Books

Maxine Beneba Clarke talks ‘How Decent Folk Behave’, feminism, and writing advice

How Decent Folk Behave is a deeply emotional, vibrant exploration of both the grief of the world we know now and the tentative hope of the future to come.

How Decent Folk Behave (Hachette) easily deserves a place among the must-read books of 2021. Using the events of the past two years as her drawing board, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s newest poetry collection is a beautiful portrait of the anxieties, joys, griefs, hopes, and connections — that we gained and lost — throughout the tumultuous years of the pandemic.

Last week, we sat down with Maxine who tuned into our chat from Victoria — on the precipice of eased restrictions and a “freedom” of sorts, both a terrifying and exciting prospect. Graciously, Maxine gave us some of her time to reveal some stellar insight into her experience as an Australian writer, the influence of intersectional feminism on her work, and the transformative literary ethos of hope that underlined many of the poems in How Decent Folk Behave. 

MBC

HAPPY: You’re very experienced in working across genres, you’ve written fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, even children’s books. What initially drew you to pick up writing?

MAXINE: Well, I was always that kid in school that would write 10 pages, when we were asked to write a one-page story. You’d have to wrestle the book away from me. I think it partly comes from a desire to tell stories that I wasn’t able to read when I was younger. I grew up in Western Sydney, my parents migrated to Australia in 1976 and we were the only African diaspora family for a long time, and for miles around. The books I saw in the library, and the only things I had the opportunity to read (outside of books sent from family overseas) were predominantly white, English, and American authors. So, it was partly a desire to tell my stories and the stories of my community.

HAPPY: That’s amazing. In How Decent Folk Behave, you chose to write a suite of poetry — rather than the other genres you’ve written in before — what drew you to the form?

MAXINE: Poetry was my first love. I studied poetry at university when I did my degree in Creative Writing, about 20 to 25 years ago. And I did it along with a “career” degree, I also studied a Law degree because I thought I could never make a living as a writer. I didn’t know anyone who made a living that way. And so, the first few books I published — published by a tiny publisher, and read by maybe 500 people — were books of poetry. So the poetic form of How Decent Folk Behave is very much a coming home for me; it’s the medium I fell in love with when I first fell in love with writing, even though there’s been fiction, non-fiction, essays, and journalism in the intervening period. Also, in this day and age, I can understand why poetry is making a re-emergence. Most of the writing that we do on a daily basis is in a similar short-form: emails, tweets, Instagram posts… that ability to condense something complicated. Poetry lets you do that same thing, with a type of beauty.

HAPPY: That’s such an insightful perspective. How do you approach writing poetry versus your prose?

MAXINE: Poetry for me is an image, or a feeling, that comes first. For example, there’s a poem in the book called Fridays which is about the Friday Strike for Climate movement. That poem was written looking at footage of kids on Fridays, heading off with their backpacks to climate change protests. That image was just so powerful, looking at the abandoned schools and children leaving because the world is burning. I guess that could’ve become a piece of short fiction, it could’ve become political commentary or an opinion piece, but it seemed like such a powerful, poetic image. And that’s why I think that it ended up as a poem, because of the strength of that image. I also tend to gravitate towards poetry when things are almost too difficult to discuss in any other form.


HAPPY: If we look back into history, there’s such a strong relationship between poetry and resistance, protest and justice, especially when you look at writers like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde. Many of the themes in How Decent Folk Behave also revolve around social justice issues. What do you think it is about poetry that lends it to be such a powerful tool to communicate the experience of oppression?

MAXINE: I think with poetry, you can tell the story, while also cracking open language to give a really powerful feeling. You can go, “I want the reader to feel grief about this issue.” You’re not as constrained within the use of sentence structure, building characters, or even the standard “introduction, complication, conclusion” format of fiction. I think it’s that emotive element that allows poetry to be the history-keeper of a lot of traumatic events. And, I would also include lyricists in that description.

HAPPY: Yeah, definitely.

MAXINE: Like Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn, or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit… when you see these songs on the page, they’re essentially poetry. And I think it allows you to sit in those heavy emotions, without necessarily having to read 200 pages of a book. You can read it, and then either put it down or walk away, or sit in it and think about it. The fact that you don’t need a lot of words to be able to emotionally connect with people. I think that’s part of the attraction of poetry as well.

HAPPY: While we’re on the topic of emotion, How Decent Folk Behave reads as a very immediate documentation of the times that we’re living in. Did writing the book give you the ability to process certain emotions that you were experiencing throughout this period? Maybe in a way that wouldn’t have been available to you, had you not written them down?

MAXINE: Yeah. For me, all of my writing is a way of processing the world. Hopefully, processing it in a way that’s going to be helpful to someone else — even if it’s just one person. Because this collection was written over the past two years, we were actually in a pandemic for most of it. And so, we can’t process these things with friends, or in the office, because you’re not necessarily seeing these people. And if you are, you’re not going to want to get on a Zoom call and go “let’s talk about how bad climate change is, and how the world is burning,” [laughs]. So yeah, it’s definitely my way of processing. And How Decent Folk Behave — more than any of my other books — feels like an invitation to have a conversation about a lot of these issues. It probably has that tone because of the fact that I couldn’t have people in my home, I couldn’t go to writers’ festivals and take questions from audience members, so it feels like the book is very much a documentation of where we are at this point in time, from my perspective. It’s a strange prospect for a book, to try and capture time. There are some elements of my book that we’ve already moved on from, so while “capturing time” does make How Decent Folk Behave distinct, it also dates it, which has made the project a really interesting process.

 

HAPPY: That ties in really wonderfully with the epigraph of your book, a quote from Nina Simone: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” While I was reading the collection, there was one common theme that I picked up consistently throughout the chapters: hope. When people think of having lived in a pandemic for the past two years, hope isn’t necessarily the first emotion that comes to mind. How important was that for you to communicate to your readers?

MAXINE: I’m really glad that you said that. There’s this fear that this collection really deals with trying times, but for me, there is always hope. In a time of so much global death, restrictions, and all the justice movements, seeing how young people have stayed resilient and coped with the pandemic, that’s really hopeful to me. My way of processing things is to look at the problem and try to think about what could happen that could change things in the next 20 years. For example, the poem something sure, which is about domestic violence, looks at what needs to, and can, change. That poem has a tone of both joy and despair. While it does say that maybe it’s too late to save ourselves, it tells us that maybe we can save our daughters, if we teach our sons to be better. Hope is just so important. Without it, things are really dire. So, I try to find it everywhere I possibly can.

HAPPY: It’s a sentiment that comes through beautifully in your book.

MAXINE: Thank you.

HAPPY: I do want to draw attention to some of the poems in How Decent Folk Behave, the first being trouble walking. Both the poem and its namesake chapter detail the brutality exacted upon Black women’s bodies; the prevalence of racism in the medical industry. In the chapter, alongside yourself, you talk of Anarcha and Henrietta Lacks. It gives an overwhelming sense of how long this kind of inequality has stretched over time. Why was it important for you to bring these women, and these experiences, to the forefront of your poetry?

MAXINE: That’s a great question. It’s that concept of the “butterfly effect” — the idea where everything is interconnected. And so, when you look at things like vaccine hesitancy and how communities of colour are disproportionately affected, but then you hear commentary that “oh, it’s because they don’t want to go to the doctor” or “they don’t want to get the vaccine.” The main thing is: it’s not as simple as that. Why is it like this? It’s because, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the bodies of Black people have been traumatised, brutalised, and experimented on, and that there are people alive that have those experiences in living memory. Thinking about myself, I’m double-vaxxed but I still thought about how I’d rather get the vaccine in a cattle-call situation, where I know there are another 100 people in close proximity. That’s a result of my negative experiences with medical practitioners. While vaccine hesitancy is a complex issue, in the broader context,  it’s really just about taking the time to think about how this trauma has impacted simple behaviours, and how they are a part of a long historical legacy.

With the poems, it’s not a shock to realise how long these things have been going on, but it’s a shock to realise how few people know about it. Henrietta Lacks’ life only became prominent because a book was written, then a movie was written, about her story. I’m sure I’m not the first Black author to be writing about these issues, so the importance isn’t about rewriting history, but more to serve as a reminder to think about where we are now, and how we got here. That section of the book is also the most autobiographical, it’s writings of my own experiences against world experiences. The most difficult part of writing poetry is that sense of vulnerability, saying that “this is my experience, and it’s something that needs to be talked about.” Also, I do feel a responsibility of sorts. I’m at a point in my career now, where I have a platform and if I write a book, there’s a high chance of it being published — so it’s that idea of using that platform to raise issues that might be difficult for other people to raise.

HAPPY: What I found particularly interesting about that chapter, was how it focused on the intersection of gender and race. It was a woman’s body, but it was also a Black body. That theme of intersectionality came across in my reading of another piece from the book, my feminism. In the acknowledgements, I believe it was commissioned for International Womens’ Day 2017?

MAXINE: Yes.

 

HAPPY: I wanted to ask, what motivated you to write about intersectionality in 2017, and would you have written the same poem, if you had been asked to write for IWD in 2021?

MAXINE: That’s interesting. At the time, I was asked to write a blog post for the Victorian Women’s Trust for IWD 2017. I think if I was asked to write this year, it would be similar, but because I’ve already written My Feminism, it would be perhaps a Black woman’s manifesto. But in 2017, I’d read Flavia Dzodan’s essay titled My feminism will be capitalist, appropriative and bullshit merchandise, which had me thinking about the frustrations with modern feminism. Particularly, the way it sidelines difference, purportedly for the sake of the common good. Hopefully, the poem was voicing the concerns of a lot of women who have intersectional lives, whether they’re women of colour, or women with disabilities, women who didn’t feel that contemporary feminism included them, or saw their difference, or was going out to bat for them. It was also a call to arms for feminists that could help change that, whether it be white feminists or any of the others I’ve mentioned. In the end, feminism has to evolve. And a lot of poems in How Decent Folk Behave probably deal with that idea. For example, the poem me too is about the women who get left behind minding the children, while other women go off to march. So, issues of class intersections. That desire for feminism to evolve was a real preoccupation for writing both the poem and the book.

how decent folk behave book

HAPPY: In particular, there was one line I wanted to discuss from my feminism, which reads: my feminism screams / about equal rights / in the country where I live / while in the country / of my parents birth / corrective rape is still a thing…” Beyond the context of feminism, I felt that it tapped into a broader statement: a collision of two worlds, between immigrant parents and first-generation children. A tale of two countries. What has been your experience of navigating your own Afro-Caribbean-Australian identity?

MAXINE: Yeah, so my Dad was born in Jamaica and my Mum was born in Guyana. They both grew up in London, so they had that Black-British experience, until ’76 when they came out here. That line in the poem was both a lament, to say that there’s so much privilege in the Western world (in terms of progress), and an acknowledgment of that difference, but also saying that you can campaign for both. The West Indies is not particularly religiously conservative, but particularly for people of colour that come from religiously conservative backgrounds, there’s always this thing of: “how can you be campaigning for feminism, when women from your country cover their heads,” or “if you were in your country, you would be raped.” Those kinds of things. The line’s an acknowledgment of that complexity, and that you can campaign for two places, that may be in different places in terms of history or rights. That your acceptance of this complexity, of this difference, doesn’t make you any less of a feminist. And my experience with identity… I suppose a positive thing is that I’ve seen myself more in Australian feminism in the past ten years than I have prior.

HAPPY: Wow. That’s powerful.

MAXINE: And it’s probably because of feminists of colour becoming more prominent. Because of the work that people before me have done to talk about these issues, and with their work finally coming to fruition. Even though I still feel strongly enough about intersectionality to write this poem, there’s a lot of women that got me to this place.

HAPPY: Speaking of your own influences, are there any particular poets that you’ve been reading recently? Or any writers that have significantly influenced the construction of How Decent Folk Behave? 

MAXINE: Recently, I’ve been reading the poetry of my contemporaries in Australia. I always have, but poets like Alison Whittaker, Ellen van Neervan, Tony Birch. Historically, a lot of the poetic world has tended to move forward through movements. You have the Beat poets or the Dub poets, but that notion of seeing Australian poets, whether they’re First Nations poets, or migrant background poets, doing work that is adjacent to my work. It makes me feel not so alone. Writing poetry is such a solitary pursuit, it’s just you and a piece of paper, a pen, or a laptop. So, reading work that my colleagues have put out reaffirms the sense that my book isn’t just by itself, it’s part of a…

HAPPY: Community?

MAXINE: Yeah! And an ongoing dialogue between our community and our readers.

HAPPY: At this stage in your career, you’re very experienced and accomplished. Is there any advice you would give young women of colour looking to pursue writing? Is there any advice that you wish you had been given?

MAXINE: Great question. Read, is my first piece of advice. Devour the work of people that you see yourself having that community with, that relationship that I described earlier. Find your people — whether it’s writing groups, or getting together a group of people trying to do the same thing and meeting up with them. I think a sense of community is really important. Especially, with writing being such a solitary pursuit. And also, find your allies — whether it’s an editor of a magazine or a publisher at a publishing house. Find those gaps and see where you can slip through. It’s still really difficult to get published in Australia. It feels like every year, more and more people decide that they want to write [laughs]. To get published still feels like a miracle for me.

In terms of writing, I guess the number one piece of advice would be: don’t try and write like someone else. In my younger years, I had those phases of “I love these poets, I’m going to write exactly like them!” Real progress comes when you write like yourself because no one else can do that. If you can manage to do it, that’s the one thing you’ll always have.

How Decent Folk Behave is out now via Hachette.