No Telephone to Heaven

by Michelle Cliff
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Analysis the traumatic memories of the characters in No Telephone to Heaven. Prove that although they migrate to the US, they still cannot escape their past trauma.

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Many of the characters in No Telephone to Heaven have traumatic memories. Clare Savage, the main character, is travelling with other rebels (Maroons) to the site of an attack on the capitalistic forces on a movie set. All of those on the truck “had a deep bitterness” caused by the...

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Many of the characters in No Telephone to Heaven have traumatic memories. Clare Savage, the main character, is travelling with other rebels (Maroons) to the site of an attack on the capitalistic forces on a movie set. All of those on the truck “had a deep bitterness” caused by the poverty Jamaica’s caste system had thrust upon them. Many of them grew up in the Dungle, a shanty town on top of a trash heap where people live in shacks made out of appliance boxes. Harriet is also on the truck.

We learn that Harriet had once been Harry, the son of a poor maid and her wealthy employer, who the employer chose to raise as his own (throwing the mother out of the house).

Clare had lived in relative wealth in Jamaica but had been exposed to the Dungle and the abject poverty of the lowest class of Jamaicans. She leaves for the United States with her parents and sister when she is 14 years old. Her parents settle in New York City, but soon Clare’s mother returns to Jamaica with her younger daughter because neither can pass as white in the United States, and Clare’s mother cannot stand the prejudice she encounters. Left alone with her father, who can pass as white, Clare is denied admission to an exclusive school because the headmistress suspects her mixed race. Unlike her father, Clare can’t help acknowledging her black blood, her mother’s blood. She empathizes with the black girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, which infuriates her father. One of her mother’s last letters had said “someday help your people”—the Jamaican people.

After graduating high school, Clare borrows money from her wealthy uncle in Jamaica and travels in England to go to university, where she feels alienated because although she can pass for white, she does not feel white and can’t identify with white people. She comes back to visit her wealthy relatives and is in Jamaica the night Paul H.’s family and maid are killed by Christopher, a man whose history is typical of many thousands of desperately poor Jamaicans. Clare has dinner with Harry/Harriet, who reminds her of her duty to her people. Harry, as an effeminate child, had endured bullying at the hands of students and teachers, and rape when he was a child by a British man. Harry/Harriet reminds Clare that they have been taught the history of the conquerors, the slave-owners, not the history of the oppressed, from which Clare and Harry/Harriet are partially descended. Harry/Harriet tells Clare that eventually she will have to choose, to identify as black or white, just like Harry/Harriet will have to choose to identify completely as female or continue to be half male/half female.

Clare returns to England, where she feels rootless and longing for an identity. She meets Bobby in a bar—a black American soldier physically and emotionally wounded past all healing by growing up African American in the United States and serving in the Vietnam War, always the victim of overt prejudice and cruelty. Clare identifies with him and with the suffering of all oppressed dark people, but with no one else in Europe. “I feel like a shadow...like a ghost...like I could float through my days without ever touching...anyone. I truly cannot remember when I did not feel this way. Locked off.” (154). Bobby is a symbol for the cruelty of white people towards darker people in every country where the two races have met.

When Bobby disappears, Clare heads back to Jamaica. She finds that Harry/Harriet has decided to dress completely and consistently as a woman, even though they can’t afford the sex change operation. Harriet has become a nurse helping the poor. Harriet introduced Clare to the Maroons. They use her grandmother’s abandoned farm to grow marijuana which they sell in exchange for guns. But when they go to shoot up a movie set, a symbol of the rape of Jamaica by the capitalist class, they find they have been betrayed and are killed by military men in helicopters.

Clare, Harry/Harriet, Bobby, and other characters are haunted by memories. These memories cause Clare to eventually return to Jamaica and fight the oppressors. These memories cause Harriet to do the same. Bobby is not Jamaican, but his unhealed physical and psychic wounds are representative of the suffering of all oppressed people.

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