhood, little rituals and moments that all Australian children can relate to – picking out a birthday cake from The Australian Women’s Weekly cake book, and gathering tadpoles in ice cream buckets at the local creek. I can remember doing all of those things at one point during my childhood, and it made Beneba Clarke’s childhood experiences all the more confronting.
I found the simple refrain of ‘this is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for’ (occasionally a variant of it) to be particularly powerful; simultaneously a reference to her Afro-Caribbean heritage, and a reminder that these anecdotes were chosen with a purpose: to tell a story about growing up as a person of colour in a white society.
This is a powerful memoir, and I would recommend it to everyone. Masterfully written, this is a book that reminds us who we should not be. You cannot read this book and not be affected by its writing. I walked away from it with a sense of shame, and an overwhelming desire to do better.
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.