No Telephone to Heaven

by Michelle Cliff

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What is the problem of identity in the character of Harry/Harriet in No Telephone to Heaven?

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In in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, the main character, Clare Savage, meets and befriends Harry/Harriet at a party in Jamaica thrown by a wealthy family friend, Buster Said, when she is in her early twenties. Clare is from Jamaica but has been living in America with her father for some years. Harry/Harriet, who is transgender, is described as

boy-girl, Buster’s brother-sister, half-brother-sister actually, who was always strange, since childhood, they say, but everyone tolerates him, as if measuring their normalness against his strangeness.

He wears a bikini and makeup and dances for the other young party-goers. Harry/Harriet is the son of Buster Said’s wealthy father and his maid. The Saids kept the baby and dismissed the maid, raising Harry as a foster child. Harry grows up with the wealthy Saids and their friends but is never really one of them, because of his confused sexual identity and his confused class identity.

Although all the characters at the party are not technically “white,” they are not black either, there being a variety of racial mixtures on the island that are hierarchical. Clare Savage is also confused in her racial and class identity. Her parents emigrated to America some years ago, when her father, Boy Savage, needed to escape his mounting debts. Clare’s father could pass for white, but her mother, who could not, was extremely unhappy and returned to Jamaica with her younger daughter, leaving Clare with her father because she thought Clare could pass for white and thus would have a chance in the United States. But when her father tried to enroll Clare in private school, the head mistress, who had been to Jamaica several times, suspected that they were not “pure” white—she called them “White Chocolate”—and didn’t allow Clare to enroll in the school. In America, Clare is not “upper class” but “lower class.” Clare’s father wants her to identify as white, but she cannot—she is drawn to the civil rights movement, identifies with the four little girls killed in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, and mourns the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which enrages her father.

When Clare’s mother dies in Jamaica, Clare leaves for England to go to college. She studies classical art but doesn’t fit in with the white, upper-class British students. Harry/Harriet and Clare keep in touch through letters, and Harry/Harriet convinces her to return to fight the injustice on their island. Like Clare, Harry/Harriet identifies with the poor oppressed class—his mother’s class, and not his father’s class. Clare identifies more with her mother’s side of the family, but also with the oppressed classes of which she has become more aware in the United States. Although her mother comes from landowners, her grandmother always helped the poor, while her father’s people are the whiter, more irresponsible oppressors. Harry/Harriet knows that he wants to help the poor and encourages Clare to return to Jamaica to help in the class struggle. Harry/Harriet tells Clare,

We are neither one thing nor the other ... the time will come for both of us to choose. For we will have to make the choice. Cast our lot. Cyann live split. Not in this world.

Harry/Harriet makes that choice while Clare is in Europe—she begins to dress and live as a woman 100% of the time and becomes a nurse, working in a hospital by day and helping the poor in her free time. She does not have the money for a sex change, but she has made her choice nonetheless. Clare realizes that she must also choose, between her white and her black and Indian ancestors (she has British, African, and Carib blood), between the rich and the poor. She chooses to identify with her oppressed ancestors, not the oppressors. She lets the Jamaican revolutionaries use her grandmother's abandoned Jamaican farm, which she now owns, as a base, and joins the revolutionaries who are determined to save the island from the capitalist invaders and wealthy white corrupters/oppressors. Harriet (formerly Harry/Harriet) has joined them also. The militants plan to massacre a foreign movie crew that is filming in Jamaica, but they are betrayed and killed by the Jamaican army.

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