Foreign Soil


Maxine Beneba Clarke

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Foreign Soil Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Maxine Beneba Clarke's Foreign Soil. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke was born in Kellyville, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. She is of Afro-Caribbean descent: her mother was of Guyanese heritage, and her father was of Jamaican heritage. Her family’s multicultural background and history of immigration have greatly influenced her writing, which examines topics of race, immigration, and loss of language and culture. Beneba Clarke went on to study creative writing and law the University of Wollongong. She participated in poetry slams in the 1990s and was a finalist in the Melbourne Writers’ Festival Poetry Slam. In addition, her articles, poems, and reviews have been featured in numerous publications, including The Sydney Observer, Kunapipi Academic Journal of Post-Colonial Literature, and Voiceworks. Foreign Soil was published in 2014 to much critical acclaim—among other awards, it won the ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) for Literary Fiction Book of the Year in 2015, and it was shortlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize. The book’s release earned Beneba Clarke recognition as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists of the Year in 2015. In addition to short fiction, Beneba Clarke has also published works of nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Her memoir, The Hate Race, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award Multicultural NSW Award 2017 and was shortlisted for numerous other awards. Beneba Clarke published The Patchwork Bike, a picture book with illustrations by Van Thanh Rudd, in 2016; the book received high critical praise and was included on School Library Journal’s list of best picture books of 2018. Starting in 2023, Beneba Clarke will be the University of Melbourne’s inaugural Peter Steele Poet in Residence. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.
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Historical Context of Foreign Soil

The stories of Foreign Soil take place across a wide span of decades and continents, and the book grapples with domestic and global issues that have affected immigrants, refugees, and marginalized peoples throughout history. “David,” the book’s opening story, is about a woman who flees Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War, a conflict between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which lasted from 1983 to 2005. The war began after the government’s military regime attempted to impose sharia law on the country, which is roughly 70 percent Muslim. The SPLA responded with insurrections in the southern region of the country, which is largely populated by Animists and Christians. In total, about two million people died in conflict or as a result of famine and disease, and four million people in southern Sudan (where the conflict originated) were displaced. “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa” is about a young boy who was forced to fight as a child soldier in the Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. The war was waged between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tmail Eelam (also called the Tamil Tigers), a militant organization based in northeastern Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers wanted to form an independent Tamil state in response to the Sri Lankan government’s long-spanning violent prosecution of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Tamil Tigers were condemned globally for its use of child soldiers and numerous human rights violations, including attacks on civilians and torture. “Aviation” examines the harassment that people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent (or anyone who “looked” Middle Eastern) faced in the U.S. following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Sikhs, in particular, were a frequent target of such attacks because of the turbans that Sikh men wear, which are often erroneously associated with Islam.

Other Books Related to Foreign Soil

In addition to Foreign Soil, Beneba Clarke has written a memoir, The Hate Race, about her experience growing up Black in Australia, a subject that appears throughout Foreign Soil. Foreign Soil is a short story collection that examines the experiences of immigrants and refugees living outside of their native land—on “foreign soil.” Behold the Dreamers by Mbue Imbolo is topically related: it’s about a West African man who moves to the U.S. to work as a high level executive. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession, the novel explores issues of family, race, and the American Dream. In addition, The Free Life by Ha Jin is about a family who moves to the U.S. following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in search of a better life. Given that parts of Foreign Soil specifically focus on racism in Australia, it’s also similar to Talking to My Country by Stan Grant, a nonfiction book that examines the history of systemic racism against Indigenous people in Australia. Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, is a collection of stories that celebrate the often-underrepresented culture of Australians of African descent. Common People by Tony Birch is a collection of short stories about the everyday struggles of people who live at the margins of Australian society. Finally, BlakWork by Alison Whittaker is a multi-genre book of poetry, memoir, fiction, and social commentary that examines Whittaker’s life and experiences as an Aboriginal Australian (Whittaker is Gomeroi) and queer person.
Key Facts about Foreign Soil
  • Full Title: Foreign Soil
  • When Written: 2010s
  • Where Written: Australia 
  • When Published: 2014
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Short Story Collection
  • Setting: Varies from story to story (Australia, London, St. Thomas, Jamaica, Uganda, the United States, Sri Lanka)
  • Point of View: Third Person; First Person

Extra Credit for Foreign Soil

Stranger Than Fiction. Many of the stories of Foreign Soil end on an ambiguous note, with established conflicts left—sometimes frustratingly—unresolved. But in an interview with Booktopia (an Australian online bookstore), Beneba Clarke stated that this is what she finds so compelling about short fiction—that it “entice[s] the reader to engage long after the story has finished.”

From Experience. In her fiction, Beneba Clarke undoubtedly draws from personal experience. The story “Shu Yi,” for instance, is set in a suburban neighborhood called Kellyville Village and features a Black narrator who resents her Blackness. Beneba herself grew up in Kellyville, a suburb of Sydney, and has said that she wanted to be white as an adolescent, since “difference was frowned upon.”