Michelle Cliff Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Michelle Cliff Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Michelle Cliff writes about Jamaica and the tightly structured society of the island. She addresses problems inherent to a postcolonial culture, including prejudice, oppression, class structure, the devaluing of women, and the lost history—especially oral history—of the oppressed. Although her novels are not truly autobiographical, much of what the character Clare confronts in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven is a reflection of her own experiences growing up in Jamaica and the United States and in living in England as a university student. Her novels display an ever-present consciousness of skin color, which is closely connected to identity, but for Cliff, the color of one’s skin is both a means of identity and a means of losing identity.

Cliff’s stories depict a society in which each person’s place is determined by his or her skin color. This caste system is accepted simply as “the way it is.” In the prejudicial thinking of her characters, skin color not only indicates certain flaws but also virtues. In Abeng, the character Mattie Freeman, Clare’s grandmother, knows who she is. She is a Maroon, a red-skinned woman with a history that traces to Nanny, the Maroon resistor to slavery. Nanny had magical powers and spiritual insights no colonial would ever enjoy. Boy Savage, in contrast, has lost a part of his identity through his rejection of his color ancestry and his insistence on passing for white.

Language plays an important role in Cliff’s novels as well. The language spoken by a character is an identifier of that character. In Abeng, when Clare is at her grandmother’s farm with Zoe, her dark-skinned “friend,” she speaks patois, which is forbidden in her middle-class existence in Kingston. For Cliff, Jamaican patois is just as viable a language as Standard English, and it is critical for readers without knowledge of patois to understand the meanings of the words. No Telephone to Heaven includes a glossary of patois words used in the novel.

Oral history and ethnic-specific stories, which rarely are included in the “official” accounts of the past, are integral to Cliff’s novels. The novels are multilayered and create a sort of international tapestry of the history of oppressed and marginalized individuals and ethnic groups. The story of Nanny, the Maroon woman who refused to accept slavery and led her people in rebellion, is recounted or referred to in Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, and Free Enterprise. In Free Enterprise, additional oral histories are told by minor characters.

Cliff extends this multilayering into the names she gives to her characters and to her novels. Abeng is an African word for conch shell. The conch shell served two purposes during the colonial period: It called slaves to the cane fields and was used by the Maroons to pass messages to one another. Free Enterprise refers both to the free enterprise of dealing in slaves in a capitalist market and to the enterprise of the main characters of the novel, resisters of slavery, and their freely entering into the fight.

Cliff writes her novels in a rich lyrical style reminiscent of her prose poems. Her descriptions of the Jamaican countryside are colorful and reflect the bond between the Maroons and nature. Jamaica becomes real for the reader with its mangoes, its tropical foliage, cane fields, and sun-drenched red earth.


Abeng is the story of Clare Savage, a young girl growing up in a complex multicultural world. It is a world fraught with oppression, rejection, and denial. Her family belongs to the Jamaican middle class. Her father, James Arthur “Boy” Savage, is a light-skinned man of white-black ancestry who rejects his black heritage and insists upon passing for white. He takes pride in his white colonial ancestry, which traces back to Judge Savage, one of the most of brutal slave owners. Her mother, Kitty Savage, is a Maroon, or red-skinned, woman who is deeply attached to her color ancestry. Clare has one sister; she is younger than...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)