Reviewed by Kiran Bhat
The Hate Race
by Maxine Benaba Clarke
Paperback, April 2018, ISBN: 9780733640421, RRP $22.99
There is a question that those who are born out of multiple heritages and nationalities often rue. It is a question often uttered from a place of genuine curiousity, as well as a desire to understand a person based on their appearance, which, in the mindset of the person asking the question, is different-looking from them. If it is asked in a backpackers hostel in Vietnam, with nationalities ranging from Argentinian to Armenian, the question tends to hold less weight. If it is conversely asked in a homogenous nation with little exposure to people of different racial origins, such as Turkmenistan, one often supposes it can be answered with nothing negative to its intent. However, what does the question, ‘where are you from?’ mean in a country as multi-racial and multi-origin as Australia? And, what does it mean, to be constantly asked that question, from the day that you are born, in the land that is meant to be your own?
The Hate Race is a memoir by Maxine Benaba Clarke that probes this very question in an aching way. Clarke was born in a suburb of Sydney in 1979 to immigrant parents (British by nationality, but Jamaican and Guyanese by blood). In 1980s Australia, Clarke was constantly reminded that her mixture, her parent’s story, her existence as a result of it, was not of the norm, and was a place from which she was meant to be ostracised and otherised. One of the most telling examples of this dehumanisation came from being called Student of the Week in her Grade One Class. As student of the week, Maxine, like any other student, is expected to stand up in front of the class, tell the students a little bit about herself, and then get back to work. During Maxine’s presentation, she says the things that any other school kid of her age would say. ( such as ‘ her favourite colour [is] yellow, or she ‘started a dance class last week, but [she didn’t] like it very much.’) Her teacher, Mrs Kingsley, immediately cuts her off. She gets to the point. She asks Maxine,‘“Where are you from?”’
Clarke tries to answer the question, first by answering that she comes from her mother’s stomach, and then her vagina. Furious by her referencing of female anatomy, Mrs Kingsley demands Clarke to open up on the country from which Maxine Benaba Clarke’s parents come from. She tells them England. This immediately gets a rebuke from another boy, who swears that ‘[his] nanna is from England and [Clarke’s] parents aren’t like her.’ This comment, along with Mrs Kingsley’s incessant demand for Clarke to question her own parents about their origins, emboldens other students to think outloud, and one of them asks, ‘“What do… people like you… feel like?”’ At the end of the ordeal, the students are asked to write their impressions of the classmate who was student of the week onto a cardboard poster. Though Clarke’s friend in class takes the time to write humanising comments, the majority of the comments on the card are the following:
Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family is from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.
Maxine is nice and Maxine is black.
Maxine is friendly.
Maxine is not Australian.
Maxine is brown and does dancing.
Maxine has a black family and a little brother.
Maxine doesn’t know about her feelings.
Maxine is brown.
She is brown.
She has brown skin.
Structurally, the way Clarke has written down the lines of the people who wrote about her is a scaffolding of its own. Most of the comments focus on the fact that Maxine is first-and-foremost of a different skin color, and even when the comments are race-neutral, they are often paired with a comment related to her race (‘Maxine is brown and does dancing,’ for example). There is also a sense that a certain form of innocence is being lost, and that Clarke is being asked to go on trial for something that is not a crime. Clarke is meant to feel that she has to see herself as different first, and like everyone else second. In this usage of, ‘where are you from?’ the goal of the question is not to make someone feel like they are special for being unique, or that there is another history that makes them who they are. It is meant to make it clear that due to a set of innate and random categories, you are not like everyone else, and you have to remain in that box that society has assigned you, to act as if you are only valuable to a community if you are in that box, and to never feel free to question who you could be, if such a box were removed, and you were allowed to be evaluated on your own terms.
From the day of early childhood to the teenage years, Clarke consistently takes moments of her life, interrogates them, and gives them a certain form of literary justice. I wouldn’t say a poetic justice, because Clarke isn’t trying to write poetically. She is giving a record of what it means to be born as a foreigner in your own country, and the existential challenges which come throughout. Clarke is constantly made to represent random African countries she has nothing to do with (this is made particularly apparent when she makes up an African dance and performs it in front of her school as a teenager, and is applauded for being ‘authentic’). She is also constantly referred to as ugly at best, and with racial epithets, at worst. Certain aspects of the book are cloying. Clarke often feels this need to begin or end her chapters constantly with some reference to the journey of her ancestors, often at times where it has nothing to do with her actual narrative. It is also when she tries to write poetically, often out of nowhere, that her writing fails. Clarke is at her best when she is keeping it real and saying things as they passed.
In twenty four chapters, I felt like I lived Clarke’s life in her book. I also came to a conclusion of my own. If I were to take a lesson from Clarke’s work, it is that one’s personal tragedies, traumas, and troubles are the spark which lead us to want to create narrative. No matter how much we aspire to write outside of our perspective, or want to inhabit the minds of others, we will always turn back to those lifelong problems, lodged into us during our childhood, those horrific formational years which forced us to write in the first place.
About the reviewer: Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. An avid world traveler, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne.