24 February 2015

Stella Prize Longlist Book of the Day, Book 1: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

Each weekday between now and the announcement of the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist on March 12, we’ll be turning the Stella spotlight on a different longlisted author and their book. Today is day one, and our featured book is…

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)

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What the Stella Prize judges said:

Maxine Beneba Clarke is a performance poet, acutely aware of the accents, idioms and cadences of the spoken word, and her gift with voices – their origins, their meanings, their struggles and triumphs with alien English – is at the heart of this collection of stories. All ten stories deal with displacement in some form, and some of that displacement has been violent: there are stories of racial conflict in Brixton, of asylum seekers in flight from the Tamil Tigers, of psychological and physical violence between a naïve white-Australian wife in a strange land and her twice-displaced African husband.

Although these are stories about inequalities of power in the intersections of class and race, Beneba Clarke also uses narrative voices and the effects of dialogue to show characters attempting to create and assert a coherent self through the power of speech. Her work is profoundly political, but it is also more than that.

The blurb:

In this collection of award-winning stories, Melbourne writer Maxine Beneba Clarke has given a voice to the disenfranchised, the lost, the downtrodden and the mistreated. It will challenge you, it will have you by the heartstrings. This is contemporary fiction at its finest.

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 warpath 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…

About the author:

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is a widely published Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent and the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is On Parole (Picaro Press, 2009) and Nothing Here Needs Fixing (Picaro Press, 2013). As a spoken word performer, Maxine’s work has been delivered on stages and airways, and in festivals across the country. Her short fiction, essays and poetry have been published in numerous publications including The Saturday Paper, Overland, The Age, Big Issue, Cordite Poetry Review, Harvest, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Unusual Work and Peril. Foreign Soil, Maxine’s debut collection of short stories, was the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award. She is currently working on a memoir and was awarded the 2014 Hazel Rowley fellowship to research her family history. Maxine lives in Melbourne, Victoria.

What the critics said:

‘Nourished by Clarke’s empathetic imagination, her narratives create the lived experience of suffering and despair, resilience and hope, for the powerless, the discarded, the socially adrift… As well as being ideologically complex, the stories also resist easy moral judgements; Clarke encourages us to listen to the voices of those who are typically silenced.’ – Susan Midalia, Australian Book Review

‘Clarke wants us to be uncomfortable, to lose our bearings; she wants us to squirm. She wants us to have to adjust our expectations and learn the different languages in which her characters speak. She wants us to feel different and out of our depth. And she wants us, above all, to learn how to listen.’ – Fiona Wright, Sydney Review of Books

‘These are tales of sheer storytelling prowess, and a deeply ambivalent take on hope and despair in the modern world.’ – Martin Shaw, Readings

‘Clarke’s startlingly emotive collection encompasses the scope of human experience: betrayal, love, foolishness, hope, helplessness and anger at “the way things are”.’ – Lou Heinrich, Newtown Review of Books

‘Clarke’s rhythmic prose…is a treat for the eyes and the ears.’ – Emily Laidlaw, Killings

Further reading:

And finally…

Click below to see Maxine read from Foreign Soil during the recent Stella longlist readings event at the Digital Writers’ Festival:

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