Michelle Cliff was born in Jamaica and grew up there and in the United States. She was educated in New York City and at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, where she completed a PhD on the Italian Renaissance. She is the author of novels (Abeng, No Telephone To Heaven, and Free Enterprise), short stories (Bodies of Water and The Store of a Million Items), prose poetry (The Land of Look Behind and Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise), and numerous works of criticism. Her essays appeared frequently in publications such as Ms. and The Village Voice. She was also editor of a collection of the writings of the southern American social reformer Lillian Smith entitled The Winner Names the Age. Cliff spent her later years in Santa Cruz, California, where she lived with her partner, poet Adrienne Rich, until Rich’s death in 2012; Cliff herself died in June of 2016.
To write a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands of us retracing the African past of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or scattered as potash in the cane fields, or gone to bush, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification. Or a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the art forms of those 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 by the oppressor, undermining his language and co-opting his style, and turning it to our purpose. (Cliff, The Land 14)
Like Toni Morrison, Michelle Cliff attempts a kind of “literary archaeology” in her writing; she is concerned, in other words, with discovering if not “what really happened,” then, at least, what might have happened (see Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic). Admitting she is “attracted to places where things are buried,” Cliff pays heed to not only the historically visible and vocal, but to the absences and silences of history as well (The Land 95). Discarded and buried shards are recovered from the “midden” of official history, and, through imagination, are pieced together into narrative.
Though her first two novels (Abeng and No Telephone To Heaven) are to some extent autobiographical, Cliff not only tells her own personal history, but she also imaginatively retells the collective history of her people. Francoise Lionnet has called Cliff an “autoethnographer” because:
Her narratives belong in a new genre of contemporary autobiographical texts by writers whose interest and focus are not so much the retrieval of a repressed dimension of the private self, but the rewriting of their ethnic history, the re-creation of a collective identity through the performance of language. (334)
While Cliff does attempt to rewrite an ethnic history or collective identity, she does not, however, homogenize either ethnicity or identity as inherently obvious and unchanging categories:
(My family was called red. A term which signified a degree of whiteness. “We’s just a flock of red people,” a couse of mine said once.) In the hierarchy shades I was considered among the lightest. The country women who visited my grandmother commented on my “tall” hair – meaning long. Wavy, not curly. (The Land 59)
As a “white Creole,” Cliff understands the hybrid nature of identity. Her characters – from No Telephone to Heaven‘s Clare Savage, a light-skinned Jamaican educated in Britain, and Harry/Harriet, a male-to-female transsexual, to Free Enterprise‘s Annie Christmas, another light-skinned Jamaican living in the United States who sometimes, as the need arises, passes not for white but as a man – cross boundaries of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Therefore, they disrupt and denaturalize identity categories established to maintain constructed, but nonetheless crucial, distinctions between colonizer and colonized (see Orientalism).
Enterprises for Freedom
Cliff is committed not only to the rewriting of history and the recovery of unknown stories of the colonized to stand with and against the well-known stories of the colonizer, she is also committed to creating “a body of resistance literature that describes and formally enacts the struggle for cultural decolonization” (Schwartz 595). Cliff’s work describes the “varieties of agency,” in the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, that have characterized anti-colonial struggles and carry on to this day. At the center of Cliff’s novel, Free Enterprise, is the international slave trade; while she does not ignore the dehumanization and violence manifested in and through the trade, Cliff focuses most acutely on the resistance rather than submission that the trade engendered. In this sense Cliff’s title is meant to be paradoxical. The phrase “free enterprise” has obvious capitalist connotations, and the capitalist ideology is compatible, if not coterminous, with slavery. But “free enterprise” in Cliff’s usage is also meant to imply enterprises – bold and courageous acts, be they personal, political, and revolutionary – for freedom.
Works by Michelle Cliff
- Cliff, Michelle. Abeng. New York: Penguin, 1985.
- —. Bodies of Water. New York: Dutton, 1990.
- —. Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise. London: Persephone Press, 1980.
- —. Free Enterprise. New York: Dutton, 1993.
- —. “History as Fiction, Fiction as History,” Ploughshares 20.2-3 (1994): 196-202.
- —. The Land of Look Behind and Claiming. Ann Arbor: Firebrand, 1985.
- —. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Dutton, 1987.
- —. “Object into Subject: Some Thoughts on the Work of Black Women’s Artists.” Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. Ed. Gloria Anzaldua. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990. 271-90.
- —. The Store of a Million Items. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Edited by Michelle Cliff
- Smith, Lillian. The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings. New York: Norton, 1982.
Works about and Interviews with Michelle Cliff
- Cartelli, Thomas. “After the Tempest: Shakespeare, Postcoloniality, and Michelle Cliff’s New, New World Miranda.” Contemporary Literature 36.1 (1995): 82-102.
- Edmondson, Belinda. “Race, Writing, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff.” Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 180-91.
- Lima, Maria Helena. “Revolutionary Developments: Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven and Merle Collins’s Angel.“ Ariel 24.1 (1993): 35-56.
- Lionnet, Francoise. “Of Mangoes and Maroons: Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of Michelle Cliff’s Abeng.” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. 321-45.
- Raiskin, Judith. “Inverts and Hybrids: Lesbian Rewritings of Sexual and Racial Identities.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 156-172.
- Raiskin, Judith. “The Art of History: An Interview with Michelle Cliff.” Kenyon Review 15.1 (1993): 57-71.
- Schwartz, Meryl F. “An Interview with Michelle Cliff.” Contemporary Literature 34.4 (1993): 595-619.
Lamda Literary Interview with Michelle Cliff
Author: Lisa Diedrich, Fall 1996
Last Edited: May 2017