In Melbourne’s western suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories. The book is called Foreign Soil. Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way. The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…
I don’t often read collections of short stories – I like to get really invested in a story, and I find it easier to do so with a full-length novel – but I really loved Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, and thought I’d check out this collection. I’m glad I did, because this book is an absolute gem. The stories are character-driven and well-paced.
You’ll forgive me if my review seems unbalanced – I know I should focus on the collection as a whole (as you would a volume of poetry), but there are some stories that stick out in my mind more than others, and I do want to gush about them because I walked away from them with a heavy heart (in the best way possible). I think great literature is literature that makes you think, and Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil has definitely done that.
Australian media isn’t exactly known for its diversity and inclusiveness – Beneba Clarke has mentioned before that winning the Victorian Premiere’s Unpublished Manuscript Award was instrumental in her securing a publisher, if that’s any indication (given the quality of the short stories, I can only imagine the reason why it got rejected so many times was a fear that audiences wouldn’t connect to characters of colour) – so I appreciated that Beneba Clarke gave a voice to people who aren’t often heard.
One thing that is obvious is Beneba Clarke’s abilities (and experience) as a slam poet. She relies on cadences of the voice to tell her stories, and this comes across more effectively in some stories than others (as to be expected). For instance, I struggled quite a bit with the story Big Islan, which was written entirely in Jamaican patois. I struggled to connect with the stories that were accent-heavy, and I didn’t feel that narrating in an accent added to the story (Big Islan, David), given that Beneba Clarke has such a knack for dialogue that that alone gave me such a strong sense of place. Given that the stories followed characters living in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Mississippi, Jamaica and the Sudan (to name a few), this was no easy feat. Nevertheless, I appreciated what Beneba Clarke was trying to do with this device.
My favourite stories were Shu Yi, The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa, and Aviation (which, I understand, is a new addition to the edition I purchased), although Beneba Clarke has an ability to create stories around characters you seemingly have nothing in common with, and make you care about them desperately (and given that the longest story in this collection is around 50 pages… again, no easy feat). The only story in the collection that is even remotely autobiographical is The Sukiyaki Book Club, which references earlier stories in the collection and seemed to document Beneba Clarke’s own struggles in getting published.
Much like The Hate Race, it will be impossible to walk away unaffected by Foreign Soil. With a voice unlike any other, Beneba Clarke is an author who makes me excited for the future of Australian publishing.