Foreign Soil is a magnificent collection of short stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke who seems able to inhabit any person on the planet with this magical story-teller mind meld. Male and female, black and white, child, adult, and elder, from Australia, Africa, Europe, North and Central America, there seem no limits on Clarke’s ability to imagine and create characters that feel real and honest.
She is also laser-focused on exploring the moral crises of our era, racism, immigration, poverty, sexism, domestic violence, transphobia, and extremism without even coming close to sounding like a syllabus for a class in cultural sensitivity.
Her first story, David, tells the story of two women who are Sudanese-Australian, one an immigrant the other the daughter of immigrants. The young woman imagines the older woman’s judgment of her, but there is strange and wonderful moment of connection and joy even though memories of suffering are raw.
There are eleven stories in all. None is anything like the other. Some are written in the various vernacular voices of their narrators. I struggled some with Big Islan, the narrator an illiterate Jamaican man, but it was so incredibly important to the story. His wife is teaching him to read, from A is for acai and forward. The progression through the alphabet is the wonder of the story.
Harlem Jones is a young West Indian man in London, enraged by a police killing of fellow immigrant Mark Duggan.Millie is the smart and talented daughter of a poor St. Thomas family who moves to the city to work as a seamstress for a woman who comes to love her like a daughter. Ange in the title story, Foreign Soil is about a white Australian woman who fell in love with doctor from Uganda and moved with him to Uganda where he is transformed.
Shu Yi is a heartbreaking story about school bullying and the very real appeal of last place avoidance when Ava, a young black girl would like “to be a little less me” is asked by her mother and her principal to help Shu Yi, a new student who is being bullied.
The next to last story is a delight. The Sukiyaki Book Club is very meta, the author writing a character she does not know how to rescue, but whom she wants very much to rescue. It is a triumph.
Clarke is a magical writer whose ability to create so many very different people is absolutely uncanny. When so many people are turning away from the world, living in fear of the “other” and closing ranks against anyone different from them, a book like Foreign Soil is an important counter current, a rejection of otherness and an embrace of our collective humanity, warts and all.
This is its magic. It shows us there is no “Other” or perhaps, that we are all Other in this world. She shows us how we break ourselves with hate and save ourselves with love.
Foreign Soil will be released on January 3, 2017. I received an electronic copy from the publisher through NetGalley.