Last year, when my book of short fiction, Foreign Soil
, was released in the United Kingdom, I found myself on the phone with BBC radio, doing a pre-interview. At the end of our lively and in-depth conversation, the producer asked: "So who are the other Australian writers of Afro-Caribbean descent, or from a similar background, who are working in literary fiction — what novels should we be looking out for?" I paused. "There are… well, there are some African diaspora and African Australian writers I know who work in a lot of different forms, who I really hope you’ll also see on the shelf one day…"
I stammered. "Natasha Jynel. Candy Bowers." I also named a handful of African Australian poets and memoirists. "Tariro Mavondo. Magan Magan. Abe Nouk. Abdi Aden."
When I finished the call, I hung up the phone and sat slumped in a kitchen chair for about half an hour, staring at the wood-grain pattern on the small pine table. The comradery and support amongst Australian writers from all walks of life on the book trail can be extraordinary, but it can be bitterly isolating on the road sometimes, not seeing a single face like your own.
I am truly blessed to do what I do. Between book publishing, teaching writing, speaking engagements, performing my work, and writing for The Saturday Paper
(a national broadsheet newspaper based in Melbourne), I get by on my craft — which in Australia is a rare, glorious, and unlikely feat (though not sacrifice-free). I love
what I do, but there’s also a debilitating heartache to being a more-than-third-culture-kid, in a country where the subtleties of identity are often lost.
I was born in Sydney, Australia — and have lived here all my life. My mother and father both grew up in London from the age of four or five, but were born in Guyana and Jamaica, respectively. My grandparents grew up in the Caribbean — the descendants of African slaves trafficked from West Africa as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Both sets of grandparents migrated with their young families to England in the 1950s. Cousins, aunts, and uncles of mine have settled all over the world: including in Germany, America, Switzerland, Australia, England, and Barbados. Mine is a complex migration history that spans four continents and many hundreds of years: a history that involves loss of land, loss of agency, loss of language, and loss, transformation, and reclamation of culture.
Before being "settled" by the British in the 1700s, the country I live on was forcefully and unlawfully taken from the Australia’s First Peoples. Like other non-Aboriginal Australians, my migrant history forms part of the colonial history of this land: I am settler black
, rather than Indigenous black
. As an emerging writer, writing to this complexity of identity seemed virtually impossible. Though Australian born, I didn’t feel Australian enough to write "Australian" stories. Though my parents were twice migrants, I wasn’t a migrant myself and felt migration stories didn’t belong to me. I wondered about writing African diaspora fiction, when I was so many generations removed from the African continent.
The fear and confusion around what I should be writing was debilitating. In my first few years of university, as one of the few diverse students — and the only black student — in my writing course, I unwittingly wrote white
. I emulated the kind of contemporary grunge fiction that was being published at the time: dark, ironic tales populated by characters in their mid-20s who lived in tumbledown share-houses and scraped by on cigarettes, baked beans on toast, beer, casual jobs, and welfare checks. There was perhaps a character or two of color on the periphery of these tales, but by and large I avoided the issue of having to write race — or I thought
myself to be avoiding it — I somehow believed
I wasn’t making a choice
How, I often wonder, did I finally arrive here: with a book of short fiction set in locations as far flung as Oakland, Jamaica, London, New Orleans, Sydney, Melbourne, Uganda? I read.
I read and reread black African diaspora classic texts. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
. Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother
. Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land
. I drew my strength from contemporary third culture writers. Zadie Smith
. Staceyann Chin
. Noviolet Bulawayo
. Saul Williams
I made peace with the fact that, as far as I knew, there was no precedent in the Australian publishing world for what I was trying to do. I accepted that there might be misunderstandings and hiccups and failures — and perhaps even outright mistakes — on my part. I told myself this was the beginning of a journey — perhaps, dare I be audacious enough to believe it, the emergence of a new canon — I ran to the edge of the cliff, and jumped.
I wrote about my parents' childhood playground of Tottenham, England, telling the story of a black British teenager caught up in a race riot. Harlem crosses the road, turns the corner and heads down Woodgreen. It’s been a few months since he came right into Tottenham. Several more Caribbean grocery shops have sprung up. Through the grimy windows Harlem glimpses shelves lined with jerk seasoning, tinned ackee, smoked saltfish and bruised plantain: all the shit his Ma cooks from back home in Trinidad that Harlem mostly can’t stand.
I wrote about a young child-of-migrants black girl, struggling to fit in, in a 1980’s Australian schoolyard. I wanted less springy afro curl, eyes less the color of wet potting soil. I craved skin a little milkier than the specific shade of strong-with-a-dash I was.
My stories crept across the terrain of war-torn Africa. The village is smoking, and the soldiers busy smashing, burning.
I walked the beaches of 1940s Kingston. Blue pon green pon navy pon khaki water…flat-flat horizon line dat seem like it stretchin way-way beyond wat im eye can si, runnin an running forever an a day.
I found myself researching the Black Panther squats of 1960s Brixton. The occupants of Railton road were bell-jeaned, dome-afroed, Doc Martened and muscle-T’ed: as bad and black as they could possibly muster themselves to be, with yearning amber eyes filled with each other and rumaway tongues tripping with the talk of equality.
I used my background in human rights law to explore inside of Australia’s immigration detention centers. There are no doors inside this place. No doors except the ones to keep people from running away.
When my Australian publishers picked up Foreign Soil
for publication, they suggested I write an additional story to close the book. A story, they suggested, given the global span of the stories in Foreign Soil
, that would give the reader some kind of indication of who I was as a person and as a writer. I agonized over this task, putting pen to paper, then starting over again and again, for several weeks. Finally, I started work on "The Sukiyaki Book Club," which would become the final story in the collection. "The Sukiyaki Book Club" is a story about a young African diaspora Australian mother, who has written an unpublishable collection of short fiction. She keeps sending the manuscript off for publication, but the rejection letters keep pouring in. 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. I’d be happy to have a conversation about this, if you’re interested? I may be able to point you in the direction of the kind of stories I mean. Unfortunately, we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.
was published, and Australian readers embraced it wholeheartedly. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the absolute privilege of sharing the Australian stage with visiting black literary giants such as Noviolet Bulawayo, Tracy K. Smith
, Dr. Cornel West
, and Roxane Gay
, but I hope to see more local writers with complex histories written into Australian — and global — literature.
I hope one day, when asked that BBC question, I’m able to list the many sister and brother African diaspora Australian fiction writers already
on the shelf. I hope Foreign Soil
and my new memoir, The Hate Race
, are part of this change.
÷ ÷ ÷
Maxine Beneba Clarke
is a novelist, poet, and editor living in Melbourne, Australia. In addition to being a recipient of the Hazel Rowley Fellowship for Biography, she is also the winner of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, the Debut Fiction Indie Award, and the Literary Fiction Book of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards. Foreign Soil
is Maxine’s first book.