A review by Nalini Haynes
Foreign Soil is an audiobook of short stories written and read by poet and author Maxine Beneba Clarke.
Each story centers on an individual who is disadvantaged by normative privilege in some way. Most stories focus on people of color, some in their own countries (Jamaica and Sri Lanka, for example) and other people who’ve migrated to another country to suffer as ‘other’ in Britain or Australia.
Two stories are about white women: one is transgendered, a woman who fled her hometown when she shed her birth identity; another a white woman who travelled to Uganda with her boyfriend, only to face a ‘Not without my daughter’ experience trying to get home again.
Every story is powerful, standing on its own as an iconic narrative of truth and injustice in this era.
Unlike other collections, Foreign Soil starts strongly but, instead of placing lesser stories after the first, through each successive story this volume builds to a climax and conclusion with the last story about a struggling writer, rejected by publishers for her gritty social realism. The final tale juxtaposes two characters: an author as a single mother managing two children while struggling to make ends meet, living in a flat where trains drown out conversations contrasts with her character, a child from an impoverished background hanging upside down on the monkey bars at school, unable to extricate herself and in fear of falling.
Beneba Clarke’s prose is outstanding, however, it is her rich voice, rhythmic pacing and assumed accents that make this audiobook such a pleasure. One would think she is a professional actor, the way she assumes Jamaican patois in one chapter only to switch to cadences not unlike those of a Sri Lankan with (excellent) English as a second language for another chapter.
My only criticism: because every story stands alone and is so powerful, I found the chapter and, hence, story changes rather abrupt. I need a pause, perhaps a short interlude of music to give warning that one story is ending, allowing time to absorb the story (or to give myself time to pause the track) before the next story begins.
Foreign Soil may be fiction but it is truth; it tells the stories of many disadvantaged and dispossessed people. Beneba Clarke’s telling rings so true that I wondered, briefly, if certain tales — like that within the walls of Villawood Detention Centre — could be non-fiction. Her tales may be fiction but they shine in the darkness like a lighthouse; she cuts through the darkness of political obfuscation to reveal rocks of an inconvenient reality in our path.
It is not yet too late to change direction.
May we heed Beneba Clarke’s stories and avoid the rocks unlike those who appear to have taken Orwell and Atwood’s tales as manuals instead of warnings.
I highly recommend the Foreign Soil audiobook. A masterpiece.
Foreign Soil is also a paper book with short stories and poetry, although the poetry is not included in this audio book. The paper book received outstanding success.
- Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist 2015
- Literary Fiction Of The Year, Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) 2015
- Debut Fiction, Indie Book Awards 2015
- Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award 2013
- ABIA Matt Richell Award for New Writers 2015
- UTS Glenda Adams Debut Fiction, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2015
- The Stella Prize 2015
- Longlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award 2015
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Running time: 7 hours, 29 minutes, 27 seconds (according to iTunes)