Wordsmith – Maxine Beneba Clarke

You know that feeling when you start reading a book, and you feel your spine tingle, and your mouth gets dry, and you just feel so excited by how good it is? That’s how I felt reading every one of the short stories in Australian writer and slam poet, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut fiction book, Foreign Soil. It’s a collection of diverse voices and lives, and despite the variety, each story feels authentic and real.

We grabbed a few minutes with Maxine to pick her brain about Foreign Soil in more detail.

Foreign Soil is a book of many voices – what draws you to telling these stories, of identity, place and dislocation?
I write about what interests me, and I’m interested in people – in how the circumstances of their lives shape them. I didn’t set out to write a book from different voices that hinges heavily on identity and dislocation, these themes emerged over a period of years as the stories evolved. In a way, all of the stories are simply about people finding a safe place for themselves in the world – whether that be a person or a geographical location.

Vernacular plays a big part in a lot of the stories – does writing in vernacular come easily to you? Is it important to represent these voices as they would actually sound?

Prior the the book’s publication, I didn’t really see myself as a writer who works in different vernaculars of English. I was simply trying to find a voice for each character that would be authentic and truthful and feel right. Logically, in a collection set in Mississippi, Sudan, Australia, Uganda, Jamaica and England, this included English as second language and several forms of accented English. Older members of my extended family have quite pronounced West Indian accents. My parents grew up in England and so have English accents, whereas I was born and raised in Australia and have an Australian accent. Many of my friends are migrants or the children of migrants. To me, writing accents and speech patterns which align with a character’s background comes naturally.

In many of the stories in Foreign Soil, there is a distinct discomfort – characters such as Solomon in Railton Road are at once sympathetic and disappointing. Was this tension difficult to negotiate? What do you hope readers see in your characters?
Humans are messy, unpredictable, often contradictory beings. I always try to reflect this when writing characters. In Solomon, we see a young  man who has recently joined the British Black Panthers, and is struggling to become  the person he feels he should be, even when he knows if  he does truly become that person he will lose a part of his humanity. I wanted readers to be able to see his impossible position, and to understand, at least in part, the unpalatable decisions he makes.

Balance is something that comes up in the final story, where we see a writer and mother multitasking the care of two children with her work. How do you balance your work and home lives? Or do you think the imbalance is inevitable? 

I balance my work and home life like every other woman probably does: imperfectly, as calmly as can be managed, sometimes with triumph and sometimes consumed with guilt about things I feel I could or should be doing better. Ultimately though, I’ve been blessed with two wonderful children and a vocation I adore, so I do try to remind myself often how lucky I am.
Maxine will be speaking at The Wheeler Centre’s GALAs 2015 on Saturday February 14, 7.30pm. Find out more about Maxine and Foreign Soil on her blog.
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