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Growing up African in Australia review by Marie Lukic

  • Edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • With Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan
  • By Black Ink ‘Uncorrected Proof…’


Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Introduction to Growing up African in Australia captures the exhilarating journey the African diaspora community experienced while reading and editing this text. There is such pathos in this anthology of evocative stories and poetry, that explores their journey to a destination some pictured as heaven–but the harshness of transition to Australia is fully captured. Divided into sections, this text includes the powerful opening  Roots.  Within the anthology lies a sense of urgency, for it is critical the African diaspora community communicates shared experience with Australia and the world. I received a complementary copy from the 2018 VATE Conference with a request for a review.

Growing up African in Australia, an anthology which emerges from origins of African migration, presents the historical panorama of African Diaspora migration to Australia as far back as the first fleet, with John Caesar, servant of ‘St Paul …Parish, England’ who originated from Madagascar, West Indies. Clarke evocatively captures the pressure cooker of government policies and sandwiches key historical cameos together in her introduction by capturing brilliant black characters who played memorable roles in early Australian history. Clarke outlines the sheer breadth of the origins of this varied community ‘including Somalia, South Sudan, Zambia, Jamaica, Kenya, Guyana and Egypt.’

In addition, the decision to call the opening section Roots  immediately evokes  the historical crises of slavery, yet this response to diaspora migrating to Australia is moving and immediate, a powerful root that taps into the tree of life of diaspora experience. A story that sets a keynote for the anthology is Kirsty Marillier’s Potato Country, a narrative of the journey of immigration to southwestern Australia. The intense shock of a new culture is conveyed by the images of her mother weeping in church and her father locking himself into the study.   Anyone who has been locked into a foreign culture for a period of time may relate to such isolation. Marillier’s story, and the prose and poetry that follows, open a room of understanding about blackness as a lived experience, which combines with the isolation and alienation of immigration.

Another very striking and skillfully rendered story, Grace Williams’ Ravenswood magnifies the shock of being torn from one culture and dumped into another. She conveys a sense of a deep freeze  and confusion she experienced on her arrival to Tasmania, which her franker self experiences as a ‘nightmare’.  Her family is thrust into IOM, International Organization for Migration, squeezed into a tent shack in a state of turmoil, ripped away from Ghana ‘in a rush.’

Furthermore, Williams, describes herself as ‘polite Christian girl’, and conveys the housing commission setting, after leaving without farewelling  friends and journeying to her housing accommodation in Launceston. Williams’ compilation of harsh details magnifies the intensity of the emotional freeze experienced on her arrival to Tasmania, after a sudden departure as if she was ripped from her homeland, and transplanted into an urban concrete landscape. Williams strives to build contrast in her depiction of Ravenswood.

Notably rejection, sometimes by families, experienced by diaspora dating whites is captured. The brutal bullying and hairpulling, part of growing up for us all, I guess, but more targeted because of the importance of diaspora hair as an indicator of unique identity, is a recurring motif throughout the anthology. Mixed marriages and the beauty of the various shades of skin colour unify the text, as the challenges faced by the community are depicted. The collection would be valuable as an historical or English text to study at VCE, I believe.  There is a powerful focus on skin-colour in this collection. At times yearning to be other than the narrators are is evident, along with accompanying self-negation and rejection. Yet, in some stories in particular, there is, a celebration of the African diaspora, accompanied by the exploration of the complexity of the experience of being black. Diaspora wants the community to feel what they feel, know what they know, and understand their identity and the challenges they face.  The collection evoked my memories of the Africans I met as a young girl, students at RMIT from the Sudan, an intellectual and thoughtful group.  Yet Diaspora is more varied and ranges from highly educated to streetwise.

Importantly,  dance, music and church form the fabric of traditional diaspora culture. For the most part, the text is a beautifully crafted and constructively establishes what it means to be black, while it evocatively shares the human condition and challenges of modern migration.