I picked up Foreign Soil because it was on prominent display at Oxford St Books, an independent purveyor of carefully curated wordy things whose taste I trust implicitly. I didn’t look much past the cover, which is very pretty, and also notes that Beneba-Clarke won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
As such, until I was about a quarter of the way through, I did not realise that this was a book of short stories – as opposed to the admittedly rather scattered and postmodern novel I had at first assumed it to be. I wish I could say this was the first time this has happened, but there was an incident in 2012 with a Nick Earls collection that still haunts me.
Foreign Soil is a book of multiple voices, some admittedly more compelling than others. Many of the short (and they are pretty short) stories are narrated in the first person, and the common element between them is that their protagonists are, with some exceptions, members of subjugated or minority groups. Beneba-Clarke goes deep, adopting the slang and dialects of those she seeks to represent. We’re not talking Trainspotting, but I suppose that you should prepare yourself for a level of annoyance as your eyes adjust to the deliberate misspellings. It is nearly always worthwhile – Beneba-Clarke apparently has a background in slam poetry, and in retrospect that makes a lot of sense. Her effortless mixing of language is something to behold, and I felt totally transported by her deliberate use of inflections to places as far as the Sudan and as near as Melbourne.
It is really cool that a big name like Hachette is publishing stuff like this, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary Australian writing.
Best bit: Feeling the tropical heat of a Jamaican banana plantation while sitting in an armchair in Maylands
Worst bit: Er, should say “short stories” on the cover
Kat Gillespie is an English major, to the great distress of her parents