Michelle Cliff Cliff, Michelle - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michelle Cliff 1946–

American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Cliff's career through 1997.

Cliff is a novelist, short story writer, and poet whose works illumine the plight of the culturally dispossessed and have been widely anthologized. Her writings chart the development of personal identity and reveal the various ways that familial relations, communal politics, societal norms, and economic conditions influence and determine an individual's sense of self. Cliff's quasi-autobiographical fiction centers on conflicts arising from issues related to race, gender, and class, reflecting an awareness of the consequences of intraracial prejudice that she experienced first-hand as a mixed-race, light-skinned, middle-class woman of Jamaican heritage. Although she considers herself a "political novelist" rather than a Caribbean writer, Cliff brings a multicultural perspective to her work, which addresses not only the oppression of women by patriarchal ideology but also the discrimination against (and even among) Third World peoples and societies due to the historical effects of European colonization. In addition, many of Cliff's writings include sexuality and homophobia as a subtext. Critics often have cited her dexterous blending of Creole patois and standard English as well as her disjointed narrative technique as stylistic hallmarks that exemplify postcolonial literature. Cliff explained that "part of my purpose as a writer of Afro-Caribbean—Indian, African, European—experience and heritage and Western experience and education has been to reject speechlessness, a process which has taken years, and to invent my own peculiar speech, with which to describe my own peculiar self, to draw together everything I am and have been."

Biographical Information

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Cliff moved with her family to New York City in 1949 and attended public schools. In 1969 she graduated from Wagner College with a bachelor's degree in European history and accepted a position at the New York publisher W. W. Norton in 1970. The next year Cliff went to England and entered the Warburg Institute at the University of London, which granted her a master of philosophy degree with a specialization in languages and comparative historical studies of the Italian Renaissance. Returning to work at Norton in 1974, Cliff assumed the re-sponsibilities of copy editor and eventually manuscript and production editor. She left the publishing firm in 1979 to concentrate on her first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980). From 1981 to 1983 Cliff served as editor and co-publisher (with Adrienne Rich) of the feminist journal Sinister Wisdom, and from 1980 to 1989 she was a member of the editorial board of the journal Signs. During the 1980s, Cliff turned her attention to novel-writing and published Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987). In addition to her work as a writer and editor, Cliff has taught at several American colleges and universities and has contributed regularly to various feminist and literary periodicals. She published Bodies of Water, her first collection of short stories, in 1990 and her third novel, Free Enterprise, in 1993. Since then, Cliff was named the Allan K. Smith Professor of English Language and Literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and has been a contributing editor to the journal American Voice.

Major Works

"In my writing I am concerned most of all with social issues and political realities and how they affect the lives of people," Cliff has remarked. Her works expose the intersections of various types of oppression stemming from differences based on race, gender, and class, illuminating the personal conflicts that inevitably ensue. The title prose poem of Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, for instance, explores the feelings of displacement and confusion of a Jamaican woman, who struggles with the consequences of being the lightest-skinned member of her family. Other poems in the volume scrutinize the impact of colonialism in Jamaica, particularly the special social privileges accorded light-skinned Creoles. Autobiographical on many levels, Cliff's writings feature female protagonists who, like the author herself, possess attributes that allow them to live simultaneously in two disparate cultures. Abeng, a female bildungsroman, centers on the trials and tribulations of the friendship between two girls, twelve-year-old Clare Savage and her playmate, Zoë. Through her bond with Zoë and a series of personal actions with painful consequences, Clara learns about the economic and racial barriers regulating the rural Jamaican community in which she lives with her grand-mother. The poetry and prose comprising The Land of Look Behind (1985) address prejudice and colonialism, most notably in the section entitled "If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire," which depicts the alienation imposed upon Jamaican mulattos. The novel No Telephone to Heaven, a sequel to Abeng set in Jamaica during the 1970s, traces the experiences of the adult Clare Savage as she attempts to find a connection with her Jamaican heritage after living abroad for many years. Finding her native island immersed in great political and social upheaval, Clare yearns for closure of her painful past and encounters others facing similar circumstances, including Harry/Harriet, a homosexual cross-dresser. He/she articulates the pain of ridicule and rejection through self-deprecatory jokes and frank assessments of the political, economic, and social strife affecting his/her life. Unified by intertextual references that resonate throughout the book, the stories in Bodies of Water are set in the United States and feature dispossessed children and psychologically shattered adults, who seek fulfillment and completion in an unintelligible world riddled by homophobia, racism, and sexism. Free Enterprise relates the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, the largely forgotten woman entrepreneur who financed John Brown's doomed raid of Harper's Ferry just before the Civil War began. Through letters, poems, prose, and dialogues that shed light on other people involved with the raid, this novel narrates an account of the event that differs from the official record in various ways.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Cliff for narrating multicultural stories that resonate with readers regardless of their cultural background, economic status, or gender, yet simultaneously offer incisive critiques on issues defined by and related to such categories. In addition, commentators have admired Cliff's technical skills in developing her characters, often citing the dialect-infused dialogues that range from standard English to Jamaican patois to Caribbean slang. Françoise Lionnet has observed that "this move from Standard English to Creole speech is meant to underscore class and race differences among protagonists, but it also makes manifest the double consciousness of the postcolonial, bilingual, and bicultural writer who lives and writes across the margins of different traditions and cultural universes." Many critics also have applauded the manner in which Cliff's family- and community-centered narratives transcend the boundaries of race, gender, and class by giving voice to individuals who often are silenced by "official" history. This feature has invited comparison of Cliff's writings to those of Toni Morrison. Cliff's "imaginative recovery of the past gives voice to the resistances that have been erased from history," Ann E. Green has remarked, adding that she "continues to write important stories, stories that reveal the multi-faceted nature of what any one culture may hold up as 'history.'"

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writing by Lillian Smith [editor] (prose) 1978
Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (prose poems) 1980
Abeng (novel) 1984
The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (poetry and prose) 1985
No Telephone to Heaven (novel) 1987
Bodies of Water (short stories) 1990
Free Enterprise (novel) 1993
The Store of a Million Items (short stories) 1998

Frank Smilowitz (review date November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of No Telephone to Heaven, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 2, November, 1987, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Smilowitz outlines Cliff's approach to the question of a Caribbean identity in No Telephone to Heaven.]

Jamaican-born Michelle Cliff's latest novel, No Telephone to Heaven, touches on some of the themes of Summer Lightning. Cliff herself has lived outside of Jamaica for many years, and she writes knowingly about life in the "borrowed countries"—as she calls them—of American and England, about classism, and the clash of generations as it exists in Jamaica. This novel focuses, however, on what may be termed the...

(The entire section is 751 words.)

Laura Frost (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bodies of Water, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 317-18.

[In the following review, Frost applauds the characterization and style of Bodies of Water.]

A nun avenges seventy-five years of abuse by torching her family's Winnebago; a black woman bleaches herself into a checkerboard sideshow freak; a Vietnam vet wearing a hat of yesterday's news wanders in a forest of shell-shocked men: such is Michelle Cliff's landscape of fragmented souls in her short story collection, Bodies of Water.

Jamaican-born Cliff has shifted her focus from the West Indian setting of her outstanding novel...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

M. Stephanie Ricks (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales of the 'Other,'" in Belle Lettres, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter, 1991, p. 15.

[In the excerpt below, Ricks focuses on Cliff's representation of isolation, alienation, and loss in several stories of Bodies of Water.]

Michelle Cliff and Jamaica Kincaid, two writers from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Antigua, respectively, have crafted works that expertly and eloquently address themes of isolation, alienation, and loss. Kincaid's novel Lucy and Cliff's collection of short stories Bodies of Water adeptly introduce the life of the "other" navigating the customs, attitudes, and social contracts that define life in America. Included are the...

(The entire section is 888 words.)

Michelle Cliff with Meryl F. Schwartz (interview date 2 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Michelle Cliff, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 595-619.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on April 2, 1992, Cliff discusses her multicultural self-identity, her political stance on gender, class, and race issues, the autobiographical origins of her writings, and the popularity of books by people of color.]

Novelist, poet, and essayist, Michelle Cliff has spent the past decade and a half creating a body of resistance literature that describes and formally enacts the struggle for cultural decolonization. Originally from Jamaica, Cliff was educated in Jamaica, the United States, and England. She has...

(The entire section is 8960 words.)

Maria Helena Lima (essay date January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revolutionary Developments: Michelle Cliff's 'No Telephone to Heaven' and Merle Collins's 'Angel,'" in Ariel, Vol. 24, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 35-56.

[In the following essay, Lima compares and contrasts conventions of the postcolonial Bildungsroman that appear in Cliff's and Collins's novels, highlighting each writer's approach toward representation of revolutionary social transformation.]

Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven (1987) and Merle Collins's Angel (1987), like many other postcolonial novels, indirectly parallel the formation of the young self to that of the developing nation. No Telephone to Heaven, the story of...

(The entire section is 6641 words.)

Belinda Edmondson (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Race, Privilege, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History, An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff," in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 180-91.

[In the essay below, Edmondson examines the ways Cliff configures race, class, and gender distinctions in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven to represent postcolonial West Indian identity.]

Historicizing Race

The white creole occupies an ambiguous space in West Indian society. On the one hand she is the descendant of the colonizer: by virtue of her colour she is virtually guaranteed a position of relative power and privilege if she so chooses. Even if she does...

(The entire section is 5428 words.)

Renée Hausmann Shea (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Free Enterprise, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review, Shea admires Free Enterprise for its woman-centered perspective on American slavery and the abolition movement.]

Fire seems to be Michelle Cliff's element. The very title of an early autobiographical essay asserts "If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire," and she closes her earlier novel No Telephone to Heaven with an apocalyptic blaze. Yet, not until now, in her most recent work, the novel Free Enterprise, has she fully explored fire's properties: destruction, blending, clarification, and perhaps even...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)

Deborah McDowell (review date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Taking Liberties with History," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, pp. 32-3.

[In the review below, McDowell considers the thematic relation between resistance and memory in Free Enterprise, focusing on multiple connotations of the novel's title.]

"Who has ever heard of Annie Christmas, Mary Shadd Carey, Mary Ellen Pleasant?" asks the narrator of Free Enterprise, Michelle Cliff's third novel. All nineteenth-century comrades in the struggle for Black liberation, theirs, except perhaps for Carey's, are among the countless names "disappeared" from "official" accounts of resistance to slavery's domination.


(The entire section is 2673 words.)

Ramchandran Sethuraman (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Evidence-cum-Witness: Subaltern History, Violence, and the (De)Formation of Nation in Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 249-87.

[In the following essay, Sethuraman offers an "ahistorical reading of the plot structure, character development, and stylistic nuances" of No Telephone to Heaven in terms of Cliff's "ambivalent double articulation" of the relation between psychyoanalytic and postcolonial cultural discourse.]

"At a time when the grands récits of the West have been told and retold ad infinitum, when a certain postmodernism (Lyotard's) speaks of an 'end' to...

(The entire section is 11142 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Clarke, Roger. "Beneath the Mask." New Statesman & Society 3, No. 87 (9 February 1990): 36.

Finds Bodies of Water "breathtakingly good," noting the stories's cinematic qualities.

Johnson, George. A review of No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff. New York Times Book Review (19 March 1989): 32.

Brief notice likening the novel's use of Jamaican slang to lyric poetry.

Levy, Francis. Review of Abeng by Michelle Cliff. New York Times Book Review (25 March 1984): 20.


(The entire section is 205 words.)