Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684
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.
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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 1983 Cliff published and coedited with American poet Adrienne Rich a lesbian-oriented journal called Sinister Wisdom. The Land of Look Behind includes excerpts from Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise as well as poetry and prose selections. One of the most provocative selections, entitled “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” consists of autobiographical recollections of Cliff’s developing awareness of class, race, and colonialism.
Abeng transforms the autobiographical memories of “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire” into a novel. Set in Jamaica, Abeng traces the adolescence of Clare Savage, who has both black and white ancestors, and her emerging sexual, racial, and class consciousness during the 1950’s. No Telephone to Heaven is a sequel to Abeng. Like Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven addresses the themes of colonialism history, race and class prejudice, sexuality, and the quest for identity. Spanning the 1960’s through the 1980’s, the novel chronicles Clare’s physical and spiritual odyssey from adolescence through adulthood as she journeys to the United States, England, Europe, and Jamaica in search of her heritage and identity as a black woman. Bodies of Water contains ten stories linked by images of water and/or references to traveling. It addresses social, political, economical, and historical issues such as slavery in “A Hanged Man,” domestic violence in “Election Day 1984,” and the Vietnam War in “The Ferry.”
Free Enterprise spans the period of the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century as it documents the lives of four strong, independent women: Mary Ellen Pleasant and Annie Christmas, two abolitionist friends involved in John Brown’s 1859 raid in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to emancipate slaves; Marian Clover Adams, wife of nineteenth century historian Henry Adams; and her cousin Alice Hooper, also a supporter of the abolitionist movement and equal rights for women. Although Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven feature third-person omniscient narrators, Free Enterprise uses a complex narrative structure of third-person omniscient narration and letters between characters detailing central events of the novel. Like Cliff’s earlier works, Free Enterprise addresses racism, sexism, history, and the quest for self. Cliff’s fictional and autobiographical writings are imbued with the author’s emerging consciousness as a feminist, Caribbean, and lesbian writer, and with the complexities of human experience.
The Store of a Million Items is a collection of short stories with an autobiographical bent. Most take place in either Jamaica or Manhattan and express the gaps between cultures, genders, and generations.