Maxine Beneba Clarke and creating social change through literature

Maxine Beneba Clarke and creating social change through literature

“With art people let their guard down. When you go to see a play, go to a music concert or open the cover of a book you’re ready to accept someone else’s story,” Maxine Beneba Clarke says of the power of art. It’s a notion that has drawn people to reading Maxine’s book, The Hate Race. A book which puts the reader in the mind and world of an African-Australian citizen growing up in the country and the racism experienced as a result.

“I think what it does, more reading does, is it creates that empathy and it allows someone outside of that place to be brought inside it. It may not mean that that person then goes out and campaigns against racism but in their interpersonal relations with friends and family they’re a bit more aware of these things,” she says.

The book itself documents Maxine’s experiences of racism, with the catalyst for the book serving as the incident depicted in the prologue, in which Maxine is abused while at the traffic lights with her young child. While this is an incident where Maxine is the victim, in life no one’s perfect and that’s reflected in her memoir.

“I was adamant that as an honest memoir even if there were things that made me look bad I had to include them. My pet hate is when the author is the hero in all respects, because that’s just not the way human beings are,” she says. “If I’m going to be honest there’s still a possibility that myself as a character is not going to appeal to people. So there’s nowhere to hide in a memoir and I think that’s why I wrote it so quickly.”

As a result The Hate Race harnesses a truthful honesty that’s poignant and gaining acclaim country-wide, even internationally. International best-selling author Dave Eggars even described her as a “powerful and fearless storyteller”.

Her strengths as a writer first came through writing for the likes of Overland,The Age, Meanjin, The Saturday Paper and The Big Issue, but it was her short fiction collection, Foreign Soil [2014], where she really came into her own voice. The collection proved to be her grand entrance into the industry and a chance to fill a gap of people’s stories previously untold in Australian literature.

What was her first long-form release also proved to be a much longer writing process than her more recent book The Hate Race. “I think the writing process for Foreign Soil was a lot longer, particularly because it was a series of short fiction… the possibilities are endless,” Maxine says.

“With the Hate Race you have the narrative, or at least bits of it, but you’re deciding which parts of the narrative and of your life to include – you’re dealing with fact and truth so the parameters are already set. And in ways I found that’s constraining because I’m used to playing in a room with my imaginary friends. You get to kill people off and make them do what you want and then it was like, ‘Hang on, I have to actually tell this story’.”

Maxine’s story is a strong and powerful one, and while she may joke of her parents not being awfully interesting characters, the conversation created as a result is one of the most important started this year. Maxine appears at the Word for Word non-fiction festival as the keynote speaker on opening night. A spot she has well and truly deserved.

Maxine is the Keynote Address on the opening night of Word for Word festival at 7pm on Friday, November 18. Find out more information via www.wordforwordfestival.com.au

Written by Amanda Sherring