Apply for extraordinary

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
By: 
Maxine Beneba Clarke

Photo of Maxine Beneba Clarke
Maxine Beneba Clarke

Former Hazel Rowley fellow Maxine Beneba Clarke shares her advice for writers considering applying for this year's Hazel Rowley Fellowship.

"Four months before my first fiction book, 'Foreign Soil', was due to come out, snowed under with copy edits, I saw a call-out for applications for the 2014 Hazel Rowley Fellowship. The Fellowship, I read, was closing for applications in a few days, and would go to support travel and research for a significant Australian work of biography. Judges were interested in bold, risk-taking, adventurous work: the kind of projects Hazel Rowley herself had favoured.

Alongside copy editing for Foreign Soil, I was also busy working on my memoir, The Hate Race, a book about growing up black in white, middle class Australia. The Hate Race tells the story of my life, through the lens of race, dating from 1976 when, one year after the final vestiges of the White Australia Policy were dismantled by Gough Whitlam, my parents arrived in suburban Sydney, to the present.

My story is a unique one: that of a black Australian-born child of West-Indian-born Black British migrants growing up in a small, white picket fence neighbourhood in the 1980’s. It’s the story of a child with the legacy of slavery in both sides of her bloodline navigating the classrooms, sports fields, school yards and playgrounds of a racially volatile Australia. It’s a story that’s at turns hilarious and devastating to write, but a story I feel it’s important to tell. As I progressed in the writing of this memoir, it became evident that there were other stories, perhaps other books, to follow – that once I’d recorded my own life story, the journey would be far from over.

The Hate Race opens with a violent incident of racist abuse. “Fuck off, you black bitch,” a ute driver screams at me from his open window. “Go on, fuck off. You make me sick you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid! You should go drown your fucken kid…go back to where you came from.”

What, I started thinking, if I could go back to where I came from: from Australia to Africa via the Caribbean and England. What if I could manage to trace my lineage – or to attempt to – back to slavery. What if I could know who I was, who I’d been, before The Hate Race.

I phoned Kate Larsen at Writers Victoria. “I’m interested in applying for the Hazel Rowley Fellowship,” I explained. “But I’m not sure if it applies to autobiography as well?”

“That’s a really good question,” she said. “Let me get back to you.”

In February, I received an email from Della Rowley, on my laptop in the Ren I Tang hotel in Malaysia, where I was on residency with a group of writers from the Asia-Pacific region. We’d been holed down for a week, writing and workshopping. For the first time, I’d read from The Hate Race out loud, and heard other writers feedback. For the first time, the memoir project was feeling real, and I could finally see my way to the book it would become.

“I know you’re overseas at the moment…I guess you know why I’ve been trying to get in touch with you,” Della said when I called, “You’ve just been awarded the 2014 Hazel Rowley Fellowship.”

“Shit,” I thought. “I’m really doing this.” By then it was day eight of the ten day Asia-Pacific residency. I was on a creative high, surrounded incredible, energetic and generous writers, but I was also tired, homesick, and missing my two young kids.

I hung up the phone and cried.

My short fiction book 'Foreign Soil', came out three months later, to better reception than I’d expected. What followed was a whirlwind of publicity: radio interviews, bookshop events, writers festivals, negotiating babysitters and family to help with the kids. In my spare moments, I wrote short vignettes for The Hate Race, worked on plotting, sketched out what the structure of the book would look like.

I worried about The Hazel Rowley Fellowship, about whether I’d taken on too much.

In August 2014, the writers I’d had the residency with in Singapore and Malaysia came to Melbourne as guests of the Melbourne Writers Festival. They were the writers I’d celebrated with in Singapore when I heard I’d secured The Hazel Rowley Fellowship – who’d waited tensely with me for the news, and been over the moon for me – scotch all round – when we finally heard.

“What’s going on with the Hazel Rowley trip?” they asked.

“Well,” I said. “Things have been kind of crazy for months. I’ve been away from the kids so much. I don’t want to leave them to do the research. But it’s a trip I need to do, and I’m itching to go…”

One of the writers, Francesca, grinned at me. “Just take them!” she said “That’s what your life is. This is an autobiographical book. You’re a single parent and they’re a part of what you do. Part of you. So what if it will be a bit hard, that’s all a part of it.”

I knew immediately that she was right.

In January 2015, my 8 year old son, 4 year old daughter and I will travel to England. We will fly from the searing heat of the Australian summer to the bitter sleet and snow. We will feel what it’s like to be the new arrivals, shocked out of our climate. My daughter will be almost the same age my mother was when she arrived in London by boat from Guyana.

I will take my voice recorder. My children will run wild with cousins and aunts and uncles in the background as I collect as many family stories as I can – particularly those of my grandparent’s generation, lest they disappear beyond reach. I will add as many missing branches as I can to our wanting family trees. We may make it on to the West Indies this time, or not: I’ve realised now this trip will be the first of several. That is the nature of trying to track such a fragmented history.

There’s been much preliminary plan-making: ascertaining the whereabouts of government records departments, reading up on the history of Black Britain. There are so many places I need to visit in order to piece together the puzzle of lives lived beyond my own. I want to stand on the docks where the Empire Windrush – the first boat carrying West Indian arrivals to London, pulled in, to lay flowers atop where each of my four grandparents lie resting.

They say at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, there is an interactive display which recreates the horror, sounds, sights, and cramped conditions of being chained in the hull of a slave ship. I’ve heard that experiencing this recreation for just two minutes shuts down your senses and almost turns you mad. At the museum, facts and figures on the Atlantic slave trade are tallied on walls, and heavy wrought iron neck chains lie ominously in glass cases.

These are parts of my history that, growing up in Australia, I’ve long been divorced from. I have no doubt encountering them will change me.

I was surprised at receiving the Hazel Rowley Fellowship for such an ambitious project, and elated that it would enable me to continue on mapping my family’s extraordinary journey past The Hate Race – from Australia, to England, to the Caribbean, to Africa. The Fellowship has given me the means to embark on a research trip I would never have been able to undertake otherwise.

My advice for anyone considering applying for the 2015 Hazel Rowley Fellowship is unwaveringly to do so. Wherever your writing wants to go, Hazel may well get you there. I don’t know what your journey will hold, but it will surely be extraordinary.

About Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and slam poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is on Parole (Picaro Press, 2009) and Nothing Here Needs Fixing (Picaro Press, 2013). Her critically acclaimed first fiction book, Foreign Soil, won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. She was the recipient of the 2014 Hazel Rowley fellowship for her memoir The Hate Race, published in 2016.

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