Apr 21, 2014

Book Review – Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

foreign-soilI came across Maxine Beneba Clarke quite by chance earlier in the year when I listened to her read the short story, Harlem Jones, (which appears in this collection) for the Overland Podcast.  From there I picked up one of her poetry collections from Picaro Press, nothing here needs fixing, which as you can read from the review, I was quite enamoured of.

Reading between the lines, I sense that Foreign Soil could easily not have made it into its current form.  Indeed Clarke tips her hat to the Victorian Premiers Unpublished Manuscript Award judges for being instrumental in securing this book a publisher.  Putting aside the fact that publishing is somewhat more akin to water divining than science when it comes to picking books that are going to break even let alone sell well, I scratch my head as to why you’d not see the quality of the work contained herein.

No waxing lyrical, no reaching for big words that I have forgotten since my brush with literary criticism at uni- these are just plain good stories.  In The Sukiyaki Book Club, the final story in the collection we are treated to a parallel narrative; a fiction story that Maxine is creating and a autobiographical recount. In part of that recount we are presented with some of the rejections that Clarke has received.  I assume that autobiographical recount is sufficiently factual (though you can never tell with writers) and that some of the rejection letters pertain to the works contained in the collection.  They make for interesting reading, where interesting is scratching your head and wondering if they(the editors) read the same work as you did.

There wasn’t a story in this collection that I didn’t connect with.  I wonder if I need to type this twice, because there’s some indication that certain editors felt there would be problems with the public engaging with characters, language or themes.  I, the reader and Clarke the author, have vastly different life experience, but her skill as a storyteller makes that difference irrelevant. 

If you can’t connect with this book, then the problem isn’t in the book.

The majority of the characters in these stories are people of colour and the settings range from the West Indies, to England and Australia. The are number of Englishes presented, which might present a problem for some ( personally I find Scottish English harder to understand than Jamaican and really if you can be bothered to put a smidge of effort in to get “your ear in” so to speak, well…) but on the whole the collection is presented in Standard AU/UK English prose.

I enjoyed every story in the collection but some were real standouts.  Shu Yi, really got to me, not only because it was a well structured story with a gutting ending, but because it rang true with much of my personal school experience, both as a student and a teacher. For readers of speculative fiction a couple of these stories delivered the same sort of emotional gut punch you’d get with reading something like Margo Lanagan’s Singing my Sister Down and Railton Road is certainly one of those. Set in Brixton, an area that later became famous for the Brixton Riots of 1981, it tells a story of a group of black activists engaged in the enlightenment of black British youth.  It’s one of those stories that builds tension well, that generates a sense of foreboding, and compels you toward an end that you know is coming but that you don’t really want to see nor accept as happening. The aftermath of this story, the complexity inherent in race tensions still sits with me long after having finished it

Gaps in the Hickory is possibly my favourite and for a number of reasons.  It’s a longer piece, indeed at 52 pages I think it ties with The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa as the collection’s longest and as such it has more time to immerse you in the story.  I think that I might have enjoyed a novella with these characters or even a novel. I like that it presents another English, a Mississippi dialect if you will, used by southern white folk that’s every bit as non standard as the Jamaican English that’s presented in previously in Hope.  I like that Clarke has chosen to present a number of stories in different Englishes and that her editors have gone with it.  It’s another tool  that works to get the reader firmly bedded down in a place that (in my case) is different to what they have experienced. There’s some subtle misdirection in this story too that works very well, but enough said about that. 

Reading should be about expanding your experience as a reader (at least some of the time) and I feel that this story in particular did that.  Clarke has that knack of taking characters who you share nothing in common with (at least on the surface) and making you care desperately about them.

The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa, hits closer to home being the story of a “Boat Person”, an asylum seeker.  If we could just let 60% of Australian’s stumble across this story, then perhaps we might chip away at the two dimensional, goodies versus baddies approach to Asylum seekers this country seems determine to take.  It captures beautifully and tragically the realities of lives caught up in the situation.  The desperation of those seeking asylum, the impotence experienced by those who dedicate their life to helping others and the negligence of the silent, wilfully ignorant, majority of Australians who just don’t want to know - and all that without preaching.

We need more writers like Maxine Beneba Clarke, not just because she’s a woman, or a person of colour but because she tells a damn fine story, and likely not one we’ve heard before.

Foreign Soil is released on the 29th of April, you should be able to get it from all good bricks and mortar bookstores and online as well.


This review copy was provided by the publisher.

awwbadge_2014 This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.  Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.





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We have a Winner

BEST SFF 8 It’s my pleasure to announce that after completing a random draw, reader Penny Stirling has won the giveaway copy of Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8

On behalf of Solaris and myself I’d like to thank all  who participated. 






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Apr 18, 2014

eBook Review- Stepping Over Seasons by Ashley Capes


I decided to get serious about poetry last year (and by serious I mean skill up, write, rewrite, resub. and read).  Part of that plan was seeking out current Australian poets and reading their work.  Something you’d think easily done in the era of the internet.

It’s been and continues to be an interesting journey.  But it’s not been a particularly smooth one.  Australian poetry still seems somewhat fragmented to me as something of an outsider, islands of culture rather than one big continent(and perhaps this has advantages).  The Best Australian poems series by Black Ink certainly helps but I have been steadily making my way around these various communities, and know that what’s to be found in these is not the full story. 

Ashley Capes was featured in one of these tomes, but I don’t believe that’s where I first came across him.  Perhaps it was Twitter or his blog. In any case I feel as If I have come to his writing without the imprimatur of some college professor or a salon like group of poets meeting in a bohemian cafe(please, poets still do this don’t they).  I think these kinds of discoveries, the ones we make ourselves without the influence of others are important, they allow a genuine connection.

Stepping Over Seasons is Capes’ second collection and I am late to the party( it was released in 2010) and if I were to pick one defining feature of this collection, it is his striking ability to present clear imagery succinctly, to let just the right amount of words carry the feeling and point of the poem.

That and he can take the most mundane of objects and imbue them with meaning.  Maybe he’s just deploying focussed attention, developed through his work with Japanese forms of poetry like Haiku and Senryu, which I know he’s a dab hand at.

A case or poem, in point is the first in the collection:

other objects

my wedding ring is a plain silver
barrel band. same as dad’s, very modest
and very hard to keep smooth,
with scratches I can’t keep track of and
don’t want to hide. it’s no good pretending
the marriage is perfect, no use
hanging all our memories and every
step of the future on just one symbol. other
objects speak of love, too. the weeping
maple we’ve shifted to every house, the
cup we fill with knives and forks
or the handwritten address you gave me
the night we met, walking the city
and flinging orange peel into hedges, things
that endure, things that have lines
and marks to prove them.


I am suspicious of ebullient expressions of emotion, they can easily ring false (it depends on the Poet and what you know of their life an experience) but Capes is often understated in his expression of sentiment. All this Ink speaks of the struggle of writing, of hoping and believing that this writing is going to lead somewhere:


if I sit up tonight and all this ink

becomes poetry, I could point the wheel

to a place we’ve never been,

watch Venice sink a little more

or show you stability in three bedrooms,

and looking back, you wouldn’t see

smoke stacks or the front door.


and August Rain sketches out beautifully the reality of being in that position where sometimes the only thing you can do for some one is be present. This is not not to say that the collection is all reserved, contemplative poetry.  There’s some cynicism and criticism that comes through in Overlook, a piece that criticises the great poets who romanticise their cities, a piece that challenges them to find in Capes’ home town “…   a moment worthy of haiku, where sewerage and the paper mill meet.”

I laughed out loud at Sunrise Today which dryly eviscerates morning television variety shows. Four years on this poem is still right on the money, proof of every claim that Capes lays at their feet. 

But I return again to his ability to focus, to deliver succinct, and inspired observations. A stanza from Small Town could be the epitaph of half the regional towns of South Australia with

marks on the footpath

don’t fade and the cemetery

never shrinks, only the town around it.

These three lines speak more truth about my experience of rural towns than anything you’ll find by Banjo. 

In one of those serendipitous moments I happened also to be reading a Ted Chiang short story about a society in which we have the ability to record and recall everything and anything we experience (imagine being able to prove that you had indeed put the toilet seat down).  Chiang is seductive in that piece, in that I almost feel that such a thing(as he outlines it) wouldn’t be so bad.  Then I read Capes’ Late Night, and suddenly the seductive reasoning was a little more shaky. It ends with…

I guess the great lie of our time is capture –

it’s comforting to believe

everything can be caught, recorded

and remembered,

so we don’t have to appreciate

anything in the moment.


Stepping Over Seasons, continues to resonate with me.  Just in writing this review  I experience that aha! moment again as I pluck out quotes for you.  This collection had a very high hit rate for me.  Capes I find to be a keen observer and communicator with his poetry, it’s some of the most enjoyable free verse I have read.

I encourage you to discover Ashley Capes for yourself.  You can buy the collection in paperback and eBook form, or you could encourage your Library to purchase it like I did.

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