Michelle Cliff Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michelle Cliff is generally viewed as one of the most innovative and provocative Caribbean novelists because of her critiques of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class prejudice in Jamaica, the United States, and Great Britain. Cliff was born to a middle-class family of black and white racial background in Jamaica. Although the family moved to New York when the author was three, they later went back to Jamaica. After attending a private school in Jamaica, Cliff returned to the United States to pursue a college education, receiving an A.B. degree from Wagner College in 1969. From 1969 to 1971 Cliff worked as a reporter and a production supervisor for W. W. Norton in New York. Later, Cliff moved to England, earning a master of philosophy degree in Renaissance studies from the University of London in 1974. She returned to the United States, and from 1974 to 1979 was an editor for W. W. Norton in New York. She taught part-time from 1974 to 1976 at the New York School for Social Research and from 1980 to 1981 at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Cliff taught at Norwich University in 1983-1984, and in 1985 she accepted a position with Vista College in Berkeley, California. In 1990, Cliff began teaching English courses during the spring semesters at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Cliff’s first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, consists of ten sections of poetry and prose that reflects evidence of the author’s interest in history and identity. Fragmentary and imagistic sections such as “Passing” and “Obsolete Geography” reflect Cliff’s childhood in New York and Jamaica. From 1981 to...

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(World Poets and Poetry)

Michelle Cliff, a light-skinned Creole, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on November 2, 1946. Her father was American and her mother was Jamaican. She grew up in a mulatto family that placed extreme importance on skin color and highly valued light skin. Consequently, her family continually insisted that she pass for white. As she matured, Cliff gradually realized that this rejection of her black heritage was unacceptable to her. Cliff spent her childhood both in the United States and Jamaica. When she was three years old, her family moved to the United States. She remained in Jamaica for a short period of time but soon joined her family in New York City. They lived in a Caribbean neighborhood. Cliff and her family made many visits to Jamaica during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. In 1956, Cliff returned to live in Jamaica and attend boarding school.

Upon graduation from secondary school, she returned to the United States to attend Wagner College. During this time, she became involved in politics and in the feminist movement. In addition, she actively opposed the war in Vietnam. In 1969, she received an A.B. degree. She worked in the publishing field as a reporter, a researcher, and an editor. In 1974, she completed a master of philosophy and subsequently earned a Ph.D. from the Warburg Institute at the University of London. While a student at the girls’ boarding school in Jamaica, Cliff had been attracted to a classmate, but it was during her stay in England that she truly became aware of her lesbian orientation. In 1976, she began her relationship with the poet Adrienne Rich, and she also began to write poetry. In 1980, she published her first book of poetry Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise. From 1981 to 1983, with Rich, she coedited a multicultural lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom. She published her second collection of poetry, The Land of Look Behind, in 1985.

In 1984, Cliff published her first novel, Abeng, which portrays the multiracial, multicultural world in which she grew up. She published a sequel, No Telephone to Heaven, in 1987. She followed this with the novels Free Enterprise (1993) and Into the Interior (2010). She also published the short-story collections Bodies of Water (1990), The Store of a Million Items (1998), and Everything Is Now: New and Collected Stories (2009). In addition to writing, Cliff has held several university teaching positions.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Michelle Cliff, the daughter of an American father and a Jamaican mother, was born on November 2, 1946, in Kingston, Jamaica. A light-skinned Creole, she was born into a mixed-race family that valued lightness of skin and continually insisted that she pass for white. This pressure to reject her Creole and black heritage has influenced her writing. During her childhood and adolescence, Cliff lived in Jamaica and the United States. Her family moved to the United States when she was three years old. She remained in Jamaica with other family members for some time, but she later joined the family in a Caribbean neighborhood of New York City. During the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Cliff often returned to Jamaica with her family for short visits; in 1956, when she was ten years old, she returned to Jamaica to attend boarding school.

After graduating from secondary school, Cliff returned to the United States and studied at Wagner College. She received a bachelor of arts degree in 1969 and then became involved in politics, including the feminist movement. She also was an active opponent of the war in Vietnam. After graduating from college, she worked in the publishing field as a reporter, researcher, and editor. She completed a master of philosophy degree in 1974 and received a doctorate from the Wartburg Institute at the University of London.

Although Cliff had been attracted to a classmate while at an all-female boarding school in Jamaica, it was during her residency in England that she realized she was lesbian. In 1976, she began a long-term relationship with American poet Adrienne Rich. That same year, Cliff began writing poetry and published her first book in that genre: Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980). From 1981 to 1983, she and Rich coedited Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian journal. In 1985, Cliff published another collection, The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry.

In 1985, Cliff published her first novel, Abeng, which draws upon her multiracial and multicultural heritage. Her second novel, No Telephone to Heaven, is a sequel to Abeng. She began writing short stories, which were first published in Bodies of Water (1990). In 1993, she published her third novel, Free Enterprise. In 1998, she published her second collection of short stories, The Store of a Million Items. Cliff has had several university teaching positions as well.