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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Making Love to Clouds

I did not flinch when I saw her, though I knew she expected it.  My face did not mirror hers, eyes pulled wide, lips forced apart by the sharp intake of breath she could not control,  brow clenched upwards by a mind which could not believe.

A small breath of air made its way from my lungs, but my lips could not form her name.

Her eyes moved away from mine to the ground.  She did not want me to see her this way, I knew, and she would rather have never seen me at all than to meet me like this.

Her hair, which I had never seen down in all our years together, even through sleep and childbirth, fell in front of her face, intentionally hiding it.  In the darkness, it was hard to tell the two apart, now that the night of her straight hair had spread down the length of her body.  It was the blackness of her face from which I could not take my eyes.  Not the decay of her skin, crawling into strange formations as it fell from her flesh, nor the worms escaping from within her and being more eager to return to her to feast, but the pure tar of her face.  It had been one of her more powerful features, lighting the sky with its whiteness, its power making men run for cover.

“Do not look on me,” her words were loud, quick.  I wondered if she knew I had been chasing the young nymph which had just passed her, giggling melodically, curls and young breasts bouncing teasingly around the corner.  I wondered if it had been long enough since her death, or if it ever would be.

“I miss looking on you,” I offered.

She scoffed under her breath.  I could hear the tightening of her hard face through the darkness.  It was a sound I had not forgotten.

She crossed her arms, jagged elbows sending small bolts of lightning at the ground.  In the light, I could see a cockroach on the ground, near her dirty, bare feet.  It was the first time I understood her shame in being seen in the underworld.  Her usually tidy, glowing dress looked like what a peasant mortal would wear.  Instead of her usual shining shoes, her small, sharp feet, were caked in dirt, and being eaten.  I wondered if it was difficult for her to walk with the same poise that she had always carried.

“Please,” I said, knowing she would notice that my voice was not that of a god, but of a mole.  It did not happen often, but I knew she always noticed when I lost my composure.   “We will never see each other again.  We are lucky for just this moment.  Please, just look at me.”

“I-”  It was not often that she stuttered.  Her uneasiness grew to fill the small confines of the underground cave in which we stood.

Maybe she also feels as if it were my fault.

Perhaps she did not recall her last days, after the birth of the fire.  The way she screamed as the flames came forth from her womb burned my insides also.  The tears that sparked her electric face for days afterwards as she whimpered in pain each stung me as well. And I could no longer live forever when her immortality was taken away.

“I am not the same,” she said, her voice beginning to crack.  I knew she would not cry.  I struggled in the darkness to see better the prickly lines of her long body and face, the points of her nose, chin, and hips.

“I know,” I said.  I still missed looking on her.

   He did not know. 

            I could see his misty face, churning with emotions — for me!  If he knew, he would not be taking the time to steal a few moments with me before his return home.

            He moved towards me and I was within his arm’s reach.  I moved away.

            “I know,” he repeated, taking a small, determined step forward. 

            That was the moment when the memories flew past me and I was forced to turn and look at the decaying wall.  This gave my unruly mind free reign in recalling my memories, but at least I did not look at his face. 

            The tree came back to me first, but I knew that did not mean I loved him more.  The nights I had stolen away with the tree in a forced, hushed passion were just easiest to remember — there had been so few.  Always after dark.  Embracing without kissing.  A dainty removal of his own splinters.  All so the clouds could detect no signs when I returned home.  The splinters were my favorite part, even then.

            But there were more nights — since the beginning of time, in fact — with the clouds.  After all, what is lightning without clouds, or clouds without lightning?  The best nights were always the ones spent over tropical islands — hurricanes and our children, the thunder, the rain, and the tornado, were all conceived from the swirls of our passion on nights like those.

            So, when I first realized that I was having the fire child, I stopped seeing the tree.  I had no doubts about who fathered it.  But, then again, neither did the clouds.  Perhaps that was the most painful part of the ordeal:  the clouds trusted me so much that he was sure the child was his.

            “I am sorry,” he tried.  I knew he was fumbling for words, and it made me want him to hold me.

            “I am as well.”  But I stayed cold.  Who would want to hold a sack of maggots?

            “If I had known what would happen –“

            “You should not apologize.”

            “It was my fault,” he said.

            “It was not your fault,” I insisted, my voice rising with tension.

            “I should not have–” he stopped.

            I could hear him turn, his arm brushing chunks of dirt off the crumbling wall, and return the way he had come.

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Commons Love to Liamfm on flickr.  Thank you!