Saturday, March 7, 2015

International Women's Day

'Not only are these women helping new writers "find their voices", but they understand deeply the effect of gender, race and class on whether you have a voice at all.'

Alice Pung (author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father's Daughter and Laurinda) and I were interviewed for Melbourne writer Hannie Rayson's Sydney Morning Herald feature on International Women's Day here.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Show Me A Girl

My tribute to Maya Angelou, and female writers of colour, performed in Melbourne at The Wheeler Centre's 5th Birthday Storytelling Gala (starts at 35.30).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bad Feminist in Melbourne

"Roxane Gay’s essay ‘Bad Feminist’ was described by theGuardian as ‘the most persuasive feminist recruitment drive in recent memory’: she argues for embracing the values of feminism, while admitting her own contradictions and imperfections as a feminist.
Her book of the same name – a vibrant, provocative, thoughtful collection of essays that blend pop culture, memoir, and politics – is similarly complex and nuanced. Gay, a creative writing professor, brilliantly blends high and low culture in her work: her essay onThe Hunger Games is also a reflection on female strength and surviving trauma, and she eviscerates mainstream American culture’s lingering racism through critiques of films like The Help and Django Unchained. She draws on the personal throughout, but always with a purpose. ‘I’ll show you my bloody guts, but there’s going to be, hopefully, a larger purpose to the writing,’ she says."
I'll be doing an "in-conversation" event with the incredible Roxane Gay, author of Untamed State and Bad Feminist at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne this Thursday. After booking out two different venues, limited extra tickets have just been released. Book here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Strange Fruit

...Is it day or is it night? Is it dark or is it light?
What kind of hell is this place? What devil rules here?

I dream of home. I dream of heat climbing to forty-one degrees, and holding there for four days in a row. Of how tumbled apples split their skin, and are left to rot on the parched, browning grass, their sour sugar crystallising and bubbling.

I dream of sticky brown patches scarring the fruit’s skin: black and heavy, like molasses...

I recently wrote a short memoir piece for CHART Collective's Longer Light series, about my research trip to England this January. You can read it here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

2015 Stella Prize Longlist

I'm thrilled to announce that Foreign Soil has made the long list for The Stella Prize!

"The longlisted books are: Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke; The Strays, Emily Bitto; Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey; This House of Grief, Helen Garner; Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett; The Invisible History of the Human Race, Christine Kenneally; The Eye of the Sheep, Sofie Laguna; The Golden Age,  Joan London; Laurinda, Alice Pung; Nest, Inga Simpson; Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven; In My Mother's Hands, Biff Ward."

Further details here

Friday, January 30, 2015

Indie Book Award Nomination

I'm thrilled to announce that my debut fiction book, Foreign Soil, has been shortlisted for an Indie Book Award for debut fiction, alongside Emily Bitto's The Strays, Christine Piper's After Darkness, and Brooke Davis's Lost & Found. Details here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Penny Lane

My research trip for The Hate Race : Genealogy is funded by The Hazel Rowley Fellowship for Biography.

The small apartment I'm renting in Liverpool is across the road from the Municipal Buildings. Out the window looms majestic sandstone and ornate building finishes.

People keep asking me if I'm here on the Beatles Trail.

In reality, Liverpool's Penny Lanes are paved with a much more shameful export.

By the 1780's, Liverpool was the European capital of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

I walk down Water street, past West Africa House, across The Gorge, down to the waterfront, hunched over against the wind and the cold.

It's almost zero degrees. 

The woman in the coffee cart where I stop to buy hot chocolate tells me it's forecast for snow.

When I checked into the apartment, the owner asked me what I was here researching. 
"I'm visiting the International Slavery Museum," I said. "For a book I'm writing"
"I've been there." she shook her head, stammered, said she would never go there again: shivering as she spoke.

The International Slavery Museum takes up the entire third floor of the Liverpool Maritime Museum.

I thought I vaguely understood what it was to carry the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade in my blood.

I was wrong.

There are truths I now know which I consider better left unwritten: sadistic cruelties which belong in the darkness.

When one person owns another human being, they are a liberty to do with them what they will. Absolutely. With no reservation. That is the nature of property ownership. And the 'do with them what they will' of British Slavers and Planters and Overseers, knew no bounds of degradation. 

I enter the exhibit which simulates the lower deck of a slave ship - complete with in-the-round screen projections and sound effects: chains, waves slamming on ship hull, retching, wailing, screaming.

I stand inside the exhibit for a minute and a half. 

This is difficult.

The conditions inside the exhibit - the blood, the vomit, the horror, are not exaggerated.

In the late 1700's, on the Liverpool slave ship Brookes, 351 African male slaves traveled from Africa to the West Indies chained together in an area 14 metres by 7.7 metres.

The journey took 49 days.

This was typical. 

In another corner, a West Indian actress recounts the story of a West Indian slave, Hetty, and the two young daughters sold away from her, on a full-sized screen.

It is the fine detail which is crushing. 

We all know children were sold away from their families, and can imagine the heartache, the madness, the intolerable despair.

I had never considered, though of course it makes sense in reflection, that it would be the children's mother whose job it was to get them up on the morning of the auction, to make sure they were not crying or upset, to braid their hair, dress them nicely and make sure they fetched a good price. That she might be rewarded if they did.  Or if her children cried, and were unkempt, if she couldn't coax them into accepting their fate, if they clung to her, and wailed, and disturbed the sale proceedings, she might face serious repercussions.

One glass cabinet holds nine metal instruments.

An illustrated key along the side of the cabinet explains their purposes: a branding iron to sear identification into the flesh; a metal muzzle to punish slaves who spoke out of turn, a coffle to secure a slave to a chain gang. 

And so on. And so forth. And worse. And 'punishments' I can not yet bring myself to detail.

After I've finished at the International Museum of Slavery, I head up to the dining room for reflection. 

The water-views restaurant is decked out like the fancy dining room of a large ship. 

Black and white posters of old time movies stars like Cary Grant dining on their favourite ocean liners adorn the walls.

 The menu urges me to order a Transatlantic dining experience: featuring a smorgasbord of exquisite savoury finger food and fancy French pastries. Guaranteed, the blurb assures me, to evoke the ocean liners of yesteryear. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blood Alley

My research trip for The Hate Race : Genealogy is funded by The Hazel Rowley Fellowship for Biography.

After stepping off the London light rail, I order a coffee from the coffee van. I stand on the docks of West India Quay, numb fingers thawing out around the hot cardboard cup, staring out at the water. Boatloads and boatloads of goods from the West Indies used to first arrive here: raisins, rum, molasses, tea. And of course, sugar. 

The building I'm about to enter once housed the warehouse where sugar was received from the West Indies. The area where I'm standing, directly outside the sugar warehouse, was known as Blood Alley. The large burlap sacks full of processed sugar were so rough and heavy they ripped open dock workers backs and hands as they unloaded and stored the goods. The ramps to the sugar warehouse were hazardous: sticky and uneven with sugar from split sacks.

Fitting, perhaps, that a cargo which was the drive behind the barbaric and systematic exploitation of tens of millions of people, should cause bloodshed to those who handled it at journey's end.

I've come to Blood Alley to view the permanent exhibition: London, Sugar & Slavery, housed in the Docklands site of  London Museum.

On entering the exhibition, a large screen projecting various graphic and abstract images booms a series of commands:

You will be taken from your home.
You will not keep your name.
You will not speak your language.

You will be violated.
You will not be able to keep your children.
You will have no property.
You will be sold.

The list of indignities rolls on.

Along one wall, an original slave chain hangs, alongside a plaque encouraging visitors to lift the chain, and consider how it would feel to wear one for weeks at a time.

One section of the exhibition explain how the small farm production of sugar which once supported the aristocracy's luxury consumption of sugar exploded into the proliferation of super-farms: plantations employing the labour of slaves forcibly removed from Africa and shipped to the New World, as the demand for sugar grew throughout all levels of society and planters realised how much they stood to earn.

It's the numbers, more than anything, which are shocking.

By the 1790's, a quarter of Britain's income came from imports from the West Indies.
Around 18 million Africans are estimated to have forcibly entered the transatlantic slave trade..

Slaves typically entered work in the sugar fields at the age of 7.

On the back wall of the exhibition is a large black wall filled with white numbers and lettering. 
Each vertical line lists a ship name, the port of departure, the number of enslaved Africans and the ship's destination.

Cape Castle     280    Jamaica
Gambia            205    Jamaica
Bance Island    238   Jamaica

I stare up at the tallying.

I could be on this wall.

One day I might be back in this disturbing, dimly lit gallery, knowing which voyage and captain.

I can find many mentions of slave ships destined for my father's birthplace, Jamaica. 

Not so, my mother's birthplace Guyana (formerly British Guiana), located on the north coast of South America.

There are several destinations though, whose names I do not recognise. I note them down. One of them, in particular, Demerara, somehow rings a bell. 

I type the name into a search engine when I get back to my Auntie's place in Ilford.

Demerara (DutchDemerary) is a historical region in the Guianas on the north coast of South America which is now part of the country of Guyana. It was a Dutch colony until 1815 and a county of British Guiana from 1838 to 1966. It was located about the lower courses of the Demerara River, and its main town was Georgetown.
The name "Demerara" comes from a variant of the Arawak word "Immenary" or "Dumaruni" which means "river of the letter wood". Demerara sugar is so named because originally it came from sugar cane fields in the colony of Demerara.

I myself have bought, and baked with Demerara sugar - made cupcakes for my children with it in the small kitchen of my home in Melbourne's west.

I am angry about all of the things I was not taught.
I am devastated that these truths hang on museum walls, but are not typed in school history books.
I am so ashamed about how little I still know.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Cutlers Guild

My research trip for The Hate Race : Genealogy is funded by The Hazel Rowley Fellowship for Biography.

The audience for curator Kimberly Keith's talk at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton is scarce: just me and my two children, and four other guests.

Keith takes us through the terrain of the photographic exhibition Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s. 

The photographs in the small exhibition room cover different themes. The 'black radicals' of Railton Road. The notorious Black House where the British Black Panthers and other black activists congregated. The Keep Britain White graffiti campaign that came to prominence at the height of National Front popularity. There are super-fly young black women posing outside a dreary block of flats in assorted fur coats. In one photo, a young black boy is getting a sharply shaved barber-cut.

The Black Cultural Archives project started in the early 80's, in response to a number of black uprisings in Brixton spurred on by Thatcher-fueled racial unrest. The building itself opened six months ago, and is set on the edge of Windrush Square, a public area remodeled in the late '90's to commemorate the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush from Jamaica, carrying the first wave of black migrants from the West Indies to England in 1948.

After Keith's curator talk, a man, perhaps in his late fifties, asks about heritage sites in the area. He is always discovering shameful secrets, he says. He asks the curator about a back area of Brixton markets that he's recently learnt was used to hold and auction slaves. Keith doesn't seem to have heard anything about it.

The truth is that so many - if not all - of the streets of London are paved with black blood; paid for by slavery's ill-gotten gains.

Keith talks about a Black Britain walk she once did. About how so many of the symbols and signifiers around England hide horrific clues to the extent of the Empire's rape and pillaging of Africa and her descendants.

"The Cutler's Guild, for example," she says. "Their logo still features two elephants. Originally this was because the handles of the cutlery were made out of African ivory."

Outside in reception, I stand at the counter with my bookshop purchases: The Windrush Legacy: Memories of Britain's Post-War Caribbean Immigrants;Why I Came to England: An Oral History of Life in 1950's & 1960's Britain; The British Black Panthers And Black Power Movement: an oral history and photography project. 

As I hand over my chosen postcards (plain white with small black text reading 'Where are all the Black heroes?), the woman behind the counter asks me about my accent. I tell her I'm from Australia. That I was born there. That my West Indian parents grew up in London and moved there when they got married.

She wants to know the rest of the story, asks me to bring a copy of my last book in for the Archive keepers to look at.

Outside, in Windrush Square, the cloud moves closer in. My thermal-wrapped children chase the pigeons around in the icy, piercing cold: shrieking and wheeling after sitting quietly for so long.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Other people live there now.

My research trip for The Hate Race : Genealogy is funded by The Hazel Rowley Fellowship for Biography.

Several family members are away in the Caribbean for the first few days we're in London. It's a bitter cold winter, and they have turned their faces toward the sun. Having traveled from thirty nine degree Melbourne heat to nine degree London highs, I can well empathise with their plight.
      "When Auntie Jeanette gets back," I say to my sister, "I'll go and visit her. Who's living at the house in Tottenham? Is Markie still there?"
      "Well..." my sister says hesitantly. "Actually, the house has been sold recently."
I turn to her, surprised, feel a cavity forming in my chest.

My paternal grandparent's home was always my base when I was in London. Their terrace house in Tottenham was walking distance from Seven Sister's tube station, in the heart of a vibrant black community. Bad Bwoy youth beat-boxed and spun rhymes in the area around the Underground entrance, jeans slung slow on their waists, fake-designer gear and bling on show. The black barbershops were always packed with laughing, chatting people. Reams of fake or human hair hung over the backs of hairdresser's chairs, their nimble fingers flying to and fro over microscopic braids or complicated weaves. Caribbean food take-outs offered plastic containers of fried plantain and spicily marinated jerk chicken. My grandmother and grandfather would always be on their way out 'to the West Indian Club,' for some neighbourhood gathering or other. 

Nan Lou's house was like a neighborhood drop-in centre. All kinds of folk knocked on the door: those she knew from back home in Jamaica, white English neighbours, so many twice and thrice removed cousins, aunts and uncles that I always lost track of who I was related to and how.

And always, the fond respect with which my Nan was addressed by everyone.

 Miss Lou.

Mrs Clarke.

My mother says I first learnt to walk on the carpeted stairs of the Tottenham house, during one of our extended family visits from Australia to England, some thirty four years ago. She still does a vivid imitation of my toddler self, excited to be going out into the icy weather. "Coat on, coat on!" I'd apparently bustle busily about, "Hat on, hat on! Going owt, going owt!" 

I haven't visited England for eight years now. 

I want to ask my grandmother all of the questions I should have asked her back then.

I want to smell the house one more time: Auntie Jeanette cooking barbecue ribs in the little second kitchen on the landing; the cinnamon scent of Jamaican bun being sliced, slathered with butter and layered with cheese for some visitor or other; that familiar terrace house mustiness that felt like home; the Oil of Olay hand-cream I remember Nanna Lou using ever since I was a little girl.

The last time I visited England, my son was nine months old. Not yet crawling, he was a spherical butter-ball of a baby.
        "Why is he not crawling yet?" Nanna Lou asked? "Put him down on the carpet, eh, Max." Sitting in the worn brown leather armchair she had come to spend most  of her time in as she became increasingly frail, she poked at him with her walking stick as he desperately attempted to shuffle along the well-worn carpet, grunting with the sheer effort of it. My sister and I looked on amused. 

That enormous, aggrieved, dimple-kneed baby is now an active, slimly built nine-year-old.

      "So when is everyone moving out of the house in Tottenham then?" I ask my sister later in the day. "I told you." she says "It's sold. It's already happened. Other people live there now."