Working with Words: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript with Foreign Soil, her debut short-story collection, which tells the stories of marginalised characters in locations as far-flung as Footscray and London, Jamaica and Sri Lanka. It was published this year to critical acclaim, inviting comparisons to Nam Le’s similarly wide-ranging collection, The Boat. She is a nationally renowned spoken-word performer and the author of two poetry collections, Gil Scott Heron is on Parole and Nothing Here Needs Fixing.

We spoke to Maxine about being a political writer, her increasing loss of anonymity, why moments of connection are more significant than seeing her book in store windows, and why she’s never bought a book on Amazon.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

My first published piece was in a high school magazine that the Year Ten accelerated English class put together. I can’t remember a thing about the actual poem, but I’m positive it was terribly written, brooding, angst-ridded, and teenage-try-hard intense, cause that’s what mostly happens when you get 16-year-old writers to put together their own publication.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that it doesn’t feel like a job. Oh, there are those how-many-more-fricken-drafts-till-completion or audience-totally-didn’t-dig-that-poem moments, but by and large, I get to do what I love. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. The best part is also that moment when someone comes up to you and tells you that the performance, or story, or panel session I just gave them had an illuminating impact on their life, or their writing, or the way they look at the world or see a particular issue. It’s people letting me into their lives, their subconscious, their bookshelves, their living rooms - people bringing my stories into their lives – that point of exchange. I’m very much a political writer, so it’s saying ‘Hey, let’s talk about this thing’, and an absolute stranger saying ‘Yeah, why not, okay, I’ll give you my ear for an hour or so’, however the conversation ends.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Administration: those super important emails and phone calls to do with gigs being booked and drafts due and invoices being paid. It’s the rare instances when the words don’t come easy and you’re on a pressure-cooker deadline. The increasing loss of anonymity, but which sees your work life increasingly encroaching on your ordinary day-to-day. Sometimes having to say ‘no’ to things you want to do, or feel like you should be a part of, and worrying that people might take it personally. That all-consuming doubt that sometimes creeps in about your writing ability.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I recently wrote a newspaper portrait for an extraordinary writing colleague who tragically passed away. His partner, who I hadn’t met before, approached me at his memorial to thank me. She said I’d captured him so very perfectly, and that she’d keep the piece always, and read it to their young children when they’re older. It was a moment, more than any other - more than sales, or awards, or completing a manuscript, or being awarded a grant - that reminded me of the power and the importance of words. Sometimes those moments can get lost, or swamped, by the economics and the politics, the reality of trying to make a living from your work.

Another experience similar to this was arranging and performing a piece at the Writers for Refugees launch from work written by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker who’s been incarcerated in a detention centre in Australia for many years. That experience of standing in front of a room full of people and being the mouthpiece for someone who’s unable to speak out for themselves, then having the video of the performance played back to him, being able to show him that his words matter as much as anyone else’s, that they’ve transcended the locked doors and razor wire and been heard. Looking at the footage afterwards, I could see myself swaying from side to side, rocking with the intense and almost debilitating feeling of embodying his life. I could see myself almost buckling under the weight of his words.

It’s these moments of connection, more so than seeing my book in a store window, that remind me why I do what I do.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The worst advice is to ‘write what you know.’ I think it’s the reason behind the explosion of the ‘inconsequential’ memoir, and the general blandness we’ve seen in Australian literature over the last few decades. Not everyone has an interesting story to tell about their life, and there’s no harm in looking further than our own backyards. I think the maxim should be ‘write what you know to be true.’ That is, that there are ways to come at any story with clarity and sensitivity and authenticity, you just have to find a way in.

The best advice, of course, is from my mother, who always says: ‘Start like you mean to finish.’ To me, this means many things: don’t change the way you write to get published because you’ll always be capitulating; when you set your mind to something, see that you follow it all the way to the end; run at things head on, and keep barging till you make a dent, then a crack, then a hole, then a doorway; don’t ever fucking give up.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

There was one article that talked about me dropping to the floor and clasping my hands to the heavens when I won the Premier’s Award. All of my mates were messaging me like: Really? You DID that? Wow. That seems kind of melodramatic but it’s on the internet so it must be true.

What actually happened was that my handbag was at my feet and the strap was tangled around my foot cause I’m just generally a clumsy mess. I had a crumpled extract from my manuscript squashed right at the bottom of my bag cause I was sure I wasn’t going to win, so people were clapping and cheering and staring and I’m crouched on the ground trying to untangle my fricken bag from my leg and then quickly open it and dig out the speech whilst also freaking out, because I was broke and just won a heap of money. It took quite a while, and when I finally managed it, I was like ‘Woot! Thank f*ck I found my fricken story!’

Which I guess can look like a wankified hand-clutching-at-the-heavens if you’re way back behind me in the audience.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

In my Clark Kent life I worked in the legal world, so I’d probably be looking after my two littlies as I do now, but working in that field part-time instead of writing.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’m a creative writing graduate myself, and have taught the occasional writing class. I don’t think ‘writing’ per se, can be taught, but I do think that learning writing history, learning to be a good reader, learning about structure, and voice, and pace, and the technical side of writing, learning to take constructive writing criticism and apply it to your work going forward, learning discipline, are all really important. I think this is what writing courses offer aspiring authors. I don’t believe creativity can be taught though, and that’s such a large part of being successful as a writer.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read. Read and read and read and read. Realise it will probably be a long, hard road, and that you will need to have another way of making an income if you don’t ‘make it’ or even when you do. And listen. Listen when you’re given criticisms, listen when your work is rejected, listen to any kind of feedback any one has to offer you. It is all helpful. Some of the feedback will be ridiculous, or ill-thought-out, and you certainly don’t have to believe or agree with it all, but some of it just might help you, somehow someway.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I’ve never yet bought a book on Amazon. This is a pretty hard thing to stick to, especially when you’re not that cashed-up. I prefer to order it into a bookstore and pick it up. Never say never, but I think we all, particularly writers, should be supporting our bricks and mortar stores as much as we can. If I did ever order through an online-only store, it would have to be through an Australian retailer like Booktopia.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

It would be Jesus.

I am going to get so much hate mail for writing that. Peeps reading this: chill out, it was a joke.

It would probably actually be a character from my book Foreign Soil, cause it would be a total spin-out to see someone you created take on a life of their own. I’d like to hang out with Delores, from ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, in her stifling hot flat in the New Orleans, eat spaghetti from a can with her and Ella, the little girl across the hall. I’d ask them where the story is going to take them next, what I should do with them. They keep coming back to me, all the time. I thought I was done with them, but I have a distinct feeling they won’t stay where I’ve left them for very long.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There are so many piece of writing that have had an impact on my life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an extraordinary written pieces of writing:

‘…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood… ’

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