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May 7, 2018 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

Foreign Soil

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke


Maxine Beneba Clarke’s brilliant 2014 short story collection Foreign Soil is centred around the idea of African diaspora. The stories follow a diverse range of characters as they journey through life, either interacting with or from the perspective of someone of African descent. The diversity of people and places through their age, gender, and ethnicity, is what made me fall in love with this collection.

Throughout Clarke’s stories, there is an abundance of rounded characters that you cannot help but be invested in. You desperately want them to achieve their goals and succeed, but not all stories end in a happily-ever-after, which leaves the reader jarred and disappointed, but in the best way possible.

My favourite story was “Gaps in the Hickory”. The story follows Delores in New Orleans, and mother and son Jeanie and Carter in small-town Mississippi. It starts off slow, and you are drip fed little points of information, making you feel almost like a detective trying to figure out how these points of view connect. This story touched me because it described real danger, yet this fear within the family did not stop two women from protecting their loved ones,  not only their own family but from the small-town and small-mindedness that surrounded them.

Another highlight in the collection was the story “Shu Yi”, which followed a biracial girl, Ava, trying to escape being bullied by her peers. The perfect decoy arrives: Shu Yi, an Asian girl with poor English. It is strongly suggested by the Ava’s mother and teacher that she should befriend Shu Yi. It reminded me of my primary school days, when all I wanted to do was fit in, and being an exchange student’s buddy is not part of that. I felt ashamed as I remembered those feelings, and my heart broke.

The titular story “Foreign Soil” is another gem: it starts off as a love story between a biracial couple, Ange and Mukasa, who relocate from Sydney to Uganda. I think this story is particularly clever because it starts off as a classic romantic comedy set up but ends sharply steeped in reality. Clarke does not feed us our expectations.

Each story is unique and stands in its own strength, but together they are a cohesive text. You could easily read one story, put the collection down and come back to it in a month, even though you probably won’t want to. The first five stories focus on young people’s experiences — children, teenagers, and young adults. The following six are more focused on adults — wives, husbands, widows, and single mothers. The overall tone is thoughtful and purposeful, even in the more playful stories, calling us to reflect on how we think and interact with race throughout our lives.

Clarke is a master craftswoman and a fierce storyteller, and I highly recommend this work for anyone who’s tired of reading stories about middle class white people. This book has both quenched my thirst for post-colonial literature, and simultaneously fuelled the fire to read more.  



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