”The real Aussie girls crimped and permed to get frizzy post-eighties afros, but I was busy begging my mother for hair extensions, or saving up for Soul Pattison’s straightening goo. My blackness was the hulking beast crouched in the corner of every room, and absolutely nothing was going to make it seem cool.’’  Maxine Beneba Clarke, ”Shu Yi’’ in Foreign Soil.


Poet and author Maxine Beneba Clarke was in Brisbane last week talking about her collection of short stories Foreign Soil. She read at Avid Reader, a little bookstore known for being literary and interesting. Thinking about it now, Avid Reader is like a tiny bit of San Francisco in Australia.

We sat outside on metal fold-out chairs on the back patio in the cool evening air of a subtropical winter. Beneba Clarke’s voice and the authenticity of the different accents of her characters took me to Jamaica and London and warmed my thoughts. Her fascination with the vibrancy of the vernacular was apparent.

It was difficult to get the short story collection published, Beneba Clarke told us, and she’s a poet who’s used to persevering, she added, laughing. Beneba Clarke is Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent. She was born here. This is her country. Her place. This is where she belongs. She wanted this book published in Australia first. She did not want to be forced, like so many writers, to go overseas to get it published.But you know what people told her?

That ”even the major characters weren’t seen as Australian enough,” she said. Yet ”this is one of the most factual fiction books that exists in Australia.””Why shouldn’t a book like this be published in Australia?’’ Beneba Clarke asked.


I hear lots of talk about how Australia is a multi-cultural country. And the numbers would seem to back it up: in 2010, 27 percent of the total population, or 6 million Australians, were born overseas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These people are from the UK, New Zealand, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia, Germany and other countries.

So why did people tell Beneba Clarke that her main characters — a Sudanese boy, a London youth, a Mississippi housewife, a young Jamaican woman, a Sydney school girl — weren’t Australian enough?

Someone, however, eventually did see the beauty and merit in Beneba Clarke’s work. ”Foreign Soil” won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award 2013.