For me, inspiration is everywhere, including in the ordinary. I don’t have a muse. I’m not sure if I quite believe they exist. The drive to write, for me, is not a mysterious existential urge. Inspiration is literally everywhere. It was in my preschool playground in suburban Sydney; in my parents’ migration to Australia in 1976; in the 2011 Tottenham riots, which spread like wildfire through the working-class suburbs of England; in the liner notes on the back of the records in my father’s collection; in a Test match played 60 years ago by the West Indian cricket team; in love; in laughter; in hatred; in art; in the writers who and the words that came before me; in the work of Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, J. California Cooper and Maya Angelou; in the song lyrics of the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert movie soundtrack, circa 1994.
Billy-Ray was a preacher’s son,
and when his daddy would visit he’d come along.
When they gathered round and started talking,
that’s when Billy would take me walking,
out through the backyard we’d go walking,
then he’d look into my eyes.
Lord knows, to my surprise,
the only one who could ever reach me
was the son of a preacher man.
The only boy who could ever teach me
was the son of a preacher man.
I bought the soundtrack on cassette tape, with money I had earnt from my first weekend job, washing and sweeping up hair at the cut-price hair salon in a local mall. There’s a story there. Because inspiration is everywhere. I’d traipsed up and down the mall, résumé under my arm, from shop to shop, knowing a black 16-year-old in our white-picket-fence area would be unlikely to catch a break. Even the manager at the food court McDonald’s had looked me over dubiously. Thinking, perhaps, that he wasn’t sure if Macca’s patrons would want me to handle their food. It was the mid nineties. Australia looked different then.
But I had these braids, you see. Way past shoulder length, tightly woven, free-falling and shoelace thin. Let’s take a swerve from the Priscilla soundtrack for a moment. When I was 16, braids were big. Brandy wore them on the hit television show Moesha. Salt-N-Pepa had made the chunky chin-length variety super hip. So when I fronted up at a cheap hair salon asking for a job, they saw not just low teen award wages, but a walking billboard—even though they didn’t braid hair. I got the job. I didn’t really care why.
And I got an education in that place. They paid me $6 an hour, which I later found out was illegal. It was supposed to be at least $9.20. Irene from Home and Away on Channel 7 came in one day to get her hair coloured, and the excitement threw the whole salon into a nervous spin.
One day, the salon boss, a woman in her mid thirties, fired a hip new young hairdresser in only his second week of work. She told me (obviously forgetting I was still in grade 10): ‘To be honest, it’s not even the fact that he was snorting cocaine in the back room during work time. It’s that he didn’t even have the decency to offer me any. I pay his wages, for crying out loud.’
I didn’t quite know what ‘cocaine’ was, but I knew it was ‘illegal hard drugs’ and therefore the situation was dramatic and intriguing. Because of my fascination, I remember everything about that afternoon, and that exchange. My boss’s hair was a red, chestnut colour: twisted on to the top of her head with a giant black butterfly clip. There were ash-blonde ringlet curls on the white tiled salon floor that I hadn’t swept up yet. The air conditioning in the shopping centre was playing up, so my white work T-shirt was stuck to my back. I filed all of this away—inspiration—and never really thought about it until wondering how it had been that I could afford to buy the Priscilla soundtrack. Storytelling inspiration is all over the place.
But getting back to ‘Son of a Preacher Man’: the Priscilla album was one of the first cassette tapes I bought with my own money. How was this inspirational for my early work? The liner notes. The first time I realised I never really read traditional short fiction growing up was in an interview with a journalist, after the release of my debut short-fiction collection, Foreign Soil. I was asked what short-fiction writers had inspired me as a really young writer. I rattled off the names of collections I’d read recently or in early adulthood and liked: The Boat by Nam Le; Drown by Junot Díaz; A Piece of Mine by J. California Cooper. But I read these books in my mid twenties—shortly before, or even while, I was working on my own fiction. What about before that? Well, there was the hair salon job, which allowed me to choose my own music, which allowed me access to the liner notes and short-fiction masterclasses like ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.
My father was an avid record collector. And by avid, I mean fanatic. One side of our lounge room was stacked wall-to-wall with records. His turntables were so precious they were off limits to us kids. The records ranged from Joan Armatrading to Simon and Garfunkel, Prince to Miles Davis and the Eurythmics. Some of the lyrics were the greatest short-fiction pieces I had ever heard. There was Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’:
She’s a rich girl,
she don’t try to hide it:
diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
He’s a poor boy,
empty as a pocket:
empty as pocket with nothing to lose
There was Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’:
See, my old man’s got a problem.
He lives with the bottle,
that’s the way it is.
He says his body’s too old for working.
His body’s too young to look like this.
My Mama went off and left him.
She wanted more from life than he could give.
I said, ‘Somebody’s got to take care of him.’
So I quit school, and that’s what I did.
The music crooned from massive speakers placed either side of our lounge room, but the lyrics were printed on the back of the record covers, which we kids weren’t supposed to be dog-earing. But with the money I made from that first job, I was able to buy my own cassette tapes—and CDs too, when they came into circulation. (Yes, it was that long ago I’m talking about now.) Often the lyric sheets were exquisitely photographed, meticulously designed little short-fiction booklets you could curl up on your bed with on a winter afternoon, and read and re-read. These were the first short stories that inspired me. Inspiration is everywhere, if only you can see it.
It’s perhaps the question that, as an author writing now across several genres, I’m asked most often by readers, students and aspiring writers. Where do I get my ideas from; what was the kernel for this story? I’m a poet, first and foremost. To be a poet, I think, is always to see possibility. To look at the world and its triumphs and ailments sideways, inside out and upside down. Not as a matter of craft, but as a natural register in life. It is to set the camera to full exposure, and to understand this is the only way you’re capable of existing. Not to shield your eyes from horrors, or to cushion your conscience against guilt. It is to dissect and scrutinise yourself as much you dissect and scrutinise the world.
In the early and emerging days of writing and publishing poetry, even the most aching and regretful of encounters could precipitate verse.
i refused somebody a dollar today
and now / i think he
might’ve really needed it
was there armageddon
in the way my head shook
knowing yeah / i had no coins
but there was five dollars curled
right down there in my pocket
he didn’t smell so good
i was reading some paper
that might’ve cost more than he
even asked me for / i can’t
remember / and besides
i / don’t really want to
think about what i did
he wore threadbare converse
like mushroom undersides
he might’ve been asking / for
the only meal in two days / or
a bus fare home / to his daughter
i / didn’t think about how
hard it would’ve been for him to ask
in the first place
it was the tail end
of a rough day / and i
wanted him to move on
he had already approached everybody
on the station / was i his
final chance at a bed tonight
the forecast says it might
get down to zero / out there
and me / i might’ve been
somebody’s / armageddon
On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers attacked the London Underground rail system. My brother and sister were both living and working in London at the time. I remember my mother and I, here in Australia, continuously texting each other to see if there was news of them as events unfolded on our television sets. Eventually we heard. Serendipitously, both of them had been evacuated from the underground rail network at the same station, and they’d come face to face with each other on the street.
Fifty-two people were killed in the attacks. London descended into anger, grief and mourning. Two weeks later, Jean Charles de Meneze, an innocent unarmed Brazilian man, was shot dead by London Met officers on the underground. A total of 11 shots were fired. Meneze was shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder. He died at the scene.
I visited my mother’s house the following weekend, and I remember her phone instructions to my brother one evening, regarding his work commute: Walk slowly in the underground tunnels. If somebody yells stop, just stop. Carry your belongings in a plastic bag, and if you have to wear a backpack, buy one of those clear ones. I was about four months pregnant at the time, and I remember thinking about the child I was about to have, and the legacy of intergenerational trauma, and the lives of black and brown boys in the West. Inspiration is everywhere. Sometimes the darkness is where the poetry thrives.
don’t never flag no other car
down for help don’t you never
flag no other car down
black boys been shot for less
and i want you coming home
every single night / baby
if you ever runnin home
an somebody yell stop
for the love of jesus / chile
just stop / stop an put your hands in the air
stop an put your hands in the air
an get down on your knees an
don’t make no sudden movements
My parents were born in Jamaica and Guyana, but grew up in London: their families migrating there when they were around preschool age. They migrated to Australia together in 1976, several years after the abolition of the White Australia policy. I was born in Sydney in 1979. I grew up where my parents bought their first home, in what was then the sleepy suburban rural-fringe suburb of Kellyville (now suburban sprawl, and proud home of the building phenomenon known in urban slang as the McMansion). Virtually nothing much I considered interesting happened in that place. There was one local fish and chip shop, Nicks; a smallgoods shop, Comito’s, a post office, baker, butcher, chemist, petrol station and a Mitre Ten hardware store. That was basically the Kellyville shopping strip back then.
The village was also home to the fringe religious sect the Exclusive Brethren. They could be seen walking the streets: women wearing chequered scarves on their waist-length hair and dresses cut to their ankles, the men always in collared shirts and slacks. Growing up in Kellyville in the 1980s and 1990s was in part idyllic and in part a minefield of racism, hypervisibility and exclusion. But somehow, even as an emerging poet, it never occurred to me that in this social situation inspiration could be lurking.
In adulthood, new friends would ask me where I grew up, and when I told them, they’d say, ‘Fuck. What was that like, for someone like you?’ It was only then that I began to ask myself: what was it like? This was about five years ago now. Racism and xenophobia in Australia were yet again rearing their ugly heads everywhere. Friends of colour were reporting hostile racist comments and encounters more frequently. When I talked to Anglo-Australian friends about racist incidents that had happened, they’d sometimes say things like, ‘Just ignore it. That’s one person, who’s obviously crazy.’ They didn’t seem to understand properly the sustained and vicious lifelong campaign racism often is. I would say: ‘No. That person’s not crazy. That person’s a racist. They’re different things.’ I’d watch them shift, uncomfortably.
I couldn’t properly articulate, in just one conversation, the way it feels to be slowly eroded, over a lifetime, by institutionalised, casual and overt racism. So the idea came to me to pen a childhood memoir. Not a memoir in the traditional family-story, episodic sense. But what if I could line up every significant race-based encounter I could vividly recall, in chronological order, leaving out everything else. What if I could map the rise and fall of racism in my childhood against Australia’s political landscape, as an act of memoir. The Hate Race was born.
Suburban Australia. Sweltering heat. Three bedroom blond brick. Family of five. Beat up Ford Falcon. Vegemite on Toast. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life is just like all the other Aussie kids on her street. Except for this one, glaring, inescapably obvious thing.
The precipitator for writing the memoir was testifying; mark-making; adding another dimension to the national dialogue about race and belonging. I was inspired, in this sense, by books that had come before me. Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough for You? Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s young adult fiction novel Does My Head Look Big in This? My Place by Sally Morgan.
I wanted to break away from the idea, as well, that memoir writing by Australian migrant writers of colour had to be a gesture of triumph, inspiration, gratefulness and hope—the good migrant story.
Go back to your own fucking country. But I was born here, the child of Black British parents, in 1979, in a maternity ward of Sydney’s Rye Hospital, on the stolen land of the Dharug people. My ancestors were part of the Atlantic slave trade. They were dragged screaming from their homes in West Africa and chained by their necks and ankles, deep in the mouldy hulls of slave ships, destined to become free labour for the New World. Some died in transit to the Caribbean—bodies thrown overboard, washed clean of the blood, sweat and faeces in which they’d spent most of the harrowing journey. If they survived, they found themselves in a nightmare: put to work on some of the harshest plantations on earth, overseen by some of the cruellest masters in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. I am the descendant of those unbroken.
The artistic imagination is like a Pandora’s box. Once opened, all manner of terrifying things crawl out, but with them come the extraordinary things. And you learn how to tame the monsters. Amid the mirroring of injustices or human awfulness come hope, beauty, understanding and possibility. Writing The Hate Race also inspired my second children’s picture book, Wide Big World.
The Hate Race opens with the story of my first day at preschool, and my first traumatic encounter with the schoolyard bully. My picture book Wide Big World is an intervention into this kind of childhood bullying—a story about what might have happened, had the schoolyard collectively stepped in to assist. It opens:
On Tuesday at kinder, under the mulberry tree,
Izzy Jones stared over at me.
‘You’re brown Belle!’ she said, her eyes big-saucer-wide.
I said ‘Yeah, I am!’ And I flashed her a smile …
Mr Jay laughed. ‘Nature’s smart, and wonderfully wild.
She sprinkles her sparkle into every child.’
Sometimes inspiration encourages you to tell the story, and sometimes it urges you to flip the script.
My short-fiction collection, Foreign Soil, was the first book of prose I published, after almost exclusively penning poetry. The stories were written over a period of four to five years, and the precipitators for each narrative are broad. ‘Harlem Jones’ follows a young black British teenager on the day of the 2011 riots in working-class Tottenham. I’d sat on a couch in Australia following along as disenfranchised young people from all different backgrounds smashed up the suburb where my father grew up. The riots spread to other areas through social media. CCTV footage was circulated on the news: stills of young people looting and burning. Police appealed to the public to come forward and identify them. I remember wondering, what happened to those kids that afternoon, that day, that month, that year, that decade, that life, that brought them to the point of wielding that fiery Molotov? ‘Harlem Jones’ is one such story.
The evening sunlight hits Harlem’s face. They’ve reached the front of the crowd. The coppers are out in force, ringing the whole police station four or five deep. They’re strapped into bulletproof vests, wearing clear riot masks and carrying shields.
‘We are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark Duggan …’ A woman somewhere in the crowd starts the refrain on a megaphone, static electrifying her words. Within a minute, her voice has been joined by several hundred. The bloke standing next to Harlem, a burly middle-aged man still wearing his fluoro council-workers jacket, raises his right fist and repeatedly punches the air to the staccato mantra echoing around them.
‘We are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark …’
Harlem wishes they’d fucking stop. He—they—are not Mark. Duggan is dead. Shot by the cops at almost point blank. Mark’s mother has lost her child. Mark’s children have lost their father. They are not Mark Duggan. He is not Mark Duggan. He is Harlem fuckin Jones.
The story ‘Big Islan’ in Foreign Soil was inspired by the 1960–61 West Indian cricket team’s visit to Australia, under the captaincy of Frank Worrell. The team arrived as little-known underdogs, but by the time they departed, they were the most loved sporting team ever to have visited Australia. The series became known as the greatest ever played. It included the first tied Test in history. Prior to their departure from Australia, the team were paraded through Melbourne in open-top cars, cheered on by enormous crowds. This, for me, is a moment of cultural curiosity. How was it that a country still grappling with its colonial past, and still so mistreating the black Indigenous population, opened their hearts to these men? These events inspired me to write the story of Nathanial, an illiterate black man living in Jamaica, feeling the migratory pull of the 1960s and following the West Indian cricket team’s Australian progress in the national newspaper the Jamaican Gleaner as his reading improves.
On de fronta de paper, de West Indies cricket team dem ridin up back a lorry, waving dem cricket bat around fe de camera. Cheesy-big smile runnin cross dem face. Along de street, people cheerin wild-wild.
Perhaps this next statement will be seen by some as sacrilege, but inspiration as a writer is a privilege. Having the time and space to turn something over in your mind, be impacted by it, and enter an act of creative analysis or meditation is not a luxury always available, or available to everyone.
I work as the poet laureate for the national newspaper The Saturday Paper. Each week, since February 2019, I’ve written a poem responding to national or international political events. It’s a unique and often stressful challenge. Some poems are on topics I choose, and other topics are commissioned by the paper’s editor. I’ve written on Fraser Anning and white supremacy, the death of Melbourne woman Natalina Angok, Harmony Day, the environmental disaster unfolding in the Murray–Darling, and the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral. Writers must be inspired, and tell their truths, but they must also be able to put food on the table. Sometimes inspiration comes partly in the form of a regular pay packet.
on the western façade
the archangel michael
grand wings aloft,
was weighing souls
and the serpent hissed down
at eve, regal
as thomas the apostle
put a hand
to his brow
and ash wind dusted
the upturned faces
as bystanders wide-eyed
the hellfire blaze
the cathedral spire
a falling splendour
of gothic past days
and smoulder plumed
like anger, woken:
like a strength immortal
emerged from the tomb
and oh, the screams of the people
and the spectacle smarted
the eyes of the world
oh, notre dame
oh, liber pauperum:
the carved poor people’s book
of illiterate stone
and the smoke, it rose spiral
like sacrament incense:
like the faithful,
eight short days
before easter sunday
when the skies of paris,
ochre-scarlet, lit up
but perhaps the house burned
like no second coming;
like cult of reason,
not latin rite
like falling empire
and the sins of the clergy
and the power of the people
So for me, inspiration is everywhere, including in the ordinary. I don’t have a muse. The drive to write is not a mysterious existential urge. Inspiration is everywhere. It was in my preschool playground in suburban Sydney; in my parents’ migration to Australia in 1976; in the 2011 Tottenham riots, which spread like wildfire through the working-class suburbs of England; in the liner notes on the back of the records in my father’s collection; in a chance encounter on the street; in a Test match played 60 years ago by the West Indian cricket team; in love; in laughter; in hatred; in art; in the writers and words who came before me: Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, J. California Cooper, Maya Angelou, in the song lyrics of the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert movie soundtrack, circa 1994 and in the burning spectre of Notre Dame.
Note: A version of this text was written, and delivered as a speech, on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay respect to their elders, past, present, future and emerging, and acknowledge the lives and stories that have sung across this place for more than sixty thousand years.
Extracts in this piece are from Carrying The World, The Hate Race, Foreign Soil, Wide Big World and The Saturday Paper.
It’s an odd thing, memory. This above speech was printed just as I read it at Sydney Writers’ Festival, in May 2019 before an audience of approximately 200 people. Just before this essay was due to print, Meanjin editor Jonathan Green sent me a rather unsettling note:
Good morning…re ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ … um … it doesn’t seem to be in ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ … films crossed? ‘Pulp Fiction’?
He was definitely one hundred per cent wrong. ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was on the soundtrack, for sure. I remember singing it at the top of my lungs, into an afro-comb microphone. I even remember the tracks it was sandwiched between: ‘Finally’, and ‘Take a Letter Maria’. I googled. There were the two other songs, but without ‘Son of A Preacher Man’ sandwiched between them. He was right. Maybe there was another, earlier edition of the soundtrack. I googled some more. There wasn’t. There it is, in my memory, as clear as day. Yet, there it can’t possibly be. I definitely didn’t own the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. To this day, I haven’t even seen the film. I googled the music anyway. ‘Son of A Preacher Man’ was Track 7. Perhaps I taped the Priscilla album, and included an additional song in the recording. But that seems highly unlikely. Perhaps my sister or brother had the Pulp Fiction album, and I was somehow confused about which CD I was listening to. The two films came out around the same time. Kind of. Inspiration really is everywhere: sometimes, it seems, in your mind. •
Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of the memoir The Hate Race, the short-fiction collection Foreign Soil, the poetry collection Carrying the World, and is the editor of Best Australian Stories 2017. She writes for The Saturday Paper.