As a mixed-race individual living in the United States who encounters everything from the inevitable “Where are you from?” to being screamed at, my motivations for reading this collection were a tad selfish. I picked up this book because I thought it would be exclusively about immigration and race issues, and wondered if I’d see any aspect of my experiences reflected in these stories. While race and immigration are prominent in this collection, Maxine Beneba Clarke doesn’t limit herself to these issues. What we have is a poetic and deeply empathetic short story collection about the various forms of marginalization. These stories explore the theme of foreign soil in fresh and unexpected ways that expanded my awareness of how people experience otherness.
Yes, race does matter and it features prominently in this collection. In fact it features so prominently that I began to realize how most of the material I’ve been exposed to is written with an assumption of whiteness that I didn’t used to question. I loved this collection for the racial issues it featured, but also because race is not the only criteria for experiencing oppression. These stories extend to all forms of marginalization, showing how foreignness is more intimate and complex than plopping someone into a new country.
Marginalization as Oppression
Marginalization can be felt in the uneasiness in your own body, the pull to another country, or unequal power dynamics based on gender. Or it’s the presence of an all-consuming anger over the way an oppressive social context distorts your behavior and controls your destiny. Using the theme of foreign soil, this collection explores how systems of marginalization shape our responses to “otherness” or the experience of being “othered”.
Sunni stares at the lady. She’s not smiling anymore. She’s screwing up her face in that way people do. Screwing up her face in that way he thinks might have made his maa go crazy in the Walmart, in that way that made it so that now his maa has to stay in custody, and he has to stay here. (229)
Cross-cultural and Interracial Relationships
The tensions of race and culture are prominent throughout the book, especially within intimate relationships. Interracial relationships examine otherness at the level of physical intimacy and the body becomes “foreign soil” for others to explore. A white woman sees a black man as her opportunity for “something remarkable.” A black man dates white women while knowing they never see him as anything more than a dalliance. Some characters are used as a temporary escape, an amusing diversion, or the promise of an exotic experience.
He had been a foreign country she was apprehensive about visiting but itching to explore. He’d felt her filing the fuck away to reminisce about when times were dull, postcard snippets of the exotic. (104)
Cross-cultural relationships also highlighted the power of social context and how it distorts who people can be and how they are perceived. Can a person’s most authentic self be known in a society that devalues and erases the essential pieces of their identity? Perhaps in certain circles, surrounded by the familiarity of family and cultural communities. But the answer becomes murkier in cross-cultural relationships. The pull of societal context is so powerful that we fall into unconscious patterns that conceal or reveal our identities while affecting our ability to see others clearly.
She began to wonder if the real Mukasa Kiteki was another country entirely, whether what happened between them had always been carried out with the choreographed care and watchfulness brought on by foreign soil. (65)
Some characters don’t want to be seen, especially when their visibility threatens their safety. In the story “Shu Yi”, a black girl tries maintaining invisibility to avoid being bullied in her all-white school. The marginalization that comes with her skin color was especially painful as I felt her internalize the inferiority of her non-whiteness. Knowing that whiteness is unattainable for her, she settles for trying to be “a little less black”.
My blackness was the hulking beast crouched in the corner of ever room, and absolutely nothing was going to make it seem cool. (78)
Other characters grapple with the pull of other countries and how they appear to promise more than their homeland. For some it’s the promise of a better life, equitable treatment regardless of skin color, or an escape from the traumas of war. But you don’t need to cross oceans to feel the promise of a new world. In “Gaps in the Hickory” we feel how a mere 3-hour drive can mean the difference between danger and safety. Regardless of the distance, transplanting to foreign soil comes with steep costs that may or may not be fully understood before making the leap.
Still, when Asanka sat down to eat it with his friend, rice scalding their eager fingertips, steam swirling round their heads as they bent over the red plastic bowl, it was as if they were digging their way back home. (206)
These were not easy stories to read, though I burned through the pages much faster than I realized. I loved how real the characters felt even though I struggled with many of their decisions, some of which were violent or cruel. But this was a strength – Clarke writes an empathetic portrayal of the messy complexity of human nature without justification or vilification.
I also felt uncomfortable throughout the book because the tension was at a near constant. The stories also ended abruptly, without any tidy resolutions or chances at redemption. This confused me at first until I realized the constant tension and abrupt endings as effective literary devices.
I questioned if my expectation of a tidy ending was from the same social conditioning that told us things like “Racism is over” or “We don’t have oppression in this country.” By leaving the endings open and unresolved, it felt like an invitation to recognize that we aren’t done with these issues and probably never will be. Sure, I finished the stories with more questions than answers. But that is what makes them feel so alive for me.
I loved this book, thought it was amazing, and want to get my hands on the author’s memoir The Hate Race. If you’re willing to be wrapped in some beautiful and intense storytelling and want to encounter experiences different from your own, then read this book.
If you’re interested, check out these additional resources to learn more about the author or the book.