Maxine Beneba Clarke is a highly awarded Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. The Hate Race (2015), her memoir of growing up in Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s, immediately entered the canon of contemporary Australian literature. The Hate Race received the NSW Premier's Literary Award Multicultural NSW Award 2017 and was shortlisted for an ABIA, an Indie Award, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and The Stella Prize. This interview is a close study of Maxine’s memoir.
Maxine is prolific. Her other works include The Saturday Paper Portraits (2019) and the critically acclaimed short fiction collection Foreign Soil (2015), as well as three picture books - Fashionista (2019), Wide Big World (with Isobel Knowles in 2018) and The Patchwork Bike (with Van T. Rudd in 2016).
Her poetry can be found in The Saturday Paper most weeks, and she has published three poetry collections Carrying the World, Gil Scott Heron Is on Parole and Nothing Here Needs Fixing. Maxine’s short fiction, non-fiction and poetry have also been published in numerous publications including Overland, The Age, Meanjin and The Big Issue.
ASTRID: Maxine Beneba Clarke, welcome to The Garret.
MAXINE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
ASTRID: This interview will be a little bit different from others that we've done. We are going to just talk about your memoir, The Hate Race, which came out in 2016. Now, The Hate Race was awarded the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award and shortlisted for a host of other awards including the Stella Prize. It is a memoir of your childhood and adolescence growing up in Sydney. What was the motivation for you to write and publish your memoir?
MAXINE: I think for me, part of the motivation was a rise at the time, or what I experienced as a rise in kind of racist incidents, or the racialisation of people just on the street in Australia. And I started talking about – I suppose at the time, I also had in my introduction I talk about having young kids at the time, so kind of them starting school. My eldest kids starting school thinking about what that was like for me, and talking as well to I think both friends of colour who grew up in Australia and had similar experiences, and then talking to Anglo Australian friends who would kind of say, you know you'd have an incident encounter, an incident of racism on the street, they’d say yeah but that person is crazy, you know not everyone is like that, it's not a massive thing.
I'm thinking, well how do I both give voice to the experiences of Australians of colour and try and explain the kind of cumulative effect of racism, and things that they might not necessarily read as racism. How do I unpack that? And a memoir, like a childhood memoir seemed like a really good way of doing that.
ASTRID: You almost in my reading of it, you almost give different – you put different language around racism, overt instances of racism but also the daily lifelong grind of other people and their…. and what they don't even understand is racism. I read your memoir as a way to discuss representation but go further than just representation. I'm not a person of colour. Does that reading make sense?
MAXINE: Yeah, I think so. I mean at its essence it was an act of storytelling. So, what would it take for someone to understand this particular topic? And I also wanted to make good, you know, an interesting story kind of thing. With traditional memoir usually it's quite episodic, you know, be about the happenings of a family, but I thought it'd be really interesting even in a literary sense to just frame this in terms of race. So if I took everything else out except for those major incidents that are race related, and some of them are, you know traumatic race related incidents, some of them are quite amusing, some of them are kind of almost neither here nor there. But you know, what would happen if I just let go of everything else. So, you know, winning a tennis tournament at school, or you know, getting an A in science class – everything that didn't actually relate to that. And so, I guess my modus operandi was when we tell each other stories, or when we know each other, we're more willing to actually be empathetic. You know, you hear people say all the time things like, you know, ‘Oh you know’, or even racist people will say ‘Oh but not you, I don’t mean you because I know you,’ kind of thing, ‘All of these people coming to this country, but not you’.
And it's that ‘but not you’ I guess that I wanted to explore, is if you had the chance to step into someone else's shoes and experience the impact of this on them, what would that change about the world that you know in your experience. But I guess I also feel like everyone is in The Hate Race. There is a character in there for everyone, so it's almost also that question of, which is your narrative? are you the bystander that didn't say anything? are you the person that stood up for the person of colour next to you? are you the bully? are you the teacher? So also asking those questions, asking people to recognise themselves and their behaviour.
ASTRID: You write, and I quote that ‘racism was as common as cornflakes in your school’. That sentence is traumatic to think about and to read, and to know that, that is what happened and is still happening in schools in Sydney and around Australia. The effect that, that racism had on you, you bring to life in The Hate Race. What were you expecting and what were you hoping people to feel?
MAXINE: I don't think I had any preconceptions. I mean obviously when you write a memoir, you hope that you will be, as the protagonist, that they will be able to go along with your story – you know whether you're the anti-hero or the hero.
ASTRID: You are definitely the hero of this story, Maxine.
MAXINE: I feel like I'm the anti-hero in various points. So, some kind of empathy – I think I wanted, it was really important to contextualise the time in which this happened. So, even though obviously you know, racism is still very much around in Australian schools, workplaces, and life at the moment, I think it was really important to contextualise, you know, my parents arrived here in the mid-70s, so I was going to school in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is a very, was a very particular time in Australian politics in terms of a lot of race related issues.
And so yeah, I guess to answer your question, I was hoping to evoke not necessarily empathy but some type of understanding and engagement, just that people would actually engage with this issue. I think we're really scared as soon as you say the word ‘racist’ or ‘racism’, conversation shuts down. Like you can't say that, we can't talk about that, you know it's too difficult, people might get upset. And I think that once you put something in a story – also one of the techniques I used for The Hate Race, was I wrote it like fiction. So, you know, that sense of paying attention to what's outside the room, you know, what does the breeze smell like, what are the birds doing outside. And fleshing out characters so that they're actually fully formed characters that run through the narrative.
Because I think, fiction does a lot of things that non-fiction can't, in terms of actually letting the reader step into that person's shoes. I think it almost allows them to see ‘the Maxine’ in inverted commas, in the memoir is separate from me as the writer. And so, I guess that was one of my aims, was I want you to experience this life. It doesn't matter what you take away from it, but I want you to have experienced it.
ASTRID: I'd like to come back a little bit later about how you develop the characters who are of course, in some way your friends, your family, the people in your childhood and adolescence, and they do become characters as well as real people. But before we go there, I'd just like to say a little bit on, kind of your drive to write the memoir, and what writing did mean for you. There is a scene in The Hate Race quite early where you have been chosen as Student of the Week, and you are very excited about being a Student of the Week, and at the end of the week your classmates write down a list of things about you, and it's not a great list. And afterwards you, and I quote, you ‘wanted people to write down more things about you, as if being written about would help you be seen’. And also, I quote, to start you wanted to start writing down stories about yourself, and those two sentences really stood out for me. And I wondered, you know, was the seed of your writing career sowed all the way back then?
MAXINE: I think definitely, and I think I was an avid reader, and not being able to read of a character that is anywhere in any way similar to yourself – I mean obviously when you read you're drawing parallels between yourself and whatever story you're reading because that's just human instinct. But you know, I think also one of the things in The Hate Race, is I spend a lot of time in the library you know, because that's what you do if you're a kind of outcast kid, you go and read books. And so, I think that impetus of yes, realizing the power of words and also the power of reading, and that the stories that we’re given can be really impactful. And I often think the written word, is you come to a book differently to the way you would come to anything else. You know, you're opening the cover because you want to be told a story, you want to be taken somewhere else. And I think the spirit in which a book is received allows a different kind of consideration of various issues.
ASTRID: This is your story and your memoir. But throughout history is always present on every page. There is the history of the transatlantic slave movement, there is civil rights in America, there is the White Australia Policy, there is racist politicians from all around the world and race riots. None of that goes away. And in one way, The Hate Race is not just a story of your family's movements and their migrations around the world, but of racism and migration around the world and how that is still playing out. They’re very important parts of your narrative. As a writer how did you bring in that global sweep of history into the personal, into your story?
MAXINE: I think you know, as a person with an African diaspora background, you know my dad was born in Jamaica, my mum was born in Guyana. They were the descendants of slaves that were trafficked from West Africa to the Caribbean, and then they grew up in London and came here when they got married. And I think there's a point at which if you come from a black African diaspora background, there was this constant – and particularly if you live in the West, you wonder where racism came from, you know, so is it just fear of difference. And I think there's a point at which you learn your history, and that could be at 60 years old, could be a 10 years old, it could be as a teenager, and you realise that, you know, 400 years ago white people owned black people as property, and I think unless you realise that this isn't just some kind of, we don't like them because of what you look like. This is a deeply entrenched part of the society we live in, that everything we have in Australia, and everything that I have in England, and everything I have in the United States, is intrinsically interlinked with the exploitation, death, rape of black people.
And I think it was really important to draw that connection, as well as drawing the connection to Aboriginal land and the fact that, you know – I mean I think one of the shocking things for me was, and you know, this is before I started researching The Hate Race, really as a teenager and an early 20s realising that, at the time my parents migrated you know, there were places in Australia where for Aboriginal people, you know, a black person was not allowed to go out with a white person, or you know that there was still – we still have this extraordinary amount of privilege despite the suffering I was going through at school because we were black migrants who'd been through that process of colonisation hundreds of years earlier. And so, I think it was really important to draw those parallels and also, I think to tell the history while you're telling the story.
Yeah, I mean I'll often have even African friends kind of say, you know, so where are you from? and I'll say Jamaica. You know when you first meet, and they’ll say, ‘you look African’, and I kind of say, well obviously I look African, and I think it's a history that is not, you know, not really – I wasn't taught in in high school about the transatlantic slave trade. I don't even think I realised, I mean I knew that we were descendants of that slave trade, but I don't even think I realised until my early 20s that, okay, well the Caribbean obviously wasn't occupied by black people, it was occupied by the Tano Indians, the Arawak and yeah, I think that history of colonisation needed to be written alongside the story in order for it to actually be comprehended.
ASTRID: You explore as a child your realisation, or maybe even first awakening that Australia did have Indigenous people, and you actually have a scene where you discount that they might really be there because you hadn’t seen them. There was so little representation, so little acknowledgement, that they didn't feel necessarily real for you. That's an incredibly powerful scene in The Hate Race. It's also an indictment on the Australian approach to the last 250 years of history. What has been the reader response from that strand, in The Hate Race?
MAXINE: I think mostly an appreciation of the inclusion of that story within The Hate Race. And I think also, the stories of readers say you know, readers will come and say, well I first learned that there were Indigenous people in Australia when I was eight, or not till I was 13, or you know, these kind of parallel childhoods where people are remembering when they found out, which is just extraordinary because obviously we're all living on black country. And I think you know, as a writer as well, it's important you know, we were taught in English at school that Australian writers belong to the English canon. You know, Australia was colonised by the British, and you’re reading Keats, and you're reading Shakespeare, and you know, that's what we're reading as our canon, but there is an Indigenous canon that has been here for hundreds of thousands of years that, you know, might have started with song lines of storytelling around the fire, and which now is in the written word in some of extraordinary writing. So I think for me, there's a responsibility to recognise that, you know otherwise essentially what I'm doing is writing a history of race in my family which doesn't acknowledge the history of race, you know, in the place that I'm writing it from. So, I think it was an important thing for me to include.
ASTRID: You also include the different waves of migration to Australia from all different countries around the world – Thai, Italian, Chinese, Sudanese, different waves that have come throughout your childhood and since. Has there been any response there?
MAXINE: Most of the responses I get directly from readers in terms of correspondence is from people of colour, and it is from people around my age group saying, you know, I thought that I was crazy when I was at school because I would point things out and people would say I was overreacting, and you know, this is the first time I've seen that encapsulated I think in recent years. You know, in the last decade in particular, there really has been a solidarity between people of colour in Australia, migrant people of colour no matter where they're from in terms of recognising this experience of othering. And that's been really nice to see, because you never know, everyone has a completely different experience you know, and I think part of my experience was where we lived. We lived in a place called Kellyville, which at the time was a kind of semi-rural, rural fringe village on the outskirts of suburbia, extremely white. And so, I think that you know, if you grew up even six suburbs away and you know, in Blacktown or in Bankstown or Cabramatta, you would have had a different experience to what I had.
ASTRID: In addition to racism, Maxine, you don't shy away from the effect that had on you. You were bullied at school because of your race. Bullying still happens for all different reasons, in all schools around Australia. That's an experience that you've taken and put on the page as an adult. It's a personal question – is there any reflection you can offer on that experience?
MAXINE: I mean, I think bullying is essentially about power. You know, it happens for all different reasons. I think it's not just about colour. So, you know, if you have a school where there's a racist environment but there are 20 kids of colour, not all of them are necessarily going to be bullied. It's also about, you know, bullies identify people who may be a little bit different, or who may be, you know in an environment where everyone's really sporty, or a little bit arty, or an environment where everyone's really arty, the jock or you know. So, I think it really is about, bullies have the ability to hone in on people they know bullying will affect, because otherwise what's the point. You don't bully someone who you think it's not going to have any impact on. I think, I guess – I hope that the mechanisms are now in place. I mean I think at that particular time as well, I was growing up in a school environment where my parents had arrived five years or so after the White Australia Policy was officially abolished. So, teachers at my school, my friends parents had grown up under a government which had said, we do not want people who are not white migrating to this country, and we don't want them migrating here because they will make it a terrible place, they’re to be feared. So, I think probably the environment that we have now, those people are probably mostly out of the schools. It doesn't mean that there's necessarily, you know, an accepting leadership team in every school. But I think that has changed things a little bit. But I guess the piece of advice is mainly for teachers and parents, is that you know, bullying diminishes your child even if they're the bully and you know, who really wants to have raised a bully. You know surely, it's every parent's worst nightmare.
ASTRID: In addition to being bullied, there is one scene where you become the bully. That's very tense and powerful scene and it's not something that you had to include in your own memoir. Can you explain or talk through why you chose to include a scene that doesn't put you in such a great light?
MAXINE: I think it's really important. I mean, I personally hate it when I read a memoir where the person is a hero on every single page, because you know it's a lie. You know, humans are messy, and they’re complicated, and they’re mean – you know we all have a mean streak. And so, the question is, do I want to tell the truth? essentially. You know, obviously in a memoir you're choosing what you include, so you're playing with the truth in terms of, these are the stories I want to keep in, these stories I want to leave out. But if I'm going to include every story around race, then I need to include that story. And I also think, that actually is one of the impacts of bullying you know, is that – and you can see that through the character of Carly too in The Hate Race, when we meet her mother you know, her mother is a bully that's where she's just, she's ingested that as a child. And so, you know, this idea that the impact of bullying is not even necessarily someone getting upset, it can also be turning someone into a bully. And I think also that was the point at which I never understood why anyone would bully anyone you know, why would you want to make someone feel bad? But I think the response that I got in that situation, and I think I talk about this all in that chapter, was like, power. You know, people in my class were like, ‘oh wow this is great, someone somewhere, we can watch Maxine bully someone’. And it wasn't until after I left that classroom situation that it was, I thought, ‘Oh my god what have I done?’. You know, that was a really terrible thing to do. But at the time because I'd never experienced any kind of power, I was so drunk on that power that it was kind of in that very short time, three minutes or whatever it was. And I think it was important to actually point that out, that this is not some, you know, the bad kids that come out of the womb and they're already terrible. This is something anyone can do, and anyone can be turned into.
ASTRID: Even from bullying and that brief instance of a power that you felt, Maxine, there is another story that you tell about your African tribal dancing, which is amusing but also, it highlights the shocking ignorance of the school and the adults around you. Why did you include it? But also, I'm interested in the response that you may have received from Australians who would never think, that someone of a different culture would basically lie to them in public. It's a great story by the way.
MAXINE: I mean, I guess fetishisation is a kind of racism.
Okay, so you know when you exotify people, and you put them on the stage, and I think you know, we still have Multicultural Day in Australian schools – my kids schools still have it. This idea that, your job if you are ‘ethnic’ in inverted commas, in Australia, is to perform you know, you cook them delicious food, and on Multicultural Day, you dress up and you dance. And so, I said yes, you know they said, do you want to perform? I said yeah ok, I'll do a tribal dance, you know. And so, I guess even at that age I probably didn't contextualise it like that. But it was this idea of people being so ready to stereotype you, to assume that you have a particular knowledge or a particular background.
I don't think I knew what I was doing at the time, I just thought it was really, a really funny thing to do, and was kind of astonished, and kind of thought at the back of my head that night, at some point someone is going to say ‘Wait, wait a minute, Maxine was born in Australia – I don't think she really has links back to Africa for about five hundred years’.
ASTRID: But no one asked, and that’s part of your point.
MAXINE: Oh yeah, absolutely.
And so, you know I think, you know people find it shocking, people find it amusing. I mean there are many stories in there that I guess I didn't have to tell. They don't particularly portray me in a fantastic light, but I guess also it's a warning to people about the dangers of actually presupposing things about people, stereotyping things about people and making assumptions. We all can be made a fool of by those kinds of things.
ASTRID: And sometimes people don't even realise they’re being made a fool.
ASTRID: I'd like to move to how you structured your memoir. At the most basic level, you start with a prologue, have your story of the 80s and 90s growing up in Sydney, and then end with an epilogue. Both the prologue and the epilogue are not the present day, but you are an adult, you are a mother, and you are with your children in public.
Most of the story is set in the past and you tell the story of you growing up, as well as the origin stories of your parents and grandparents. You had multiple generations and multiple migrations weaving through the memoir. What was the motivation for that structure, and maybe were harking back to how you began to speak about fictionalising your own memoir before.
MAXINE: I think when I started to write The Hate Race, there were two narratives, so there was a school narrative which is the book as it is now, and there was a present-day narrative. So, every second chapter was the present day. And in the process I probably got about halfway through, you know, maybe forty-thousand words or so of writing in that way, and in the process I realised there were two completely different stories, you know, that the ‘80s and ‘90s are, were such a specific time.
You know, Pauline Hanson came on the scene. You know – 1988 John Howard comes up with this idea of ‘One Australia’, he called it, which became the Frankenstein's monster that became One Nation. You know, you had kind of land, Indigenous land rights starting to become a thing at the 1988 bicentenary that don't celebrate ‘88 walks. And so, it was such a specific time in history that it didn't seem to work writing about contemporary Australia today in the same, unless I had I suppose a ‘part one’ that was then, and then part two that was ‘now’. But what I decided was, you know what, this was a really specific time in Australian history, I just want to write a childhood memoir. And I think also having a child as a protagonist in terms of like, that literary fiction technique, they’re so much easier to go along with, because who doesn't love a child protagonist? And I do that in a lot of my work, and a lot of the characters in foreign soil are children. And they're not children that are, the children that are ballsy and that have character and the kind of, you know, navigate the world with their own kind of hopes and desires and things. But that was part of it, was that once you put a child in the driving seat, it becomes a completely different story than an adult, you know. Especially an adult, you know, I had two kids, I was an adult advocating for kids, kind of thing. But once I decided to do that, to pull out the childhood strands and make it a childhood memoir, the question was – well do I risk, do I risk this being seen as a piece of Australian history? You know, there's a risk I think that people read it, if it didn't have the introduction and the epilogue, wasn’t Australia terrible back then, we were so racist, and you know.
ASTRID: Not like that now.
MAXINE: Yeah, not like that now, and it becomes this kind of, you read it voyeuristic purposes and you don't actually conceive of it now. And what had actually precipitated the memoir in real life was contemporary racism.
ASTRID: On the street.
MAXINE: Yeah, on the street.
So, I thought I need to signify that this, however many years later, 20 years after the body of the work has finished, this is still an issue. And I wanted to, I wanted that to be clear. So that kind of is partly the purpose of leaving those bookends in, is yeah, framing it.
ASTRID: Two questions. Given that you have a child as the narrator, it's your voice but a child as a narrator, it's memoir, but do you now find it in different parts of the bookstore, is it sometimes in you know, non-fiction for young adults, or?
MAXINE: Yeah occasionally, and occasionally when people are reviewing a lot, they tag me on Twitter, they say, ‘I have just read your novel, you know, The Hate Race’. I know they know it's a memoir, but it's kind of I guess because of the way it's written, and also because I tried not to unpack or explain things. So, I tried to, other than the history, you know explaining this is what's going on at this time in Australian politics, this is what's going on in the states, to kind of contextualise the action. I tried not to say, not to comment on what was happening, so to say it was bad, or to say, you know this might not have happened if a teacher intervened, you know, to kind of moralise the action, because I think non-fiction writing can, you know, it could have been that kind of memoir where you kind of unpacking things as you went along, but I just wanted it to be a story that people read and take away what they will.
ASTRID: Given that you started writing a memoir of the present day, or up to the present day. Will that come soon?
MAXINE: No way. I think, look I did intend to do – I think I intended to do three books. One going back, so looking at my grandparent’s migration from the Caribbean to England. And I have done some interviews with family members over the last few years, but I think that's a book that will take years to actually get enough information. And the present day, I kind of feel like that's not my story to write. You know, maybe my kids will write that story one day and I feel as if ….. you know, maybe in 30 years’ time. I mean, I wrote this essentially, you know how many years – 20 years, you know after it had happened – maybe not quite 18 years. And so, there's a sense of distance and perspective, and I think that's why I dispensed with the current present day stuff, because I thought I'm writing about now. So, it doesn't seem to be a memoir really. It seems to be more like a political analysis of my life as it is. And I think the way I was able to write this, was to be able to handle the material, because it's almost like it's someone else's story, it happened so long ago.
ASTRID: Tell me about how you wrote your family, now you've changed the names obviously for privacy, but as you mentioned before, you almost wrote this like fiction and so you've compressed time in some places – each member of your family has a character, has a presence. How do you balance the need for, you know, your excellent writing and storytelling with the truth, but also protection of you and the people that you love?
MAXINE: I think that's always a big question. And I interestingly, I did an event, a couple of weeks ago, and a young author came up and said my mum was at the event and he said ‘I've been talking to your mum about the fact that I'm about to show my mum my memoir, and I asked her how she felt when she read The Hate Race’.
And I said, what did she say? Because I've never. And she said, she said, ‘you were very extremely nice to her’.
MAXINE: And I thought, I didn't really see it, you know, I didn't see that I left. But I suppose, what you see as a child is like, that's your mum, you know. They kind of have a halo over their head and, you know, everything I do. Whereas she was probably reading through it going, ‘Oh my gosh, what's going to come out in this?’. But I think, how did I keep the truth is the essence of that person there.
Okay, so you know like, there were certain things that were important to tell about each character for the story. So, for example, my sister, it was important that she's a counterpoint to me, because she did suffer racism at school but not nearly as much as I did. And you know, she was really sporty, so she was on the athletics team and she was kind of quite beautiful, and did modelling and all this kind of stuff. So, looking at creating my character as a counterpoint to myself. So, there might be other things that she was really interested in. You know, she was quite interested in media and journalism and things like that. But that's, that's completely irrelevant to the story I'm telling. So, partly that idea of, what do you put in, and why are you putting it in. You know, characters like my dad, well it was important to counterpoint him to my mum. You know, my mum was an actress, my dad was a mathematician. So, looking at his work life as a mathematician, and you know, there were also things I didn't include about him, like he really likes sci-fi, you know that's completely irrelevant to the book. So, the question I always ask is, what do they need to know about this person, not what do I know about this person, but what does the reader know, and what feeds the narrative and if it doesn't feed the narrative, I don't necessarily pull it out but I ask myself, ‘Should I pull this out of my over complicating this character’.
So, it was about choosing, yeah, what served that story I suppose. And the same with all of the characters. I mean there were things I tried to do so, if I thought something was important but not vital for the story, I would try and signal it. So, for example, you have one point one of the bullies when I'm being bullied, I kind of look down at his socks, and his socks are like completely threadbare and peeled and he has these kind of old scuffed shoes on. So, this idea that maybe this character has a backstory, maybe their home life isn't so great. Yeah, that idea of just inserting clues about various people and their lives without actually going off in a tangent into this story.
ASTRID: At what age will you let your own children read The Hate Race if they haven't already?
MAXINE: Umm, they don’t really want to. I mean, my oldest is 13, so he's got it in his room. I think he's read, like because I think that’s the thing, as a writer, your kids don’t want to read your work. It’s daggy, you know. My kids’ books maybe they’ll read, but it’s you know, it’s kind of, I don’t have any limits. It’s in the school library, I can't really police it.
ASTRID: They have access to it. I also like to talk to you about language, Maxine, particularly racist language. So, you tell a beautiful story of your parents grocery shopping in an Australian supermarket and being offended by Coon Cheese, and you also used the N-word twice in the story, and there is, you know, some people say it should never be in print anymore. Can you talk to that and why he chose to use the word?
MAXINE: I think context is important, so I think you can't understand the gravity of what's being said unless it's said, you know, if I was just to say someone was racist towards me, especially in a high school, you cannot possibly imagine the gravity of what people are saying. And an interesting thing I've had particularly from schools, is teachers saying, we read the introduction, you know, where I'm abused from a passing car on the street, and the kid who was reading it out refused to read. So then, we had a conversation about well why do you feel like you can't say it, you know. And I think that is important as well. It's a book, so that means it very much it stays within the pages of the book. So, you know, the reader is not saying it out loud. And I think it is said as racist abuse, it is not said in a laughing context. It's identified as such. And I think it's the truth. Yeah, a lot of people when you say, people were racist to me to me at school, they don't understand what that means. You know, they think maybe you weren't invited to a party or something, and so how can you tell the story without saying the words. It's impossible.
ASTRID: Moving on to a happy form of language that you use. You write, particularly your grandparents in dialect and accent, which is beautiful to read. How did you do that?
MAXINE: You know, I didn't grow up around my grandparents. We visited them at various points in our lives, and at various points they came out visited us, but they all had heavy Jamaican Guyanese accents. And to me it was really important to get their, I suppose, authentic voice. So, I mean I wouldn't call it dialects, I'd call it more accents, accented English. So, I wrote, tried to write the words as they sound. And I think you know, it's partly this idea that, you know, which is part of racism in Australia, when someone has a ‘foreign’ accent, foreign in inverted commas, meaning not Western, you tune out you know. It's like, what did you say? Pardon? Pardon? just because we're lazy. And so, you know that idea for this is the way that they sound, I'm going to write them the way that they sound, so that the reader not only has the gravity of their history in those words, but has to listen to them and listen to that accent.
ASTRID: Maxine, can you talk a little bit about research. Perhaps how you research a family history or the places where what you're writing about is set.
MAXINE: So, a lot of the family history for this particular book was oral history. So, talking to my parents about their journey to Australia. I talk a little bit about the wind rush generation, so the generation of Jamaicans that first travelled from Jamaica to London as a mass migration. And that was a lot of reading materials and going through archives looking at photographs.
I found a couple books of oral testimony of people saying, this is what it was like to come off into a boat you know, in England, you know just things like, what does cold feel like when you've never ever felt that kind of temperature before. Which is something about living in Melbourne, I don't even think about, but what if you're used to 35 degrees and suddenly you arrive in three-degree winter.
So, oral testimony, reading other books, so other non-fiction books. In terms of the Australian history, things like just looking through the newspapers, what was happening in 1988 and 1999. Once I'd found something like the bicentenary marches, looking at photos of the marches across the bridge that were kind of in Aboriginal land rights marches, and yeah, again, what were the clothes like in that decade. So, for example my parents in the opening chapter, I have them in flared jeans and afros and stuff. Did they technically have flared jeans and afros? I mean I've seen photos where they did, but obviously they weren't necessarily wearing that every day, so that that idea of, well this is happening in the ‘70s I don't know what my mum would have been wearing, but let's put flares and a tank top on her because that's what they were wearing. So, that idea of taking truths from history and applying them to the characters.
ASTRID: The Hate Race is a powerful memoir and if I haven't expressed it yet, Maxine, I think that your writing on a personal level is simply beautiful, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. And throughout The Hate Race, there is almost a refrain that you repeat and it's repeated many different times, in many different ways throughout the work. Some of the instances are from the beginning of the book, ‘This is how I'd have it sing’ and later on, ‘This is how it alters us this is how we change’. How did you use this device throughout?
MAXINE: I think I wanted to have like, almost like a chorus or a coda. I think I always had an issue with the fact that, even though I can conceptualise and talk about it now, this idea of leaving things out, or choosing what you tell, and so I wanted to have both a nod to kind of the storytelling tradition that I come from as a person from an African diaspora background, and also an acknowledgement that I am telling this story for a specific reason.
So, this constant reminder in every chapter that, this is how I'm telling this story. If anyone in the book were to tell, you know if someone said, tell me the story of Maxine, you know, you might have a teacher saying, well she was in my English class, she always used to sit at the front – you know, completely different narrative. And so, I wanted that reminder, that I'm telling you this story for a reason. And also a voice to the reader, so this constant acknowledgement that I'm addressing you, I'm well aware that I'm telling you a story, there's no pretence that you know, I'm just kind of sitting in a room writing a memoir not thinking about who it's going to, was a very purposeful book to write. And I think also, I'm a you know, I started out as a poet, so this idea that it's a kind of poetic refrain that comes in and is kind of a relief, you know something that you start looking for when the going gets tough it's like, where's Maxine, I need Maxine to tell me she's telling the story.
ASTRID: You end the book with acknowledgements, and you write ‘I wrote this book because I believe stories like these need to be written into Australian letters. Stories like mine need to be heard and seen by those outside of them and those with similar tales.’ Do you think you succeeded?
MAXINE: I hope so. I mean as with any writer I would like it to be read by a lot more people.
Look, I think Australian literature in the last ten years has changed a lot. I mean there is a massive way to go, but you know when I was growing up, you know apart from things that really for me cut through the noise, like Looking for Alibrandi and Sally Morgan’s My Place, you know in the kind of ‘80s, early ‘90s, Australian literature was very much rural fiction, or coming of age story set on the coast kind of thing. And that was what I identified as most of what I was mostly reading when I picked up picked up an Australian book, and of course those stories do exist, but most of Australia's lives in suburbs or cities. So, there’s kind of this sense of, where are these stories.
I think this started to change a little bit in the late ‘90s, early Noughties, with kind of grunge literature. You know, Luke Davies and Andrew McGahan and Christos Tsiolkas. But yeah, I mean I don't think I have changed that. I think there has been a tide, you know of change. I think you know, people like Melissa Lukashenko, Behrouz Boochani, Tony Birch, Ellen van Neerven and Randa Abdel-Fatah, Alice Paul. You know, there is a whole group of writers now that I think, imagine if they'd been around when I was fifteen and was devouring literature, and I think it's a really powerful thing. And also, I think to see us all I guess feeding into each other's stories, you know if you read these books alongside each other you really do get this picture of Australia, as you should, you know with any kind of national literature. And so yeah, I mean I don't think I've been…I think I'm a drop in an ocean of change, I guess.
ASTRID: Maxine can you give anyone listening advice on how they could sit down and start to write their own story or the story of their family.
MAXINE: I think write what comes to you first. So, with The Hate Race, part of the process – and I think you probably see this particularly in the chapters the setting of early ‘90s, was what do I remember of the ‘90s. You know it doesn't necessarily have to be about my family. So I had whole pages that were like, lolly gobble bliss bombs, you know these popcorn things, and slap bands, and scrunchies, and fluoro and big earrings, and a lot of those things actually ended up going in, and like, no they weren't essential to the story but, you know – what was I watching on television?
So, thinking about those things that come to you easily, maybe before you think about the narrative. Asking questions, so asking my mum to tell me that story again about when you came to Australia, and you stayed in that hotel. And if you ask someone to tell their story they come to life you know, particularly I think if they’re older people. Sometimes there's a reluctance but if you poke them enough, the information flows. And I think, yeah just think being genuine – so thinking about, if I'm going to write a story about my life now, what's important in my life now – could be your iPhone, you know, it could be the bus ride to school every day, it could be I always wear red socks and that's my thing. So, having those kind of things, and working out what story you want to tell, so not just going, I'm going to tell the story of my family. What specifically is it about your family at this point in time that is interesting and that you're going to tell? So, is it the story of your parents divorce, or is it the story of the fact that you move houses a lot, and that's been a really intriguing thing. So, I'm not trying to put absolutely everything into the work but finding a thread.
ASTRID: I think having asked what someone should do if they are considering writing their own story or that of their family, are there any danger zones that you could recommend people avoid.
MAXINE: I think I try to operate on and ‘do no harm’ principle, okay. So, is this person going to be exposed. So, things like changing names you know, changing the suburb that someone lives in or whatever you have to do. They might still recognise it but they're not going to have every neighbour knocking on the door saying, ‘Hi are you from The Hate Race?’ I think, is it your story to tell? So, thinking of how would I feel, for example if my Anglo Australian neighbour wrote The Hate Race, so wrote the story of this kid living next door to them you know suffered racism. And I think, yeah, I mean I hate to impose rules. I think…. just don't be horrible about it.
ASTRID: That is good life advice, Maxine. It's very good life advice.