Better Lives Elsewhere

Maxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil

Corsair, 272pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781472151476

reviewed by Melanie White

Literary stories about immigration and refugees could not be more timely. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection, Foreign Soil, was first published two years ago in Australia after winning an award for best unpublished manuscript. It now comes to the UK amid heated political debate over immigration threats to domestic security, in the wake of terror attacks in Brussels and in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Clarke, an Australian slam poetry champion of Afro-Caribbean descent, explores foreignness from a multitude of angles: first-generation offspring of immigrants and those who moved to new countries in mid-life; racial minorities struggling against bigotry; naive rural children encountering big-city dangers; people in interracial relationships; those whose gender makes them feel like strangers even to themselves; and, most poignantly of all, the hopeless tragedy of child soldiers, forced to commit brutal acts and flee for sanctuary abroad, only to find there is no salvation and no escape from their inner burden.

The book’s final story, ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club,’ and the dilemma of its main character, also an author, suggests Clarke’s own difficulty in getting her work published. ‘Your writing is genuinely astonishing,’ goes one publisher’s rejection in the story, ‘but I’d like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality. Ordinary moments. Think book club material.’ According to an interview with Clarke in the Sydney Morning Herald, such responses were in line with her reality – which is a crying shame (at times literally, given the book’s traumatic elements). This work is important, not merely because the stories deal with highly relevant human crises but because they are compelling in themselves: powerful, understated, elegantly written stories that generate much-needed empathy. Clarke writes with humour and clarity while mining deeply emotive circumstances; her stories are moving without a shred of mawkishness.

The idea of foreign soil refers not just to lands but also to people, as well as to the way that being a stranger, an outsider, in a place can change the way people behave. In the title story, a white Australian hairdresser falls in love with a wealthy Ugandan doctor. He’s considerate and sophisticated; after a few years together, they move back to his native land. Once there, he reverts to a domineering, controlling mode more typical of men in a deeply patriarchal culture than the one in which they met. She is trapped with a man she can no longer recognise: ‘She began to wonder if the real Musaka Kiteki was another country entirely, whether what happened between the two of them had always been carried out with the choreographed care and watchfulness brought on by foreign soil.’ When her passport is taken away, she becomes trapped on a literal level, too.

Although Clarke’s stories revolve around similar themes, all are very different, coming at the outsider/immigrant experience from a multitude of unexpected angles. Comparisons have been made between her work and that of Junot Diaz, but Diaz frequently resorts to the same persona (the character of Yunior, of Dominican origin like himself) in his stories. Clarke’s autobiographical alternate appears only in ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club;’ throughout the rest of the collection, her characters are remarkably varied, and her writing shows far greater range. Her most affecting stories describe the experiences of children: the young girl from the Jamaican mountains, in ‘Hope,’ who must leave her impoverished family to earn her keep in Kingston; the bullied Asian girl in ‘Shu Yi;’ the asylum-seeking teenager from Sri Lanka in ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa.’ Although the opening story, ‘David,’ revolves around a conversation between two Sudanese women in an Australian suburb, the spectre of a child (a casualty of tribal warfare) imbues the tale with tragedy in a way that sneaks up and takes your breath away. Clarke’s naturalistic, conversational style allows the devastating backstory to percolate up as if from a bloody wellspring, bestowing a deeper meaning upon the central, seemingly innocuous symbol of a bicycle to emotionally devastating effect.

Clarke is fond of the dual narrative, frequently intertwining two different points of view in a way that creates a compelling contrast. Unfortunately, sometimes she builds tension well only to allow it to fizzle at the end. Some stories, such as ‘Shu Yi’ and ‘Railton Road’ (about Black Power activists in ‘60s Brixton) appear to stop in the middle without much sense of an ending, either finishing bluntly at a crisis point, without resolution, or weakly drifting away. Perhaps it’s telling that her least effective stories, such as ‘Railton Road,’ are also the most overtly political ones: here, Clarke’s agenda gets in the way of plot, turning characters into mouthpieces and rehashing familiar conceptual ground.

For the most part, though, her writing is nuanced, with unique and convincing characters. While the scale of her stories tends to be small, honing in on one or two characters in a brief space of time, the political and historical contexts are wide-ranging – not to mention the geographic settings, which include Melbourne, London, Jamaica, Uganda, Sudan, Mississippi, New Orleans and Sri Lanka. Frequently, Clarke generates a strong sense of a character’s voice by recreating regional patois in a way that manages to be both authentic and clear. In this respect, she adheres closely to the epigraph by Chinua Achebe: ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.’ Stories such as ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ and ‘Big Islan’ are written entirely in patois (Southern US and Jamaican, respectively), and Clarke pulls it off with great skill. Her characters’ dialects strengthen their voices without obfuscating their meaning; the effect is nothing like, say, the middle section of Cloud Atlas.

Poignantly, the main character of ‘Big Islan,’ Nathanial, is learning to read and associates certain letters with different words: ‘P is fe possibility,’ for example, and ‘D is fe dreams.’ At first Nathanial is content in his own little world: ‘Nowhere, no how, Nathanial evah gwan leave Kingston, dust-tiny speck on de atlas or no. Nathanial already learn imself H, an dat lettah, wid dem two poles dat join up in de middle wid a likkle scaffoldin, it always gwan stand fe home.’ However, as he learns to read, his world opens up. He pores over a newspaper article about the Jamaican cricket team in Australia, and it sets him alight: ‘Wat country dis, dat offah such reception te black West Indian man. Treat us like we kings!’ His fantasy of foreign soil having taken root, the letter ‘R,’ now, ‘is fe restlessness.’ As many of the other stories show, Nathanial’s dream of acceptance in other lands is more complicated than he thinks; in this story, at least, the character’s bubble has not yet burst.

Taken together, the stories in Foreign Soil depict with great delicacy and insight the complexity of race, identity, immigration and the fraught notion that there is a better life waiting elsewhere. While the effect is occasionally heartbreaking, the stories ultimately work to generate a great deal of compassion – and that is their truly valuable political, as well as literary, power.