Reading for Writers: Englishes in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.

From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.

Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.

Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).

Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.

The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.

Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

 

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Rejection Is Not Feedback

Thinking about doing another submission bonanza soon. This is a helpful read.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

For when you need a 1300-calorie dessert with a view

I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)

The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:

A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.

B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.

In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag…

View original post 692 more words

Permafrost Magazine is Accepting Submissions!

Permafrost Magazine is the farthest north literary journal for writing and the arts. We’re proud of Permafrost’s thirty-five years as interior Alaska’s foremost literary magazine. Founded in 1977, Permafrost is housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks MFA program, and run by dedicated creative writing graduate students. We publish a winter print issue as well as a spring online issue, both of which features compelling poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction by established writers and new voices alike. In Alaska, our unique environment shapes our perspective, but Permafrost seeks original voices from all over the world.

We are now accepting submissions for our summer online issue!  We are looking for poetry,  fiction, nonfiction, art and everything in between. Submissions will be accepted until May 14th, 2015. Submit now!

Call for Submissions: Brilliant Flash Fiction

A shoutout to fellow wordpresser, Brilliant Flash Fiction, who is accepting submissions of (you guessed it!) flash fiction!  Their submission guidelines are below. Check them out!

 

Tell me a story in 1,000 words or less.

Email it to brilliantflashfiction@gmail.com.
If I like it, I’ll publish it in the next available edition of Brilliant Flash Fiction.

Please send original, unpublished work. If you do not receive an acceptance or rejection email within three months, I’m afraid you must assume the worst.

I accept all genres: sci-fi, memoir, historic fiction, etc.  No graphic violence or porn, please.

Be sure to paste your story into the body of your email and also attach it as a .doc file.

Please do not submit more than two stories quarterly (during a 3-month period).

At present, no payment is available. Authors will enjoy sharing their work with an appreciative audience and the possibility of having their work published in a to-be-announced anthology.

 

 

Reading for Writers: Dino Campana’s “The Night”

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There were a lot of interesting things happening in Dino Campana’s essay “The Night.” There were some incredible metaphors and exquisite language which made me wonder about the expectations that we usually have for nonfiction in terms of style and language. Another stylistic component of note is that Campana does not use any names to refer to the characters in this essay. Instead, the only names that he uses are those of famous artists and writers. Campana also has a really arresting way of changing the pronouns that he uses for the characters, including himself, in his work. The effect of this is jarring but also captivating.

The first thing I noticed about this essay was the language being used. It is incredibly poetic and lyrical. There are a number of really striking metaphors, for example, “broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows.” Or, even more gripping: “the white Mediterranean night joked with the huge shapes of the women while the flame’s bizarre death-attempts went on and on in the streetlamp’s cave.” Language like this, though interesting and beautiful may be jarring for a reader who is looking for a straightforward account of Campana’s escapades. It made me think about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction and whether essays have an obligation to live up to these expectation. Is it factually true that the night was joking (Or, put another way, can that be fact checked?)? How does metaphor come into play in essays? Or, more directly, what is the place of metaphor and lyrical, poetic language in nonfiction? If the reader is coming to the piece looking for truth and accuracy, how far can the writer go with metaphors and poetic language? In general, I think that if it is clear that the writer is using metaphor and clear what the writer is intending to express, this kind of language can greatly enhance creative nonfiction pieces. However, in this piece the metaphors were so dense and thick that it may have obscured some of the reader’s understanding of the truths behind the language. It made me question whether that was intentional. Perhaps Campana’s experience was so dreamlike that he wanted to convey that to the reader. Or maybe he did not want his reader to have a clear sense of what was going on. Perhaps he wanted his reader to experience the feel of the situation more than the events surrounding it. Is this authorial prerogative?

The esoteric, dreamlike quality of this narrative is pushed further by Campana’s refusal to use the names of characters populating his essay. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ever refer to anyone in the narrative by their name, only by their physical description. This can make it difficult for the reader to follow at times, but it also is especially interesting given the subject matter. Perhaps Campana did not know the name of anyone with whom he interacted that night. This is made even more peculiar by the constant name-dropping that he does with famous writers and artists. The lack of character names in the essay is even more stark next to the names of Faust, Dante, Leonardo, and Michelangelo and the names of saints. It’s as if he is drawing the distinction between these exalted, nameable people and the people in his narrative.

In addition to not giving his characters names, he also switches the pronoun that he uses to refer to them. In one section of the essay, he refers to the amber-bodied girl as “she” and later he seems to be addressing her as”you.” The most striking instance in which he does this is when he goes from using a first-person perspective of his experience to speaking about himself in the third person briefly. He refers to “the person I had once been” as “he” for two sections. This gives an interesting effect of distancing himself from the events of the night, making it his former self and not him who had these experiences. However, he only can keep this distance for a short time before going back to “I” and owning the experiences again.

All of these things made this essay difficult to decipher, as if the reader were decoding the text instead of reading it. The use of metaphors and lyrical language obscured some of the concreteness of the experiences that he was ruminating on.   The failure to use names of characters often made who he was actually talking about ambiguous. Even his pronouns when talking about these people (including himself!) were not consistent. The combination of these things gave the essay a dreamlike, nearly impenetrable quality. However, for me personally, these things added an interesting depth and dimension to the essay as well as giving a peak into the possible obfuscation that Campana was attempting. It made me ask a lot of questions, mostly unresolved, but also very interesting.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices.

Sharing: Suburban Ecology I by TheCartographe

I found this amazing bit of writing the other day on TheCartographe and just needed to share it with you!  As a lover of place and environment and the way that spaces effect us, I adore what’s happening on this blog: “TheCartographe is about the curation of the environment: the selection of images, texts, and ideas that is the formation of a landscape. Topography is physical, but landscape is always psychic.”

This blog is not to be missed. Enjoy!

 

Suburban Ecology I

July 9, 2014.

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Some millennia before the present, when the sea was in places it currently is not, it might have been that Anne Barton’s yard was a natural beach of smooth-hewn stones — perfect and round, themselves looking for all the world like fat droplets of water thrown up and clinging on the grassy shore.  The blue velvet easy chair stood primly on the rocks, taking the sea air like one who — feinting — is afraid of the ocean.  But Anne’s yard was not really a beach, of course, and the chair moreover took no solace from the pretend game of seaside release and introspection.  It did not appreciate the scene before it: the crisp break of sidewalk and swell of asphalt.  It was aware only of the thing it could not see — the blockish, secluded bungalow beyond the beachhead, where in the downstairs sitting room there was a precisely chair-shaped depression in a blanched shag carpet the colour of a watermelon where the meat comes to the rind.

I was in this house once, seven or eight years ago, when for one or another reason I  was collecting a size-adjustable mannequin from the Vietnam-era parlor upstairs, located at one end of a hallway encased exclusively by mirrors which, when shoved with some force, would open to reveal narrow closets stuffed with outerwear, shoes, and unlabelled boxes.  The front door, up a half-flight of steps from the lawn and partly concealed by an globular rhododendron, opened onto this hallway, and pointed inside toward the kitchen at the house’s rear.  There, I remember, Ms. Barton, an elderly woman who — to me — has never visibly aged, remained sitting at a card table while she asked me, standing against the entrance to the hall, if I would consider volunteering for her Sunday School.  I can’t recall answering the question.  Instead, I remember leafing through the records — none of which I recognized — contained in a cardboard box which sat on a brass-framed, stackable chair in the parlor, across the way from the kitchen.  I waited until Anne’s granddaughter, my associate, reappeared with a small plastic container filled with a multitude of compartments for pins, all heads different colours, and we departed with the rattling mannequin in parts under our free arms.

At that time, Anne’s garden was not half-covered in rocks.  In fact, it was a serene, if somewhat weedy glade, set apart from the street by the low boughs of a blue-needled pine tree which I did not recognize and now assume was originally decorative.  I lived — still live — in the house beside Anne’s; somewhat newer, somewhat more modish, my father would exasperatedly but quietly rake pinecones and long, browned needles off our lawn from September to Christmas.  At that time, Anne’s glade had real seating: a chipped, white wooden loveseat over-thrown by a modified trellis, and an elaborate swing — also wood — which reminded me always of my brother’s books on medieval implements of war.

It was one summer when I returned from university that the pine tree had been felled — its little ecosystem of sputtering grass and shed needles replaced by a neatly edged bed of lava rock.  Two ceramic pots had been placed off-centre on the wide stump, and in them the plastic-coated cardboard tags that identify greenhouse plants sprouted up like tombstones behind small, flowering stalks.  It was just last summer when the first five metres of Anne’s lawn had been dug up and replaced with the round stones.  At the same time, things began appearing on her driveway.  First the loveseat and swing, which soon disappeared, and then boxes of clothes, which would likewise appear in the morning and have vanished upon my return home in the afternoon.  Then, a tarpaulin tent appeared over a metal pole frame in the middle of the driveway, and a 1995 red Ford mustang would regularly pull in and out of it, as if on the tide.  This largely concealed the garage door, which remained closed during all this time.  I did not see Anne, though my father told me she continued to live there, and the cars that came and went (I noticed only the red convertible) were the vehicles of family and friends — or of the tenants downstairs who had moved in to the bungalow’s expansive basement.

The chair knew very little of this, being limited to the influence of the downstairs tenants and its sidelong views of sporadic children’s play in the tenants’ backyard daycare, a business Anne surely appreciated because of her attachment to children and their ideal upbringing.  When it was removed, I think, its first logical concern must have been the expected weather, and secondly the simple sign hung across its back — “FREE” — which would surely give anyone’s self-esteem a miserable pummeling.  It was, I doubt, hardly troubled by the premise that in millennia to come, it could be considered a distracting embellishment on the ecology of the house — a throwaway decoration not unlike the faking of a shoreline in a time of changing seas.

-tC

Sharing: Evolve by Lyttleton

A wonderfully evocative poem by Lyttleton over at 10cities10years, which is an incredibly interesting blog about living in 10 cities in the U.S. over the course of 10 years.  Check it out!

Evolve; or: The Divergence of Species

We can get over anything
given enough time and miles:

I was a fish with sea legs
and you a protozoon
still beneath the wave of blankets
and this was our first goodbye
of many.
I’s a goner and you’s still there
replicating like teardrops
in a bus station
where we once kissed and spread
like meiosis;
now half the man I once was.

I don’t want to be remembered
for how I’ve changed,
unless I’m your genetic match.
But you’ve also evolved
and suddenly I’m a species unknown,
unique,
extinct.

 

Evolution of Fish