this casual unguardedness that comes from never really knowing fear
[Not a capsule review, but a shorter one than usual. Sorry.]
I think I’m going to start referring to 2016 as the Year When I Found Out I Was Wrong About Everything. (Not, like, everything, you understand. Most things I’m good on.) It is definitely the case, though, that I am not very good on short stories. They disorient me, especially if a collection doesn’t have some kind of unifying thread. But Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, oh man. I’m here for this.
It’s mostly a collection about the experiences of black people separated in some way from a community. It’s not necessarily, or always, a collection “about” racism, or race relations, which is why I’m doubly pleased that it’s been published in the UK; there remains this lingering conviction that writers of colour are always somehow writing about that (and, by extension, about white people). Clarke’s first story, “David”, explores the conflict between a second-generation woman born in Australia to Sudanese parents, and the first-generation immigrant woman she meets on her way back from buying a bike. Their dance of mutual misunderstanding, frustration and need is conveyed by each woman in turn; they tell their stories in parallel, the older woman recounting the backstory that explains her present. Neither of them is aware that the other is also narrating. Their voices proceed in isolation until the very end of the story, where they come together in a moment that’s transcendant for being so utterly unexpected.
Clarke uses this technique a lot, often without contextualizing who the different voices belong to. My favourite instance is in the story “Gaps In the Hickory”, about a young transgender boy, Carter, in rural Mississippi. (Technically, I guess, Carter is a transgender girl: born male and being raised as a boy, partly because his father is too violent and bigoted to be trusted with the secret knowledge he has of his girlhood.) His story, told through his worried and loving mother’s eyes, is spliced with scenes in New Orleans where we see an older woman, Delores, interacting with a small girl, her neighbour Ella. For a very long time, we don’t know who Delores is, or why she’s important, though slowly, slowly, we learn that she knew Carter’s grandmother. Still, though, the final reveal is very gradual, very contextual—the reader gets there just a second before the narrative does. Again, the end of the story is a moment of synthesis, of connection.
The brilliance of a short story, I think, stands or falls upon its ability to know when to stop. Clarke’s brilliance in these particular stories is to stop just after the synthesis. We feel, as readers, some sense of relief: an immediate tension has been resolved, characters have met, action has been taken. But that relief is contingent because Clarke never resolves things utterly: in “Big Islan”, for instance, her protagonist Nathanial has learned how to read as a result of his wife’s ceaseless instruction, and he awakes at the end of the story feeling restless in Kingston, which he had once thought the centre of the world. But that’s it. He’s got itchy feet now, and he’s as willing to travel as his wife wants him to be, but we don’t get the satisfaction of finding out whether they make it. The same goes for “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”, the protagonist of which is a detained Sri Lankan seeking asylum in Australia from being forced into service with the Tamil Tigers. The whole story is about his escape, spliced with scenes of the domestically dissatisfied lawyer who’s driving to see him in the detention centre. As the story closes, we know, the young man has done something drastic in front of a press conference at the centre, in order to draw attention to his plight. But we don’t know whether it works.
The stories that concern themselves most overtly with race aren’t interested in white people; they’re to do with how non-whites betray each other. They are incredible, disturbing vignettes of internalized fear and hatred. “Shu Yi”‘s narrator is a young black girl at a mostly white Australian school. Asked to befriend the only other child of colour in her year—a Chinese girl who barely speaks and is violently bullied—Ava reluctantly agrees. When it comes down to it, though, she publicly humiliates the other girl in order to protect her own standing, to make sure there’s someone weaker and more despised than she is. The story’s final image is of Shu Yi pissing herself, the shame and hopelessness of her situation expressed with horrible poignancy: “Shu Yi’s eyes locked with mine. A thin trickle travelled out the bottom of her tunic and down the inside of her legs, soaking slowly into her frilly white socks.” It’s so painful to read (God, the picture of those little frilly socks), but it’s also, astonishingly, dignified. Shu Yi doesn’t hide behind her hair, or put her face in her hands. She looks her betrayer in the eye. She owns the shame that belongs to her. She can’t say a thing, but she can make Ava understand that what she’s done is terrible.
Many of the stories are written in dialect: not just the dialogue, but the actual narration. I read a few reviews that didn’t take kindly to this, and I can see why a reader wouldn’t, but I think it’s a genius decision. To narrate in “standard English” the story of a teenager in 1950s Jamaica, pregnant out of wedlock, is to stand somewhere in relation to that teenager: to stand away from her, apart from her, above her looking down, even. To narrate that story in the words that she would use, though, in the patois (or “patwa”) that she speaks, is to make it a story that she is telling us. It brings it to life, it levels the reader’s horizon. An English tutor (or, well, I) would say that it asserts that teenager’s right to narrative authority.
Which is, I think, the point of the book’s epigraph, a quotation 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.” Clarke’s embrace of many Englishes—Jamaican patois, Brixton street slang, broken and Tamil-inflected, suburban Australian—levels the reader’s horizons for all of these stories. You’re not observing them; you’re engaging with them. And the final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club”, is a passionate defense of an artist’s right to tell the stories they want to tell, the ones they need to tell. It quotes the rejection letters sent to a writer whose situation is very much as Clarke’s was, while she was writing this collection:
Your writing is genuinely astonishing, 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.
…Imagine if that day of the Tottenham riots was ultimately a wake-up call that got an angry black kid back on the straight and narrow? We would be very interested in working with you to bring some light to this collection…These are very minor edits we are talking about.
What Clarke is doing, with Achebe’s English, is an unheard of thing: she is saying no. She is saying, fuck y’all. She is saying, This is not book club material. You are not talking about minor edits. You would like to corral these stories into shapes that make you more comfortable and you will not be permitted to do that. Thank God.
Read Foreign Soil; read it urgently. Discuss it with your book club, if you have one. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, a collection of exquisite novels in miniature, and I can’t wait to read Clarke’s next book.
Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair for the review copy. Foreign Soil was published in the UK on 7 April.