Michelle Cliff (Nov. 2, 1942-June 12, 2016) was an award-winning Jamaican novelist, essayist, critic, poet, scholar, and teacher. An influential author in Caribbean, feminist, and lesbian writings, some of her notable works include: Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, Free Enterprise, If I Could Write This In Fire, and The Land of Look Behind. Cliff's work reflected many parts of her identity, contemporary sociopolitical concerns stemming from colonialism, and a critical investment in the Caribbean and her diasporas. Her works examine the complexities of identity politics, lesbianism, colorism, colonialism/post-colonialism and revolution – both of the personal variety and the political. On June 22, 2017, we gathered at the Caribbean Philosophical Association Annual Meeting in NYC to honor her life and writing. This post includes the work of the roundtable participants. The roundtable, titled "'Writing in Fire': Honoring the Life & Legacy of Michelle Cliff" marked the second year that the Chair of Afro-Diasporic Literatures (me) and the Chair of the Initiative on Gender, Race, and Feminisms (Xhercis Mendez) joined together to propose roundtables to honor Caribbean women writers at the CPA (at the 2016 we celebrated the 10th/11th publication anniversary of M. Jacqui Alexander's Pedagogies of Crossing). This year two Ph.D. students - Keishla Rivera (Rutgers Newark) and Briona Jones (Michigan State) - joined moderator Xhercis Mendez and I to reflect on the rich inheritance Michelle Cliff has left us. Below are excerpts from the reflections which engendered a powerful and generative dialogue across several topics, fields, and interests. Michelle Cliff, Presente!
Reflection I: On Fiction As History
[Yomaira C. Figueroa, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University]
In her 1994 article, “History as Fiction, Fiction as History” Michelle Cliff asks, "How do we capture the history that remains only to be imagined?" Cliff is a textbook Caribbeanist, her work writes back to colonialism, to slavery, to the abyss, and it imagines new ways of being and knowing across untold histories of diaspora and decolonial struggles. Her essay “Journey into Speech” is a meditation on “a past bleached from our minds." She argues that this problematic of erasure, “means re-creating the art forms of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us. It means realizing our knowledge will always be wanting. It means also, I think, mixing in the forms taught us, undermining the oppressors language and co-opting or corrupting his style and turning it to our purpose.” This mixing of form, represents a turn to re-creating forms of speech and modes of knowledge and is what inspired her landmark novel No Telephone to Heaven.
Cliff builds up her work through an attentiveness to spatiality and temporality – what she calls “sites of memory.” No Telephone to Heaven for example is concerned with anti-colonial and revolutionary politics in 1970s Jamaica. It is predicated on ruination- the expansive overgrown and wild plots of Jamaican land that were once plantations. In it, a young Clare Savage is torn between worlds (Jamaica, US, England / class stratification/racism in Jamaica), and finds herself to be a motherless daughter in a motherless nation. When writing about the Caribbean she is deeply tied to the land. When writing about the U.S. she reflects on untold histories. For example, her novel Free Enterprise takes up the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant, an 19th century Black abolitionist and entrepreneur - who strategically passed for white but was known in the Black community as a Black woman. Pleasant is known as the mother of Civil Rights in San Francisco, CA and her life of passing and political power was of much interest to Cliff. This preoccupation with passing, skin color, and privilege is reflected in much of Cliff's writing: “we were colorists and we aspired to oppressor status,” she writes in the essay "If I Could Write This In Fire" about her own family in 1950s/1960s Jamaica. Cliff is one of the richest contributors to the poetics and politics of identity politics. Despite the fact that “identity politics” are constantly undermined, undervalued and under-attack, the oeuvre of her work underscores its usefulness, its necessity. She unravels the trappings of white supremacy, puts it on display and destabilizes it.
In her essay “In My Heart A Darkness” she examines how, “the template cut by the white imagination – European or American – cannot accommodate [her] appearance, speech patterns, or intellect as a West Indian.” She does not "look Jamaican", she does not "speak like a Jamaican", etc. For the racist imagination she is an impossibility. As an Afro-Puerto Rican in diaspora, born 40 years after Cliff, this resonantes deeply for I too disrupt the white imagination. My Blackness, Puerto Ricanness, accented speech, etc. do not compute. Cliff tells us that “when the white imagination is disrupted by matters of race, it becomes agitated. Its sense of neatness is disturbed. When the Other appears to be the One. Apocalypso.” In other words, Cliff's presence itself implodes the white imagination - she is (we are) the proof-in-flesh of so many untold histories. In spring 2017, my Poetics of Liberation and Relation graduate seminar had an hour-long discussion on this one sentence across a series of scenarios. Cliff provides a rich terrain indeed.
By building transnational discourses in poetry, prose, and fiction, Cliff is able to showcase the complexities of being a fair skinned Jamaican in the US, a fair-skinned Jamaican amongst a host of color stratified societies (including Jamaica where she discusses the division of labor and domestic reproduction and in South Africa where she links Apartheid with the US prison industrial complex). Some of her most well known essays are reflections on road trips and travels she took in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. She documents conversations at universities, museums, plantations, gas stations, and in cabs. She questions the absence of memory, indicting the forgetfulness and shorthand that are used under the guise of brevity. In critiquing academic discourses around "multiculturalism" she notes, “I am weary of the shorthand which passes for cultural commentary, political awareness in these times. Why can't we use more words? Why can't we take the time to say what we mean? Why must the complexity of America always be reduced to simplicity?”
What Cliff produced in her 40+ years of writing was an attempt at battling simplistic discourse that obfuscated the complexities of the Caribbean and her diaspora, of race and sexuality, and of history and memory. For Cliff the Caribbean was a place of contradiction, fragmentation, and love. To excavate unheard histories and to think of liberation she wielded those same tools: contradiction, fragmentation, and love. “We are fragmented people. My experience as a writer coming from a culture of colonialism, a culture of Black people riven from one another, my struggle to achieve wholeness from fragmentations while working within fragmentation producing work which may find its strength in its depiction of fragmentation, through form a well as content is similar to other writers whose origins are in countries defined by colonialism.” This is a women of color politic, it is a practice of relationally – where she finds possibilities, parts of her own story, and Caribbean history, in the work of others – for example reading the work of African, US, South Asian, Middle Eastern and other writers of color and recognizing their contributions to liberatory discourses and modes of resistance. Her feminist and lesbian politics were also central to how she imagined Caribbean liberation. Cliff’s practice of reading other novelists generously is a methodology of which to take hold. She builds on/around/with these works - including Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, and the work of Toni Morrison, Aurde Lorde, Derek Walcott, Aimé Césaire, Édward Kamau Brathwaite and others.
Cliff’s work is a kind of extended release potion. It is work that works slowly and efficiently on the reader who is compelled to turn the mirror and meditate on herself. As a diasporic colonial subject, I find myself hailed by both her criticism of colonialism and failures of post colonialism, but also by how she underscores how we are intimately affected by its attempt to disaffect us and to disarm us. She resisted this and her work arms us with tools to resist this too. For example she tells us that: “The test of a colonized person is to walk through a shanty town in Kingston and not bat an eye. This I cannot do. Because part of me lives there- and as I grasp more of this part I realize what needs to be done with the rest of my life.” What Michelle Cliff did until the end of her life was write and capture histories and relations and capturing "the history that remains only to be imagined?”
To discuss Reflection I, please comment below or send me a message.
Reflection II: On Land of Look Behind
[by Keishla Rivera, Ph.D. Student, Rutgers University-Newark, American Studies.]
I recently came across Michelle Cliff’s work because I am composing my doctoral exam fields and was advised to add Michelle Cliff’s texts to my reading lists. Although, I haven’t read much of her work, her collection, The Land of Look Behind, profoundly impacted my scholarship and my academic and creative thought. In her preface, “A Journey into Speech” Michelle Cliff wrote about her difficulty with writing this book, since she struggled to “competently” and intellectually write about her personal life. She claims her dissertation provided her with “an intellectual belief in [her]self that [she] had not had before” and simultaneously this intellectual belief in herself, she writes, was “distancing me from who I am, rendering me speechless about who I am” (11). So much of my academic work relies on what I or my family have lived through- it is the reason why decolonial and feminist practices and ideologies influence and shape my research, my thought, and my goals. Yet, I too struggle with speechlessness.
I entered my doctoral program right after I obtained my bachelor’s degree, so I struggle with this feeling of being an outsider- of knowing and not knowing at the same time. In her essay, Michelle Cliff states, “I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal’ (12). It is hard for me to communicate in my academic and personal work how much academia has made me feel like I do not belong because I feel like I carry my ancestors and family with me in every single classroom, meeting, abstract submission, and academic space I occupy or endeavor I approach. And this weight makes me I feel like I have so much more to prove because my Caribbean diasporic descent, my class, my gender, and my ebonics resonate with strangers far more than my intellect or character. Like Michelle Cliff, my light skin does not save me from the colonial ghost that haunts my island, my family, and myself. She writes about the legacies of colonialism in her homeland of Jamaica and how the oppressors have become middle-class Jamaicans who interpolate and perpetuate colonialist, racist, sexist logic. Her writing helps me make sense of the world around of me and my position as a subject in it - witnessing, surviving, and analyzing. Her words provide with clarity and a humbling way to think about the ways in which my Puerto Rican family internalizes and continues to perpetuate cultural logics and myths produced by U.S. hegemony. Michelle Cliff wrote, “one of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, and passing into the anglocentrism of British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art” (13). This passage resonated with me the most because as a child, my siblings and I were ostracized for not speaking the proper form of Spanish and for naturally code-switching between Spanish and English. As a young teenager, I mimicked ‘perfect Spanish’ speakers and felt ashamed to speak in my native tongue in front of strangers. In Nuyorican poetry, I felt my experiences were legitimized and real. The colonial ghost that is implicated in Cliff’s work, and notable in many diasporic writers like Junot Díaz, Julia de Burgos and so on, has haunted me for so long because, like my mother and father, I inherited erasure and myth as truth.
In my own decolonial project, which is ongoing and evolving, I will think of Michelle Cliff. Part of Michelle Cliff’s decolonial project, as a writer and as a historian, is to obtain wholeness and produce work within fragmentation, to recover from erasure, to be herself outside of her family and society’s expectations. As a Puerto Rican, I cannot read Michelle Cliff’s work without thinking about the colonial ghost in Puerto Rico - past and present - and of my responsibility as a scholar and graduate student to produce scholarship and testimony in the service of undoing erasure, of seeking justice.
Michelle Cliff states, “To write as a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands us retracing the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification. On a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the art forms of these of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us” (14). No longer am I ashamed of the pieces of myself I was taught to hate, and my goal is to help my family, my friends, and future students participate in the decolonial project Michelle Cliff has showed us in her writing. Her decolonial love for herself and for her nation rejects racial violence, heteropatriarchal politics, anti-blackness, gender roles, femininity, and oppositional politics. For me, Michelle Cliff’s legacy is carried in the lesson of testifying...she bore witness to her experiences as a Caribbean lesbian woman in the U.S., London, and Jamaica and etched her story into our lives as an example of obtaining wholeness in fragmentation - forever.
To cite any portion of Reflection II, please email: keishla[dot]rivera[at]rutgers[dot]edu or visit her personal blog here
Reflection III: On Speechlessness
[by Briona Jones, Ph.D. Student, Michigan State University, English.]
To not be speechless: to see those modes of thought and articulation/which will assure the unity rather than the division of myself./To separate out and eliminate those elements which split me./Those elements which have divided me into mind/body, straight/lesbian/child/adult./This means nothing more or less than seeking my own language./This may be what women will do.
This poem is from Michelle Cliff’s entry in feminist journal of lesbian culture, Sinister Wisdom, in her first essay entitled, “Notes on Speechlessness,” published in 1978. In this piece, Cliff outlines three specific reasons for her speechlessness:
1. Being female forced into male modes of thinking (excelling but never belonging)
2. Being a lesbian…passing straight/passing lesbian…concealing lesbianism and thereby a dual masquerade… the effort of retaining the masks contributes to speechlessness because “to speak might mean to reveal” (SW 6)
3. Being her parent’s child. She describes her identity as something “between the Caribbean and England” as she is “living proof of contact” (“Caliban’s Daughter” 2003, 159).
When reading this essay, I think about the intersectionality of Cliff’s stated multiplicity, the contention with patriarchy, her grappling with same-sex attraction, and her biology...the black and white of it, the colonial past, and the decolonial futurity she maps out in her later work. In the context of this year’s theme, “theorizing livity, decolonizing freedom,” I reflect on Cliff’s question, “what would it mean for a woman to love another woman in the Caribbean” (Tinsley 1, from Cliff in Judith Raiskin, “The Art of History”). And more precisely, how have our differences created dissonance and further distanced us from ascertaining a “righteous way of life.” I believe that this essay from Michelle Cliff is an origin of one of her many journeys to rediscovering her place in the world as a Caribbean woman who can pass as white, and because so, is haunted by her colonial past. And as a Black Lesbian Caribbean woman in search of suppressed histories, there are so many sides to reconcile. For Cliff, I think the antidote to these myriad afflictions is the poetic.
The poetic provides space to give name to nameless thoughts that are masked, latent, opaque, and too complex to utter with words because “to speak might mean to reveal” (SW, Cliff 6). The poetic has always been a decolonial language (or project). It serves as the form of speech for the oppressed, and is a space where the decolonial imaginary is conceptualized and therefore manifests. Poetry is as Lorde once said, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (Lorde 36).
A few years after Cliff’s first published piece was written, she relied on the poetic to articulate her confrontation with her many selves, especially in The Land of Look Behind (1985), a book she dedicates to Audre Lorde in the opening pages. She coalesces prose and the poetic in her poem entitled, “Love in the World.” Cliff asserts that love in the Third World exists, and in her stanzas, she conjures up the cosmic, Jamaica’s historical past and futurity, and the affliction of being torn between nostalgia (a past she cannot reclaim) and the reality of her existence. She writes, “I wonder if I will ever return—I light a cigarette to trap the fear/of what returning would mean. And this is something I will admit only to you. / I am afraid my place is at your side. /I am afraid my place is in the hills. /This is a killing ambivalence. /I bear in mind that you with all your cruelties are the source of/me, and like even the most angry mother draw me back” (103). Here, Cliff acknowledges her whiteness, and how this side of herself, the colonizer within, has so many casualties. She ponders on what returning would like look, implicitly questioning if her lightness and lesbianism could ever carve out space in a place that she called home. Here, what Lorde describes as “incomprehensible and frightening” fears are cobbled up in the poem she writes, and it is here, as it is in so many other poems by her, she constructs a landscape(textually) in order to confront who she is, and as a way to remap what she desires to come into fruition. In spite of, Cliff’s ability to conceptualize that love does in fact in the third world is her decolonial imaginary at work. Chicana feminist, Emma Perez says that the decolonial imaginary is a “rupturing space, the alternative to that which is written in history” (7), and Cliff’s initial apprehension about a possible return is mitigated through her decolonial imaginary. She imagines a return, because Jamaica is the place which gave her birth, and because of that, a return is immanent. The preclusive is made possible, at least in the poem.
In Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s book, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature, she writes that there is a “working and reworking of intimate landscapes [that] constitute black feminist imaginations that complicate, dismantle, and reconfigure the interlocking fictions of power that shadow the region” (2). With Tinsley’s quotation in mind, Cliff has offered so much to the world with her work. She confronts her contradictions head on, and creatively remaps and re-conceptualizes her landscapes. All of this is done in spite of colonialism, and all of it this is done in the name of decolonization. This opportunity to re-remember Cliff is the bridge work that Anzaldúa and many others have talked about for many years. Although Cliff lived with many of the fears she confronts in her writing, the embedded messages in her work are timeless. Her use of poetry as a protective measure, a measure that has helped eradicate silences for her and so many others, is “nothing more or less than seeking my own language. This may be what women will do.”
To cite any portion of Reflection III, please email: jonesb72[at]msu[dot]edu