Reading the Stella Prize shortlist – Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke


I hardly feel qualified to review Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories about refugees and immigrants, Foreign Soil, given my white-bread, picket-fence life. Anything I say, will (to my ears at least), sound off-hand in light of the horrors and the deep sadness that Clarke exposes in her fine stories.

Keeping my uber-suburban childhood in mind, there was a moment when I was about nine-years-old when my understanding of being on ‘foreign soil’ came into sharp focus. A new girl arrived at school in the middle of the year. Her name was Nin and we quickly became friends. She was an ace softball player and wore non-regulation coloured socks – these things are significant in nine-year-old eyes. I soon discovered that Nin was a refugee from Cambodia. And that a large chunk of her thigh was missing. Because she stole an orange. Because she was starving. And a soldier shot her in the leg. And her best friend was with her. And her best friend didn’t put her orange down. And her best friend was shot in the head.

I asked my mum to explain how this could happen. My mum wept.

The issue of refugees and immigration in Australia is so immense that it’s overwhelming. It saddens me that it is a political issue before a humanitarian one. How do we break the cycle? I’m sure Clarke’s predominantly sad and distressing stories are representative of thousands of real stories, stories that are being lived now in Australian suburbs, in detention centres and in similar places all around the world. And for this reason, everyone should read Foreign Soil.

As in any collection of short stories, I had my favourites – the opening, David, made me cry, as did The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa, a story that should be mandatory reading for all Australians.

“Asanka had thought of running, of sneaking past the heavy metal door and trying to escape, but he did not know what the Australians would do. The Tigers came back for hi after half a day in the potato chest, but these people have locked him up for one and a half years.”

Railton Road made for hard reading – I challenge anyone to find the ending of that story anything but horrifying. My favourite (for want of a far better word) was Shu Yi, a story about casual racism in the playground.

Clarke flexes her writing chops with extensive use of English dialects – a New Orleans drawl in Gaps in the Hickory, musical Jamaican English in Big Islan and the clipped shorthand of Sudanese immigrants in David. You get into the rhythm of each story fairly quickly but admittedly, I did have to concentrate – the changes of character, setting and tone of each story don’t allow readers to be complacent.

“Out on de ocean, aquamarine meet cobalt, cobalt greet turquoise, an turquoise got itself busy-up hailin good afternoon te de jadest ov greens. Some part de harbour so clear-clear green-blue dat it seem im could jus reach out in front im face an touch de sandy sea bottom. Light ray ripplin off true-gentle wave, like de ocean itself is carryin de sunshine inte Kingston Beach.”

It’s hardly surprising to discover that Clarke is a performance poet, is it?

3.5/5 I have trouble ‘rating’ a short-story collection – invariably there are some you love and others you don’t. Regardless, Foreign Soil will leave a lasting impression.

Will it win the Stella Prize? The Stella is relatively new so it’s too early to identify the type of book the judges will favour. For that reason alone, I reckon Foreign Soil is a strong contender – a distinct style, creative and relevant.

10 responses

    • Totally agree – hope that at least a handful of the stories are published as features in newspapers etc. Of course, the people that ‘should’ read them probably won’t!

  1. I just re-read my comment and I sounded a bit harsh—my apologies. Also, I include myself in the ‘selfish white Australian’ category—we could all do with hearing/reading/seeing why people flee their home country, and learning about exactly what goes on behind the barbed wire of the detention centres.

  2. This sounds really powerful. The immigrant experience is not my own, although I live in London so I’m surrounded by people who were born in other countries. Your discussion of this collection has made me realise how oblivious I can be as to what has caused them to leave their place of birth.

  3. Whilst not a big fan of the short story and hardly a fan of prize winning/nominates literature which almost always leaves me disappointed I have to say this book appeals to me.

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