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 pre-emptive concern of the entire region's literature: the question of a Caribbean identity.
The main character, Jamaican-born Clare Savage, is a divided person, as her name aptly signifies. ("Clare" or "clear" means light skin.) Her family has moved to Brooklyn, New York, where her father passes for white while her darker-skinned mother desperately grasps at tokens of the culture she has left behind. Eventually the mother returns home, taking one daughter with her and leaving Clare with her father. The duality is made overt: two sisters, the darker one in Jamaica and the lighter one in New York.
Clare is taken for white wherever she goes, but as a nonwhite Jamaican, proud of her homeland, her life becomes a tightrope, filled with perceived slights, self-imposed silences and an overriding sense of hypocrisy. As she travels in Europe and eventually enrolls at university in London, she is lonely and isolated: "I feel like a shadow … like a ghost …," she admits, "like I could float through my days without ever touching … anyone … Locked off."
Her divided self is artfully paralleled in her Jamaican friend Harry/Harriet, a man/woman. He/she understands the problem: "Cyaan live split," he/she tells Clare, "Not in this world." Clare isn't even sure, for example, with which character to identify in Jane Eyre. "Was she not heroic Jane? Betrayed, left to wander. Solitary. Motherless … No, she told herself. No, she could not be Jane … No, my girl, try Bertha. Wild-maned Bertha … Captive. Ragout. Mixture. Confused. Jamaican." Eventually, like Harry/Harriet, who becomes Harriet, Clare makes her choice and returns home to Jamaica, literally reclaiming her roots in the form of her grandmother's abandoned property.
The narrative passes back and forth in time as it details the experiences of two generations. The novel begins with a group of men and women, dressed in khaki, riding in a truck to an unknown destination, then moves to describe the violent machete murder of a wealthy Jamaican family by their yardboy. We learn of Clare's family, and the events that ultimately place Clare on that moving truck, and of the yardboy's poverty-stricken, inhuman existence. Finally the two narratives mesh into a unified whole. Even the narrative structure works towards Cliff's intended point: the need for wholeness.
While this highly literary novel focuses on Clare Savage's personal dilemma, it also confronts the political future of Jamaica. Colonial exploitation is symbolized by the rape of Harry/Harriet by an English officer, which also parallels the rape of Harry/Harriet's black mother by his/her white father. At another point Clare thinks she may be pregnant by Bobby, an American Vietnam deserter who, significantly, has a sore that refuses to heal. She has a possible miscarriage and later finds an infection has made her sterile. Images of sterility, barrenness, impotence—the inability to create and sustain life—are all here and all speak for the political situation Cliff vividly and terrifyingly describes.
(This entire section contains 751 words.)
abundant symbolism and obvious erudition—quotations from European and Caribbean sources open each chapter—are impressive, but the novel's general appeal may suffer as a result. While there are evocative sections filled with strong rhythmic language and passages of insightful description ("Like his labour, his connections to other people were casual," is the description of the yardboy), dialogue is at times stilted. It is hard to think of the characters as flesh and blood. But Cliff's use of Jamaicanpatois is perfect. She deftly uses it to reveal the deep understanding between Clare and Harry/Harriet and moves in and out of the vernacular with unselfconscious ease. (She provides a glossary of Jamaican terms.)
As the title implies, No Telephone to Heaven provides no easy answers to the serious problems which confront Jamaica and its peoples, and other colonized peoples as well. What Cliff does offer is a provocative novel, rich in both story and substance.
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."
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.
"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.
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.'"
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 No Telephone to Heaven (1980) to America. Just as Cliff herself has relocated to and "adopted" the U.S., her characters move as visitors in a strange land, not quite at ease with their surroundings or understanding their circumstances. The ten stories in Bodies of Water show remarkable range both in geography and tone, but they all share a common theme—the struggle to define the self in an essentially incomprehensible world.
Many of the stories feature abandoned children and disoriented adults, somehow set apart by a deeply wounding experience. Operating on a continually shifting foundation, where broken homes are more the rule than the exception, the characters often violate traditional social mores in their restless search for validation and wholeness. Rich intertextual references enliven the stories and illustrate how an individual's history can encompass many lives, as references from one "life" intrude into another. In "A Woman Who Plays Trumpet Is Deported," set in the 1930s and '40s, an African-American female musician travels to Paris, where "They pay her to play. She stays in their hotel. Eats their food in a clean, well-lighted place. Pisses in their toilet…. No strange fruit hanging in the Tuileries."
The narrative voices in Bodies of Water are quietly scattered, carefully avoiding certain disclosures, and Cliff's writing not only accommodates but even simulates this quality. Her sentences are choppy prose-poems, alternatively flowing with the ease of free association and halting as pain becomes too sharp for conscious articulation: the effect is a sort of syntactical breakdown reflecting the internal state of her characters. If the reader is often puzzled and must struggle to piece together these narratives, it is a confirmation of Cliff's success at portraying characters who mystify even themselves.
The penultimate story, "Bodies of Water," brings several of the characters from previous stories together in the form of an epistolary dialogue between a brother and sister. The recognition that there is some sort of connective tissue, however tenuous, among these lives, is a relief, and ultimately affirmative. Even if there are no triumphs, no dazzling epiphanies, even if these characters' lives only touch one another rather than interlock, it is somehow enough.
The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writing by Lillian Smith [editor] (prose) 1978Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (prose poems) 1980Abeng (novel) 1984The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (poetry and prose) 1985No Telephone to Heaven (novel) 1987Bodies of Water (short stories) 1990Free Enterprise (novel) 1993The Store of a Million Items (short stories) 1998
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 anonymous brown women seen on urban streets handling white children; the displaced Vietnam veterans, forced back into a society that no longer welcomes nor accommodates them; or a carnival's self-styled Hottentot Venus.
In Bodies of Water, Michelle Cliff draws from both historical and modern sources to zoom in on the individual as outsider in the United States. Her stories are spare, their rhythm staccato. The details sometimes overlap in stories and offer multilayered passages that are slowly peeled away as the narrative progresses.
In "Columba," the only story to take place in the Caribbean, the story's unnamed narrator relates the tale of Columba, a fourteen-year-old sold by his mother as a house servant, to Charlotte, a middle-aged woman of means. Charlotte shares her home with her one-time lover Juan Antonio, a Cuban expatriate. Living frugally in dilapidated splendor, Charlotte spends most of her time in bed, in a room that reeks with the smell of urine, bay rum, and wet sugar from the tamarind balls she favors.
Although forbidden to talk to the servant, the narrator and Columba develop a friendship during Charlotte and Juan Antonio's absences. Columba is hungry for news from the States and asks and asks the narrator, a former New Jersey resident, pointed questions that show his infatuation with American pop culture. Questions like: "every detail about Duke Ellington, Marilyn Monroe, Stagger Lee, Jackie Wilson, Ava Gardner, Billy the Kid, Dinah Washington, Tony Curtis, Spartacus, John Wayne." And "What is life like for a Black man in America? An ordinary Black man, not a star?" The narrator, who has lived in a cloistered bourgeois community, does not know how to answer him.
Columba has found a 1930s Rover on Charlotte's property, located off in the fields, that is now populated with doves. It is there that he spends his free time, sitting amongst the birds. When Charlotte needs to repair her car, she remembers the abandoned Rover in the field and sends Juan Antonio for a replacement part. Juan Antonio chops his way through the overgrowth to Columba's sanctuary only to return with the tale of the doves. Charlotte, pleased with the news that once again her property has shown itself to be full of bounty, orders Columba to kill, pluck, dress, and freeze the doves. "Columba" ends with "'Sorry, man, you hear?' he said softly as he wrung the neck of the next one. He was weeping heavily. Heaving his shoulders with the effort of execution and grief. I sat beside him in silence, my arm around his waist. This was not done."
In "A Hanged Man," Cliff uses two historical details to tell the story of a slave's flight to freedom. One is the story of a man who hung himself in a building used to punish slaves. These whipping houses, as they were called, were typically situated along the periphery of the plantation so that when northern Abolitionists came south to investigate reports of the owners' brutality to their slaves, they would not find the physical evidence. The second is the story of Peg-leg Joe, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which is used to relate how a slave follows the tracks of a human foot and the circle of a peg to freedom. This unseen companion in front of her and the lifeless presence of the hung man behind propel her in her journey.
"A Woman Who Plays Trumpet Is Deported," is dedicated to Valaida Snow, a concentration-camp survivor who played the trumpet. It begins with abrupt, terse prose, its rhythm analogous to a solo trumpet riff. "A woman. A black woman. A black woman musician. A black woman musician who plays trumpet. A bitch who blows. A lady trumpet-player. A woman with chops."
In language that is piercing, clear, and fluid, the story follows the progress of this woman musician from America to Europe. Happy for the solitude and the opportunity to play, the woman is eventually picked up on a Copenhagen street in 1942 and lined up with other women and children with her trumpet clasped to her side.
The story of the book's title, "Bodies of Water" opens with Jess, an older woman fishing on a frozen lake. She is singing to attract the fish and to keep herself awake. Recently widowed by her lover and companion, Jess ultimately reflects on a childhood incident that continues to haunt her.
Michelle Cliff's writing whooshes like the breeze through autumn leaves, making the air crackle and the leaves quiver. Her stories are sometimes rich in details, other times painfully bare but always full of humanity, feeling, and truth. Cliff successfully weaves the divergent themes of oppression and empowerment, with all of the many shadings in between, into an enriching literary endeavor.
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.
Detects "narrative inconsistencies" but concedes that Cliff's "pithy anecdotal descriptions … bring Jamaica's present and past to life."
Meade, Marion. Review of Abeng by Michelle Cliff. Ms. XIII, No. 1 (July 1984): 32.
Succinctly summarizes the main themes of the novel, noting the "sophisticated and complex" meanings attached to shades of skin color in Jamaican culture.
Ratner, Rochelle. Review of Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise by Michelle Cliff. Library Journal 106, No. 2 (15 January 1981): 151.
Describes the organization and content of the "powerful" collection.
Spurling, John. "Shame about the Jackets." Observer (7 February 1988): 25.
Concise outline of No Telephone to Heaven, commenting on its tone and style.
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 written repeatedly of her struggle to claim her own voice, noting 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." As a light-skinned daughter of colonialism, Cliff was raised to reject her "colored" heritage, but after completing a dissertation on the Italian Renaissance at the University of London, she began a sustained examination of the Anglocentric education she had received. Partly as a result of her involvement in the women's movement, she had begun trying to use language to represent herself, and she discovered that in internalizing colonialist ideology, she had lost access to crucial parts of her identity. Thus her career as a writer began as a process of trying to reclaim the self through memory, dreams, and history. This project informs Cliff's first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1981), a characteristically fragmented and lyrical text that Cliff describes as "halfway between poetry and prose." Concerned that her use of language and imagery in this volume allowed the reader to "ignore what [she] was saying while admiring the way in which it was said," Cliff went on to develop a heteroglossic language and form that resist containment by apolitical reading strategies.
Cliff's first book was followed by The Land of Look' Behind (1985), a collection of poems and essays that includes selections from Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, and the novels Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Together these novels chronicle a young woman's quest for the suppressed history of Jamaica and the process by which she comes to commit herself to anticolonialist politics. More recently, Cliff has published a collection of short fiction, Bodies of Water (1990), and a new novel, Free Enterprise (1993). Building on historical records of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who funded and helped plan the enterprise that came to be known as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Free Enterprise imaginatively recovers stories of the centuries-long resistance to the slave trade, centering on women who devoted their lives to "the cause." Cliff's essays, short stories, and poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Critical Fictions, Voice Literary Supplement, Ms., Caribbean Women Writers, New Worlds of Literature, American Voice, I-kon, Frontiers, and Heresies. Set in the United States, the Caribbean, and England, Cliff's work reflects her own experience of diaspora while representing a wide range of imperialism's manifestations and effects. Her texts explore the ways in which colonialism's racist ideology intersects with a variety of oppressive ideological systems, including those based on class, gender, and sexual orientation. As one form of resistance to experiences of silencing as both colonial subject and woman, Cliff's fictions give imaginative life to the suppressed history of women's anticolonialist activism.
When we met on April 2, 1992, Cliff had just completed a poem about a newly emerged piece of her personal history. She was in good humor; laughter mixed easily with more contemplative moments as we spoke in her sunny office at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she was the Allan K. Smith Visiting Writer, teaching fiction writing and a course on black women writers. Since 1990, Cliff has spent three spring semesters teaching writing and literature at Trinity, where she is presently Allan K. Smith Professor of English Language and Literature.
[Meryl F. Schwartz:] At the moment I'm working on the development of a Caribbean studies program at the University of Hartford, and one of the first questions we've had to ask is "who is a Caribbean writer?" One of my colleagues insists that we cannot include writers who are not currently resident in the Caribbean.
[Michelle Cliff:] How are you not going to count them? You diminish the literature enormously by eliminating those of us who are outside the borders. First of all, the Caribbean doesn't exist as an entity; it exists all over the world. It started in diaspora and it continues in diaspora.
Do you see yourself as participating in a community of Caribbean exile writers in particular, or does that category not mean anything to you in the context of a cultural diaspora?
Well, I'm in touch with some of us, but I don't think of myself as belonging to a community. I think it's just emerging now, especially with women. I grew up both here and in Jamaica, and it's as if I grew up in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century, because the Jamaica of my childhood was very paternal, Victorian. I didn't know any women writers. The only woman Jamaican writer that I read was Sylvia Wynter, whom I've since met—she teaches at Stanford. There's been a burgeoning of Caribbean women writers as far as I'm concerned. Not that there weren't any—there were quite a few actually—but they weren't available to me. I think Selwyn Cudjoe's conference at Wellesley in 1988 on Caribbean women writers was very helpful in getting us in touch with each other.
In 1990 I went to a conference called "Critical Fictions" at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. The community there wasn't limited to Caribbean or African or Latin American or whatever; it was a community of political novelists. And I see myself much more in that category. We're writing out of different origins, perhaps, but we have a lot of the same interests. Angela Carter was there as a political novelist; I was there as a political novelist; Arturo Islas, a Chicano novelist who died of AIDS a year later; Luisa Valenzuela, Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana; and they were much more my community, I felt. I grew up partly in the United States, I was educated in London, and I originated in Jamaica, so I can't limit myself to just one place.
That multicultural sense of identity seems to contradict some of the things you've written.
But I'm coming into myself as I write. The person I was while writing Abeng is not the person I am now. I reread Abeng the other day when I was home; I haven't read it in years. It's a good novel, but I've gone beyond that. When I started writing Abeng I was really trying to construct myself as a Jamaican. I was able then to claim the rest of the people that I happen to be as well, as I write.
One of the things that struck me when you gave the reading here at Trinity College was that the parts of Free Enterprise that you read were set in the United States.
It's also set in the Caribbean. The whole novel is about resistance. It has a Jew from Surinam, a woman who becomes a Maroon, and a freedom fighter, and it talks about the Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492. And then there's a Jamaican woman like myself—but it's not me—who joins forces with abolitionists in this country to fight slavery, leaving behind Jamaica because she thinks it's hopeless to struggle there, so she comes to the United States to become a freedom fighter and ends up in a leper colony in Louisiana. The leper colony is not really a leper colony; it's a colony of political activists who have been incarcerated. They spend their days telling each other their histories. One is a Hawaiian and one is from Tahiti. Then Rachel, the Jew, is there, and Annie who is from Jamaica, and they all sit around telling stories to keep history alive. It's much more diverse than my earlier work. It's a historical novel and it's set primarily in the past, but it's much more diverse than the other novels.
So you're moving toward a conception of affiliation based on political allegiance rather than origins?
The title of your recent essay, "Caliban's Daughter,"suggested to me that you were still writing out of a sense of Jamaican identity.
I am, in a way. That's a very personal essay. I started it for the Caribbean Women Writers Conference, talking about myself, defining myself through the protagonist of No Telephone to Heaven, Clare Savage, by explaining why she is as she is. It's grown a bit more, but it is more of a Jamaican essay. And it's about England and Bertha Rochester and Jean Rhys and the usual suspects. Heathcliff …
I loved your suggestion in"Clare Savage as Crossroads Character"that somebody write Heathcliff a life.
I've done even more with that, because Angela Carter and I had this wonderful conversation at the Dia conference, and we both were convinced that Heathcliff was black, that he was meant to be black, and I went back and did some research. At the time in the novel when Earnshaw goes to Liverpool, Liverpool was the center of the slave trade and there were discarded slaves, so-called, all over the city. And Heathcliff is described as dark. Angela was working on a new edition of Wuthering Heights, and I don't know if she was able to finish it [before her death in 1992]. She was going to put that in there.
It's hard for me to imagine the Earnshaws integrating Heathcliff into the family to the extent that they did if he was African.
Because they're not told. He's a monster and what happens is he gets tamed, but not really, and I said to Angela or she said to me, I don't remember who came up with this first, that he disappears for three years from the narrative, just like Toni Morrison's character Sula disappears for ten years. You never know what's happened to him, but he comes back worse than ever but very, very rich. Angela said—this was her idea—there's only one place a man like Heathcliff could have made a fortune in those days so fast, and that was the slave trade. And she's absolutely right. And the Brontës knew all about that. So Heathcliff comes back completely damned because he's literally sold his own people, and it's probably his mother—my theory was that Earnshaw could have been his father and he had him by a slave woman. Something like that, and he goes to Liverpool, the mother's dead, and he brings the boy back. It really does fit.
Getting back to our discussion of your changing sense of identity, how would you respond at this point to these passages from The Land of Look Behind? The first is from"If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire":
I and Jamaica is who I am. No matter how far I travel—how deep the ambivalence I feel about ever returning.
The second passage is from"Love in the Third World."Addressing Jamaica, you say:
I wonder if I will ever return—I light a cigarette to trap the fear of what returning would mean. And this is something I will admit only to you. I am afraid my place is at your side. I am afraid my place is in the hills. This is a killing ambivalence. I bear in mind that you with all your cruelties are the source of me, and like even the most angry mother draw me back.
Is that a position you have moved on from? Is that ambivalence finished for you?
No, I don't think it will ever be finished.
I'm struck by your statement that you're afraid your place is in the hills, which is where your character Clare Savage ends up, as a member of a band of guerrilla fighters.
Well, that's what I meant by that. I meant that if I went back seriously, the only proper position for me to take would be as somebody who would be dedicated to extreme political change. And I don't see that degree of change as a possibility in Jamaica. I think things have gone beyond that. I could be wrong.
Due to the extent of neocolonialism?
Exactly. I don't see myself as a landowner in Jamaica—my family were and are landowners—I gave that up a very long time ago.
Did you feel that giving Clare the opportunity to go back made it easier for you to make the choice to remain here, to take on the role of intellectual activist as opposed to the armed resister?
That's probably true, but I see Clare's return as tragic. She's a fragmented character, and she doesn't get a chance to become whole at all. The most complete character in No Telephone to Heaven is Harry/Harriet. And I did that purposely because Jamaica is such a repellently homophobic society, so I wanted to have a gay hero/heroine.
Abeng is full of suggestions that Clare is going to grow up to be a lesbian, and yet that theme seems to get dropped and displaced onto Harry/Harriet in No Telephone to Heaven.
That's because Clare can't claim her sexuality. She's not in a place where she can. It's a very interesting thing, because the lesbian subtext in Abeng was unconscious, at least I think it was. The poet Dionne Brande raises the issue of the difference between being a lesbian in Europe and a lesbian in the Caribbean, and in the essay "Caliban's Daughter" I talk about this. Clare's access to lesbianism in Europe would be similar to the access Nadine Gordimer's character Rosa Burger has, and also the character Merle Kinbona in Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, the Timeless People—where lesbianism is seen as a Eurocentric, eccentric, upper-class behavior, for the most part. Decadent and exploitative of Third World women. Whereas for Clare to claim her lesbianism in the Caribbean would be to become a complete woman. That's the way I read it. If Clare had had an affair in Britain with Liz, which is suggested very strongly in the novel, it wouldn't have led her back to herself. It would have made her more foreign to the place she came from. But her love for Harry/Harriet is a step towards herself. And if she wasn't killed she probably would have gone the whole way.
Harry/Harriet is the novel's lesbian in a sense; he's a man who wants to be a woman, and he loves women, which is complicated.
When you talk about the ending in"Clare Savage as Crossroads Character"you seem to feel positive about that ending as an achievement of wholeness because she's burned into the ground of her homeland.
Right, that's one way of becoming whole, but she's still dead.
So her death is not a moment of a consummate coming together; it is premature?
I think so, but you can go back and forth about that ending.
What I like to do with it is to argue that the ending leaves readers with a sense of incompletion that may motivate them to continue the struggle in which Clare was engaged.
That's good. Also, we don't know that Harry/Harriet dies, so there is always a possibility that he's going to go on. He's the real revolutionary in the book.
Related to that is the whole question of the way gender politics intersects with other issues in both Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. In Abeng Clare's political awakening is tied into her sexual awakening and her awareness of gender discrimination; she first menstruates at the same time she first acquires some knowledge of Jamaica's history—
And realizes her love for Zoe.
There's clearly a moment of sexual awakening between the girls, and it's so fascinating that Clare's assertion of resistance to the sexual harassment of herself and Zoe is the very moment when she asserts her class and race privileges. And yet Clare's awareness of gender politics does not seem to be what propels her further into anticolonialist politics.
No, it doesn't.
What happens there?
I don't know. You know, so much of writing is unconscious. I wanted to make No Telephone to Heaven a book that stood by itself; I didn't want to necessarily write a sequel to Abeng. In the context of Jamaica, when Clare is thirteen years old, which is her age in Abeng, the only way she can deal with the racial oppression around her is by reading about the Holocaust. It's not until she moves to the United States that she begins to really deal with antiblack oppression. I think that's what happened to me. The Birmingham bombing, for example, was a huge event in my life. I was in high school in New York when it happened. Clare's reading the newspaper to her homeroom was what I did. The teacher asked me to read the New York Times every morning to the students, and I remember two things from those newspapers: one was the Birmingham bombing and the second was the death of Lorraine Hansberry. Both of those events really got to me. I didn't know then on how deep a level, but they obviously had an incredible effect, particularly the bombing. And I started to get more and more involved in racial politics here; it was the period of the civil rights movement. I was brought up to think that Jamaica was not a racist society, but America was. And England. And so my experience with the world at that time was much more through racial politics than gender politics.
So the change of emphasis in Clare's development from gender politics to racial politics is autobiographical.
Yes. But then it comes together later in my life. I'm writing about myself back then, and I think I've managed to put those things together. I hope to God I have. And now I find I'm writing more about being gay.
Where? In your fiction or in essays and poetry?
Well, I just finished a long poem. I had an interesting thing happen. I had a flashback about an incident that happened when I was twelve and still in Jamaica. It's a pretty awful story, actually. I was in a private girls' school, and my mother and father were living in Montego Bay, I was at school in Kingston, and there was this other house on the other side of the island where we used to go for weekends. And one weekend my parents came from Montego Bay to Kingston. It's a long schlep from Montego Bay to Kingston; it involves crossing the interior. My parents went into the house where I was living while we were away at the country home with an aunt. They went through my bureau, found my diary, literally broke it open. They read it, then drove with it to the country house. They sat me on the verandah and read the diary out loud to me in front of my relatives and my sister. It was a silencing, what Tillie Olsen calls a silencing event. It silenced me for almost twenty years. I started to write when I was thirty-something.
The title story of Bodies of Water is about a boy who is gay, and he writes in his diary that he is gay. Now, when I wrote that story I did not connect it consciously to my own diary incident at all. But then when I went and looked back, I said, "Gee, this is interesting, because you're transferring yourself into a gay boy." Flashbacks are very strange events. I had remembered the incident of the reading of the diary. What had happened was I went back to school and I had a breakdown, and my parents had to take me out of school. And now, after having conversations with friends, I've remembered what was in the diary, which was that I was in love with another girl. She was taken out of school and sent to a boarding school, and we were never allowed to see each other again.
So the school or your family had been aware of the relationship.
I think both must have been. It's all very fragmented in my mind right now, but I'm remembering more and more. I can remember her name, I can remember what she looked like. Just like this relationship between two girls, the murder in No Telephone to Heaven actually happened to a family I knew, but I had forgotten it. I had blocked it out of my mind until I wrote the chapter, and then it all came back that this had actually happened. But now I've written about myself and this other girl—and about being girls in love on this island that was so wild but also so repressed, and just how destructive, how deadening that is. The effect it's had on me has been very good because I feel that much of the internalized homophobia that I have, that anybody gay has, is falling away, which is good. Up until now my sexuality hasn't been in my writing much, although it has been by implication.
And its absence from your writing has been very striking.
It is there, but as a subtext.
But it's not the focus.
I think part of it is self-censorship. I have to be honest. I think it is. And I think it's having grown up in a society that is enormously homophobic and the fact that my mother disowned me for being gay. At first when she did this, which is about ten years now, I thought I was the one to blame—for years I felt I was the one to blame. So this was going on while I was writing Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. But now that I've remembered, I'm feeling very angry and justified, and that's very good for me.
I'd like to ask you about the incident with your cousin Henry in London. In"If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,"Henry visits you and joins with his friends in making homophobic remarks about a waiter shortly after being the victim of a racist snub in another establishment. You seem to be exploring the question of conflicting allegiances. Like Clare, you seem to be trying to decide where to align yourself. It seems that in your earlier work you felt that your fundamental allegiance was to anticolonialist politics.
I think it is, but I think I can integrate it more now into my other concerns. I was thinking last night that this incident from my girlhood, even though I blocked it out, was something that worked to make me into someone who thinks in a revolutionary or political way—that that was my experience of oppression and silencing, which gave me the ability to realize other examples around me.
Internalized homophobia is a problem I have had. I have to be perfectly honest about that. It comes from where I came from. I didn't know a lesbian in my childhood, that I was aware of. The only gay person I knew was a gay man who worked for a relative as a butler/houseman who was very effeminate and who ended up going to London to become a dancer, which was really wonderful. And he was partly the basis for Harry/Harriet.
You've been living and working in a community of lesbian-feminist writers for years. Has that been nurturing in terms of your writing? Is that community partly what's allowing you to have these recollections now?
No, I don't think so. I have supportive friends; some are lesbian and some aren't. I guess they're all feminists, depending on how you define it. I think it's a very personal process. The support of women like that has been extremely helpful, but I can't do it until I'm ready to do it.
I'd like to get back to Clare Savage and your relationship to her. In your 1982 article"Object into Subject,"you talk about the importance for characters of defining themselves through art. You talk about Alice Walker and about Toni Morrison's novel Sula, and yet you deny that particular power of self-definition to Clare. Would she have gone on to become an artist if she had lived?
I don't know. She becomes an art historian; she's studying art history. She's an observer. The thing with Clare is that because she's disintegrated, she really goes through life as an observer. Now, the period that I was writing about in No Telephone to Heaven corresponds to the time in my life when I was studying the Italian Renaissance. So that's somewhat autobiographical … But the novel isn't completely autobiographical because I'm more of a survivor than she is. But I killed her off before I came out!
The connection between Clare's coming into herself and knowing her history permeates the novels. She can't come into herself until she knows her history, and clearly that dynamic has been part of your personal quest as well.
Well sure. Just remembering this incident is knowing part of my history, which is making me more complete. It's both personal and political history.
The connection between the two is one of the things I like about your work. One question that comes out of that is, to what extent do you see yourself as permanently marked by having received a colonialist education?
How can you not be marked? But you work with it. I was quite privileged in my education, in a sense, but I will always be marked by the fate of people like Zoe [a dark-skinned, economically disadvantaged character in Abeng], who were my friends and whom I loved and whom I saw damaged and deeply hurt. That's another kind of colonial education.
It's so interesting that in No Telephone to Heaven, Clare will never come into contact with the itinerant laborer Christopher, whose story fragments the narrative of Clare's development.
That's absolutely intentional. They have parallel lives, and they only meet in two incidents of violence—when he kills Paul and Paul's family and at the very end of the novel, where he's transformed into the movie monster.
This raises questions about what it means for relatively privileged readers and writers to make a political commitment to fight privilege. You talk, in"If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,"about how for you it's not a question of relinquishing privilege. You say, "it's a question of grasping more of myself." I hear in that a response to people who are saying, "well, why are you giving up privilege?" You're saying that's not the issue for you, and yet there's always some kind of divide there, such as the distrust with which the other members of the resistance group initially meet Clare.
Well, they would. How could they not?
Can you talk about how that relates to your personal experience?
It's tough. I was reading an anthology of West Indian women writers, a prose anthology called Her True True Name. There's a nasty swipe at me in the introduction. They say something to the effect that I am light enough that I might as well be white, which is not true. It's one thing to look x and to feel y, rather than to look x and feel x, and that's part of the difficulty being light-skinned: some people assume you have a white outlook just because you look white. You're met immediately on that level. But it varies a great deal. I felt I was included in that anthology because they couldn't exclude me, but to put me in they had to make a crack about me. The introduction ends with something like "not many of us are called Clare Savage," words to that effect. It was just plain bitchy, if you want my reading of that remark. And it goes back to very old and very painful stuff.
But it does vary from group to group. It's just something I live with. I was giving a reading on Monday of this week at Camden, New Jersey, at an inner-city community college. It was a wonderful experience. The audience was all people of color, though there were two apparently white people in the audience. I read from my new novel, and I talked about revolution and oppression. As soon as I started to speak, the audience, which could have been incredibly distrusting of me, wasn't. We really got down and talked about a lot of stuff. So it does vary. Most African-American people know somebody in their family who looks like me. There's a very wide spectrum of racial types. I think in Jamaica how one is perceived is not based just on skin color, but on property and privilege, and if some people see somebody like me, they assume that my alliance is with the colonizer. That is the usual assumption. So that they could make that kind of remark, even having read No Telephone to Heaven. They could still seem to assume that my alliance would be with the colonizer. It's something I'm addressing less and less, because, frankly, I'm too old to keep talking about that. I just have to accept that people are like that.
And in this country as well—
Oh, please, very much in this country. I know most of my students at Trinity don't believe I'm black—the white students. The black students don't seem to have a problem with who I say I am.
The whole question of political alliance is crucial in Clare's development. Your use of the image of the abeng emphasizes the fact that Clare has the choice to become an instrument of oppressive or resistant forces.
She can leave the island. Somebody like Zoe will never leave unless she goes to work as a domestic someplace, to live and die in somebody else's kitchen or nursery.
There's no getting away from that distinction between the two girls, but it's Clare who has to come to recognize her relative privilege, where it is always obvious to Zoe. I really like the way you say that the choice of allegiance is Clare's to make, that political allegiance isn't necessarily based on how you look, and yet I think there is an awful lot of distrust of privileged people who align themselves with resistance movements. I felt that you were responding to that distrust in"If I Could Write This in Fire,"that you were responding to people thinking that you were motivated by altruism—
That it's noblesse oblige?
Right. And you seemed to need to assert that that's not what motivates you, that your politics are for you.
Exactly. It is for me.
Let's talk about audience. It seems to me that you imagine a North American and British audience when you're writing.
I don't think so. I think I'm really writing for myself. I am both of those things, so I don't think I'm thinking of an audience that much. I try not to, actually, because I think you could really go bananas if you did that.
What gave me that impression is the sense, and maybe that's just because of my own subject position in reading your texts, that there's a way in which you're translating the Jamaican experience in the novels for an audience from outside Jamaica.
Well, I think as a political writer I want as many people to understand what I'm talking about as possible. But the discovery of the history, for example, in Abeng, that I go on at great length about, was my own discovery. It was for me that I was writing it.
What about in your choice of language? You've talked about your use of the patois. Your pattern seems to be to use so-called standard English for your narrator's voice and to use the patois in dialogue.
It depends on who's talking. When Jamaicans get together here, when we talk, we talk in patois, for the most part. Well, they talk in patois and I answer in it. The other day I met a Jamaican woman who is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State, and we immediately started talking in patois.
So that is part of your language?
Yes, it's a way of relating to each other as Jamaicans and not in the other language that we have to use to get by in the world. But I create in that other language as well. When you come from a polyglossal culture, which is what Jamaica is, you do speak in several tongues.
You talk about the homophobia in Jamaica. Do you see this as part of the colonial legacy?
Yes, I do. I have no idea why homophobia is so virulent there, but I think it must go back to slavery, the sexual use of black men by the slavemasters, perhaps.
We were talking earlier about the connection between the psychological and political in both Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. I find that political commitment doesn't come simply out of ideological belief but is always rooted in a psychological need. In Clare's case, her mother's denial of a close mother-daughter bond is a very important motivator. One of the things that concerns me as I teach Abeng and other anticolonialist, political-awakening novels, is that if the motivation for the protagonists comes so much out of their particular psychological formation, how do we use these texts to get students to think about the relevance of colonialist politics to their own lives?
Well, that's tough. It's a very hard thing to do when you teach. The students really have to have compassion for what's going on around them. But I'll tell you something interesting. I was teaching the other day a marvelous novel called Life with a Star, by Jiri Weil. It's a novel about the Holocaust, set in Prague. It's one of the best books I've ever read, an absolutely superb novel. And the students said to me that they couldn't identify with the character because he lived in Czechoslovakia in the war, it was depressing, et cetera. But then we started to talk about what Irena Klepfisz calls "the Holocaust without smoke"—which is around us in Hartford, for example. How do you respond to homeless people on the streets? The star of the story is the yellow star. There's a scene where a group of people coming out of a restaurant look at the narrator but don't see him because he's become invisible to them. So we related that to the question, how do you respond to a homeless person? When you meet the person eye-to-eye, what do you say? It's just a matter of getting people to have compassion for other human beings, really. They should feel incomplete when they see somebody suffering like that. I think people are very self-protective, especially young people. It's hard to expect them to be anything else. I'm writing all this stuff from my thirties, and now forties, and they're just starting out in their lives, and they don't necessarily want to be reminded of all of this. They're brought up to deny it.
What I find disconcerting is the extent to which my students seem to feel that their psychological needs are best met by retaining the sorts of privileges they have.
Right, if that's what they've learned. It's hard to expect them to do otherwise, but you can't give up hope or else you'd go nuts.
Let's go back to No Telephone to Heaven: whatever else we might say about its conclusion, it certainly highlights the difficulty of resisting neocolonialism. What do you see as the greatest challenges in that struggle, and where do you see positive opportunities for resistance?
You caught me on a bad day. There are so many levels on which the struggle has to be waged. There's self-hatred, there's distrust of each other, there's the fact that whenever Jamaica—I'm speaking specifically of Jamaica—has taken a shot at revolutionary change, when Manley tried his socialist experiments, for example, it didn't last very long. When Bob Marley was coming up and getting a worldwide movement going—a kind of modern-day Negritude move-ment—he dies of cancer and he's thirty-five years old. We were the same age. And when Walter Rodney, the author of the stunning book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa gets killed, blown up. Grenada is invaded, Maurice Bishop is killed. It's like one step forward, seven steps back. It feels like the forces of the capitalist world, the colonialist world, are so ranged against movements of self-definition in the Caribbean that change is almost impossible at this point. The United States, with Grenada and Panama, has used foreign intervention as a way of trying to make America feel better about itself. That's what they do. With Castro in power, the last thing America wants is another socialist country off the American mainland. So I don't think we'll see any significant change, in my lifetime anyway. The other thing is the continuing diaspora. What happened in Jamaica in the seventies was that there was really a brain drain. The middle class left in droves because of Manley's socialist government. Instead of staying behind and trying to work to build up the country, they just left. They took their money and went to Miami. My family didn't leave, but many, many people we knew left.
So that was a period when you were in Jamaica?
Yes, it's the period of the party scene in No Telephone to Heaven. That party is almost true to the letter, though it's a conflation of many parties.
You first left Jamaica when you were three. Why did your parents leave at that point?
They left before. I came later, with an aunt. They left because there was no economic future for them, because it's an underdeveloped country and because they were light-skinned enough to pass. My parents went back to Jamaica in 1956—I was ten years old—and we lived there for several years. Then we came back here again because economically things weren't working out, and then after a period of time we went back and forth more than once a year, to visit family.
So you were never quite as uprooted as Clare Savage.
No, not at all. Although the last time I was in Jamaica was 1975.
Why haven't you been back since then?
Partly because I'm gay, and I don't feel like I have a place there. I like writing from here; I like the view from here. I probably will go back someday, just to hang out or something.
Since 1975 is such a long time.
You know, it's not as long as it seems. I don't know that I would ever have written if I had lived there, and it's really the period when I've been writing that I haven't been there. So it's really not that long. I've been back to the Caribbean, just not to Jamaica.
So many exiled writers have said they couldn't write while they were in their native lands.
I think that's valid. James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie—there are a lot of us.
There's a history of books with black characters who were driven to murder. I'm thinking particularly of Native Son and The Street. How do you see your character Christopher in relation to those novels?
Christopher certainly relates to Bigger Thomas. Native Son had an enormous effect on me. What I wanted to show with Christopher is how a murderer is created, how somebody like Christopher is created, and how any chance that he has for self-respect or self-love is bashed, and his violent act is based in his self-loathing. When he asks to bury his grandmother and is brutally rebuffed, it's just too much for him. But he does brutalize the woman who works in the house who's the same color as he is far worse than he does the others, just like Bigger is much more brutal towards Bessie than he is towards the white woman. Bigger is motivated by self-hatred. He sees himself in Bessie. It's like when Cholly Breedlove rapes Pecola in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. He sees himself as a little boy peeing in his pants when he goes to find his father.
This self-loathing turns Christopher, but there's still a spark of decency in him, which comes out when he witnesses the almshouse fire, which is based on a true event in Kingston. It happened during a political campaign in 1985, between Seaga and Manley. One of the political parties set fire to an almshouse and burned all these old women. It was on the front page of the New York Times, and I'll never forget it. About 180 old, poor women burned. And when Christopher witnesses that, he disclaims that fire as his. So there's still a decency about him. He knows what he did was wrong; he's internalized it into insanity.
The characterization of Christopher raises the same sorts of questions that Native Son raises about the extent to which social circumstances determine individual development.
Not just social circumstances. Well, I guess you could say it's all social circumstances, but I'm thinking for instance of Christopher's grandmother's attitude towards the preacher who tells him that Jesus is black. This description of Jesus is based on a contemporary description of Jesus. These characters are unable to love themselves because of the lives they have been allowed. They cannot believe that the Son of God—the figure they believe is the Son of God—would be black like them. They just think the preacher is crazy.
Christopher's name means "bearer of Christ." He's named that not just because of Christ, but also because of Christophe. I wanted to conflate in Brother Josephus's words Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian revolution with Christ. But these people are unable to accept both black saviors. They are unable to accept themselves reflected in God, and therefore they are unable to accept their own liberation. So Christopher is stopped on every level of his being. One of the final blows is when he's passed on like goods to the woman in the country, who just tosses him aside when he becomes a man. He's just stripped away piece by piece.
In a sense, Christopher's and Clare's struggles are both about self-hatred.
Yes. They're very similar characters. He and she are the most important characters in the book, and Harry/Harriet is in the middle. Or maybe he's the apex of the triangle. He's the best of both: he's female and male, black and white, and he's managed to deal with it, managed to make a decision, to say "this is who I am. Even if I'm the only one in the world, this is who I am." But he's also been raped, and so he has a sense of gender oppression as well.
One of the things that connects your work with Irena Klepfisz's and Audre Lorde's is that, like them, you've given voice to so much anger, and that's been very helpful to a lot of readers.
That's true. I think the similarity between me and Irena, for example, since we're almost the same age, has to do with the fact that we're both children who came out of diaspora, and we both came to this country as children. I was thinking the other day that some of the people I feel close to—not all—are people who don't have a country. They don't have the country of their birth. Irena I feel very close to, and it's really because of that shared situation, I think, and the fact that, although in different ways, we've each written a lot about what it's like to be a stateless person.
So you don't feel that any number of years of living in the U.S. will make this home?
No, not in the way it would be if I was a native-born American. It's just a different kind of being.
So that writing about America in Free Enterprise has less to do with seeing yourself as American than with seeing the connections between the politics of different regions?
Seeing the connections and then also writing through a protagonist—an American protagonist—Mary Ellen Pleasant, who's been written out of the history books. She funded John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. I'm writing through an American woman who was not seen as an American by mainstream America. Black Americans have never been wholeheartedly accepted as Americans in this country. So in a sense that's the kind of American I am.
Another thing that struck me about the relationship between Clare and Zoe, as well as between you and the real Zoe, as you described it in"If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,"is that you're saying that there is no pure relational state that exists outside of social structures.
They can't transcend it, even as girls.
Has the impossibility of transcending those differences been something that you've experienced throughout your life?
It's very difficult to talk about that. There have been times when I've felt very close to, say, a particular white person, and trusted them. It's hard to trust across racial lines; it really is. Occasionally—it hasn't happened that often, but because it's happened you're on your guard—you've given the trust and then the person uses a word or makes an assumption that is racist. You say that xyz is racism, and then they apologize, but the relationship is never the same. It can heal, but it's like going through life constantly being reminded that racism is the bottom line in the world in which we live. What W. E. B. Du Bois said about the problem of the twentieth century being the problem of the color line is true. And it just seems so idiotic to me. But as far as my relationship to other women of color, it's much less of a problem for me. I'm talking about African-American, American Indian, Latina women—we have had similar experiences in America.
So that those differences are perhaps erased in a different way in this environment than in Jamaica?
Right, because you've got class there. The separations between Clare and Zoe are really class-based. The class system is founded in race, but Clare would not make a racist assumption about Zoe. That just wouldn't be something she would do. But she would certainly make classist assumptions about Zoe and herself. When she takes the gun to shoot the wild pig, she's really taking power as a girl. It's a response to having read the article about the rape of another girl. She's taking power as a girl, but she's taking it through a male mode. She can't take it through a female mode because the power she's witnessed is always through a male mode. And Zoe then becomes a female in the situation. Then Clare, because of what she does, is removed from access to female power, which is embodied in the person of her grandmother, who shuns her, and her parents then send her to live with a white woman who's obsessed about race. So through this chain of events she loses access to various forms of real power, power which could be hers.
That white woman was incredibly horrible.
She was someone I knew. Both her and her sister Mrs. Stevens. The description of Mrs. Stevens in Abeng is almost an exact description of a woman I knew. The child she has when she's young I made up. She was a woman who was absolutely filthy. She would not wash. Finally, she got sick and they took her to the hospital and washed her. As soon as the water hit her skin she dropped dead. She had convinced herself she was unclean. Now I don't know where that came from. Also—and this is not in Abeng—she was a poet. The idea of a woman artist in her class—she was upper class—in the Caribbean was abhorrent. A woman simply wasn't an artist. I remember sitting with her on the verandah of that house, which was right on the Caribbean, and she would recite to me poetry that she had written. This was at the country house where they read the diary. So the whole time they were reading the diary out on the verandah, there's this "mad woman" over the wall. A poet. I don't have to have an imagination. All I have to do is record things. It's as if Bertha Rochester was next door, and this diary is connected up to writing and expression of oneself, which was then used to humiliate me, and she's a poet and look what's happened to her. So it's really an extraordinary little scenario.
How successful do you think the women's movement has been in dealing with white women's racism?
I think people have tried. I think an effort has been made. It seems to be something that's entered into the mainstream of feminism much more, and it's being taken seriously. One thing that I'd like to mention is an organization in the Caribbean, CAFRA, which has a newsletter. It's a feminist grassroots organization that works throughout the islands and is doing important organizing around conditions for working women, such as the minimum wage, and on violence against women, which is a huge problem in the Caribbean.
To what do you attribute the current popularity of writing by people of color?
I would first expand the category. In discussing this I would include, for example, somebody like Nadine Gordimer as a Third World writer, because she is an African after all, and I would include Patricia Grace, who's a Maori writer.
The most exciting writing that's going on right now is being done, for the most part, by people of color or Third World peoples, however you want to put it. We're able to be freer, more experimental because we're not faithful to Western forms as much as white, Western writers are. We have a different sense of time and space, and we have more access to a dream life. Some people may disagree with that, but that's what I think. The idea of literature in most white, Western European circles is as a discipline, and it's something that you're trained for, something that you fit yourself into as an artist. At least that's how I see it—that there is such a thing as the novel, such a thing as the short story. I think we are much more undisciplined, and therefore we have more access to our imaginations. That's a very prejudiced point of view, but that's how I see it.
Do you think that the positive reception this literature is receiving is purely on aesthetic as opposed to political grounds?
I think it's hard to turn it away because it's such good stuff. Take a novel like Beloved. Morrison said when she published it that she had no idea that anybody would read it because it touches on a subject that is so painful and so hidden. I've wondered, if it had been her first novel, would it have gotten the response that it got? She wrote it when she was established. But it's so beautifully written, how could it not be noticed? When I think of all the people who bought Beloved, I think, "What are they seeing when they read it? What do they get out of this book?" It's like people buying Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Probably a lot of people are limited—they can't accept the politics of Beloved, or even understand the point of view; they can't get it—but they can certainly appreciate Morrison's style, her writing, and, through that, her ideas may get to them on some level.
To take the example of Beloved, I wonder about white readers' responses to a book that so powerfully "others" white people, such as through its use of the word "whitefolks."
I think Beloved has had an enormous effect on literature. I'm writing a book about the slave trade. Caryl Phillips has just published a book on the slave trade called Cambridge, which I just got and am dying to read. And I know about a couple of other writers of color who are writing books on the slave trade. I think Beloved has really opened it up to us. It's not a subject that was dealt with before. Beloved is an incredibly important book. Gordimer is interesting because she's not that experimental as a writer, although her latest book of short stories, Jump, is pretty wild. It's wonderful. Her politics are right there on the page.
They always call us Third World writers postmodern. That's one of the adjectives used. I remember at the Dia conference, a scholar from Pakistan, Homi Bhabha, got up and used the word "postcolonial" about the Third World, and Ama Ata Aidoo gave him hell. She said to call the Third World "postcolonial" is a sadistic joke. She used that exact expression, because there's nothing post about the colonialists.
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 Clare Savage's development into revolutionary consciousness and her involvement in a symbolic act of revolution in Michael Manley's Jamaica, and Angel, a novel about a girl growing up during the people's revolutionary government of Grenada, share a similar authorial project—the possibility of revolutionary social transformation. When Cliff and Collins attempt to figure this transformation through the reconceptualization of the established genre of the Bildungsroman, however, they textualize their projects in significantly different ways. Through playing off the conventions of the novel against those of several other genres—history, the epistolary, allegory, autobiography, testimonio—Cliff and Collins expose the complexity of the contradictions within generic conventions.
The history of the Bildungsroman, from its beginnings in Germany to its development in England and adoption by commonwealth and, more recently, by postcolonial writers, has been one of adaptation and change, initially in thematic and then in formal terms. While genre does not in itself determine that a text must be read in a certain way, it brings with it a history of reading, a set of conventions and of specific aesthetic ideologies. The expectations engendered by the genre, as Catherine Belsey writes, can enter into a relation of tension and opposition with the project of the text: "The unconscious of the work (not, it must be noted, of the author) is constructed in the moment of its entry into literary form, in the gap between the ideological project and the specifically literary form." While contemporary postcolonial Bildungsromane do not break the conventions outright—they continue to ask the genre's old questions surrounding the relationship between experience, subjectivity, and social structures—they explore its possibilities, thereby expanding the genre. The novel of Bildung has been "chosen" in virtually all countries undergoing decolonization because it is the Western form of discourse that constitutes identity in terms of a relation to origin. The genre's survival might in itself mark the victory of the colonizer but its transformation in countries attempting decolonization offers provisional rewritings of origin and identity, rhetorical configurations that will undergo further change as the process of recovery continues.
Precisely because Angel and No Telephone to Heaven are written for different audiences, from distinct class perspectives and historical contexts, they tell very different stories about the possibility of real social transformation. Cliff's text is predominantly allegorical while Collins structures her novel on a predominantly historical figuration.
Postcolonial allegorical writing is engaged, according to Stephen Slemon, in a process of destabilizing and transforming fixed ideas of history. When history and literature come together, collectivity becomes the subject of narrative. As Edouard Glissant notes, the European novel's individualism is not for the Caribbean. Instead, he posits the "collective novel," the novel of the relationship of individual to collectivity, of individual to the Other, to help create a new nation and a new people, "liberated from the absolute demands of writing and in touch with a new audience of the spoken word."
The issue of language choice is thus central to postcolonial reconceptualizations and to any attempt at identifying an implied audience in the Caribbean context. What initially characterizes writing in the Caribbean is what George Steiner calls being "linguistically unhoused" for the writer must mediate between a "metropolitan" standard and the creole languages of her childhood and environment. Cliff's decision, then, to rely primarily on standard English and only cursorily to employ patois, not only marks the class/culture division between her narrator and the Jamaican characters who populate her fiction, but also signals the primary audience for whom the novel is written. Collins's choice of Grenadian creole, the language of the "subaltern" class, as the novel's language may also signify, among other purposes, her concern that the novel be accessible to those of that class who can read.
Angel, moreover, foregrounds the cautionary element inscribed in the original Bildungsroman, an aspect of the genre that is almost totally lost in the symbolism of No Telephone to Heaven. While Angel ultimately consists of a call to arms, No Telephone to Heaven, despite its critique of the People's National Party (PNP), does not want to bring Jamaicans together for another experiment in democratic socialism. In many ways my reading of Cliff's novel resonates with existing evaluations of Manley's government. Fitzroy Ambursley, one of Manley's critics, emphasizes the symbolism in the political philosophy of Jamaica's prime minister. While the first two years of the PNP government brought a general liberalization as well as some reforms—free secondary education, a literacy campaign, a partial land reform—the urban middle-class origins of the PNP became once again visible as most of the state institutions were placed under the control of representatives of the island's capitalist class.
When contrasted with Angel, Cliff's novel can be said to figure precisely this class privilege by reinforcing the split in the linguistic practices which separate the "educated" from the "less cultured" classes. If the language choice Cliff makes signals her intended audience, then, we might say that she addresses very educated Caribbeans, at home or in exile (like herself) and a North-American readership.
Cliff's implied audience is also familiar with the European tradition of the Bildungsroman, for Clare, like Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, exists in dialogue with Jane Eyre. Like Jane Eyre, Clare is motherless; she is solitary and left to wander, having "no relations to speak of except [like Jane Eyre] an uncle across the water." Cliff, however, goes a step further than Kincaid and incorporates Bertha Mason into Clare's intertextual identity: "Captive. Ragout. Mixture. Confused. Jamaican. Caliban. Carib. Cannibal. Cimarron. All Bertha. All Clare."
Clare feels closer to "wild-maned Bertha." She remembers how her father was forever trying to tame her hair; "she refused it; he called her Medusa. Do you intend to turn men to stone, daughter?" Centered on the figure of Medusa is the disclosure of Clare's internalization of sexual and racial oppression, the extent to which she has been forced to deny both her (homo) sexuality and her Africanness. As Susan Bowers points out, Medusa's mythical image has functioned like a magnifying mirror to reflect and focus Western thought as it relates to women, including how women think about themselves. Rediscovering and remembering the vitality and dark power of the mythological figure of Medusa, that primary trope of female sexuality, is as important for Cliff as Jamaica's revolutionary project itself. Attempting to trace the unconscious of the text, we might actually see these projects as related. By reworking the narratives that connect and separate mothers from daughters, moreover, Cliff's novel goes as far as to suggest that a return to a pre-oedipal, preverbal moment of origin can provide an instrument for binding the fragments of self.
Cliff posits Clare's urge to return to the island in essentialist terms, representing her homeland, the landscape of her identity, as female. The land is infused with the spirit and passion of Clare's grandmother and mother in a deeply personal, almost biological connection. In one of her mother's letters to her father, Kitty adds a postscript for Clare in which she expresses her hopes that someday Clare will make something of herself and be able to help her people. Kitty wants Clare never to forget who her people are: "Your responsibilities lie beyond me, beyond yourself. There is a space between who you are and who you will become. Fill it."
Clare's separation from her mother signals the rupture from the "African" and the collective in her, since Boy, Clare's father, counsels his daughter on invisibility and secrets and has "no visible problems with declaring himself white": "Self-effacement. Blending in. The uses of camouflage." Kitty leaves her daughter and her husband in the U.S. because she feels she has to return to her island, her "point of reference—the place which explained the world to her." Clare's loss of both mother and island clearly structure the novel, which is ultimately about her futile attempt at return and wholeness. There are many bits and pieces to Clare, Cliff writes: she is composed of fragments. Clare's journey back to Jamaica, she hopes, will be her restoration.
As soon as Clare finishes school in the U.S., she leaves for England, "with the logic of a creole. This was the mother-country. The country by whose grace her people existed in the first place." Her uncle writes to Clare to remind her that she has a chance to leave that narrow little island behind her. By "chance," Clare knows he means light skin. The fragmentation and isolation of the immigrant community in London, however, help shatter Clare's illusion of a shared heritage with the mother country. Yet, feeling only a little guilt, Clare uses her privilege to stay in Europe writing to her aunt and uncle, then living in Miami, that she is doing work for her degree on the continent, describing briefly the beauty of churches, managing to get more money from them in the process, as well as a letter extolling the tranquillity of the mainland after the turbulence of the island, caught as it was in riot, fire, burn.
Clare's inscription as Jamaican comes from an awareness of place that she initially tries to rationalize with her analysis of Aristotle's definition of place in the Physics, for which she is praised at the University: "Each thing exists in place. Each thing is described by place." She immediately connects her feelings about place to her mother, who ties her loss of voice to the loss of home. The images Cliff creates to trace Clare's movement back to her homeland, however, are quite disturbing:
The albino gorilla moving through the underbrush. Hiding from the poachers who would claim her and crush her in a packing crate against the darker ones … Make ashtrays of her hands, and a trophy of her head. She cowers in the bush fearing capture…. Not feeling much of anything, except a vague dread that she belongs nowhere…. She does not gather branches to braid into a nest. She moves. Emigrated, lone travel … Time passes. The longing for tribe surfaces—unmistakable. She is the woman who had reclaimed her grandmother's land.
Feelings of displacement characterize not only the exile but the postcolonial condition whose homelessness Cliff figures with images of absence of colour (the albino gorilla) instead of conferring her character a mestiza identity (and colour). "Gorilla" and "longing for tribe" convey the primitivism often associated with "African" and evoked in her own name. Clare's return to Jamaica also follows an almost biological urge: the island is female and the "albino" child is finally reunited with the lost mother. From a post-structuralist cultural feminist perspective, Cliff reifies "African," "female experience," and "woman." It is this essentialism which makes her project, the possibility of revolutionary social transformation, and its figuration ultimately incompatible.
As a crossroads character, Clare belongs at least in two worlds. Her first name, Cliff tells us, "stands for privilege, civilization, erasure, forgetting. She is not meant to curse, or rave, or be a critic of imperialism. She is meant to speak softly and keep her place." Her surname evokes the wildness that has been bleached from her skin. Cliff emphasizes how she uses the word savage to mock the master's meaning, "turning instead to a sense of non-Western values which are empowering and essential to survival and wholeness." As a colonized child, Clare understands that it is her bleached skin which is the source of her privilege and her power. A knowledge of her history, the past of her people, however, has been bleached from Clare's mind (the history Cliff attempts to recover with Abeng).
Whereas Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács refer to the link between allegory and the annihilation of history, in Cliff, the allegorical serves to inscribe an alternative history as she makes clear how this female power originates in Nanny, the African warrior and Maroon leader who has been left out of most textbooks. At her most powerful, Cliff writes, the grandmother is the source of knowledge, magic, ancestors, stories, healing practices, and food. She assists at rites of passage, protects, and teaches.
When Clare recognizes, in a church graveyard in the town of Gravesend, yet another grandmother figure in Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan who was kidnapped by colonists, held against her will, forced to abandon the belief system of her people, and then taken to England in 1616 where she was displayed as a tame Indian, she begins a series of choices which will take her from England, the mother country, back to the country of her grandmothers: "She thought of her, her youth, her colour, her strangeness, her unbearable loneliness." The letters Clare receives from Harry/Harriet make her decide to return: "Jamaica needs her children … Manley is doing his best but people are leaving in droves—those who can." In another letter, Harry/Harriet tells her they "are supposed to be remembering, the grandmothers of our people. We are supposed to be remembering, through our hypocrisy, the 167 old women who burned up in a fire started by some bastard," a reference to the destitute women inmates who died in the Kingston Almshouse Fire.
The figure of the Maroon leader Nanny is also behind both Miss Mattie, Clare's grandmother, and the grandmother of Christopher, who inhabits the Dungle [the Kingston slums], and whose only power is the power to judge the worthiness or unworthiness of others. Against an identified "yard novel" tradition that represents what gives the community its identity, Cliff's Dungle does not draw people together, like the community in Orlando Patterson's Children of Sisyphus (1964), a novel that, according to Dell Lewis, inscribes a "psychological boundary: it is [the people's] beliefs which keep them together as a group to await something; and it also shows the element of hope they have." Lewis's idea of using the yard as a critical/aesthetic model relates directly to Africa (the transplant of the African compound to West Indian ground) and to Caribbean critics' "total roots-directed (re-)definition of ourselves." Cliff's novel figures the total breakdown of compound transplantation: we read No Telephone to Heaven as a tragically individualist tale whose protagonist does end her life "burned into the landscape of Jamaica, by gunfire." Through the character of Christopher, however, we can trace a counter-narrative of resistance that ultimately limits the significance of the comments, at the novel's closing, of the two whitemen, one British and one American:
'Jamaicans will do anything for a buck…. That brief shit with Manley was the exception. Oh, the poor followed him; the poor occasionally protest about prices, shortages, that kind of thing—'… 'Anyway, babe, about your fear, about revolution … the class system wouldn't permit. I mean, they're more English than the English in that regard. At least, the ones on top are. The ones who call the shots.'
Although Cliff's revolutionary Jamaica falls short of a real "war zone," it is potentially more than the "stage set" Harry/Harriet believes the country to be. The truly revolutionary gesture lies in Christopher's "revenge" against Paul H.'s family, and the cautionary tale that it embodies if we read Christopher as Clare's alter ego. His childhood and "development" are marked by poverty and destitution. With the death of his grandmother, he "wandered the streets of the city, begging the tourists a few pence." As he grows up, Christopher's connections to other people, like his labour, are casual. In his loneliness, "he longed for his grandmother." It is when he asks his "master" for a little plot of land to give his grandmother a decent burial, and receives scorn instead, that something inside of him snaps.
Christopher remembers when Brother Josephus blessed him as "Christ-bearer" and told him of Toussaint, "dis Black man who carry Christ amongst de Black people of Haiti." Cliff's title, No Telephone to Heaven, suggests that Jamaicans should stop praying for those who have persecuted them: "Depression. Downpression. Oppression. Recession. Intercession. Commission. Omission. Missionaires…. Per'aps the line to heaven is one party line. But how could Massa God be their enemy?" They must "turn the damn thing upside down. Fight fire with fire." Christopher's killings have the force of a ritual. The narrator conveys an unstoppable urge in the character's movements and syncretic search:
Cyaan tu'n back now. Capture the I in I. Then say Bless me Jah / Shango / Yemanja / Jehovah / Oshun / Jesus / Nanny / Marcus / Oshun. I am about to kill one of your creatures. Some of your children.
Whereas in No Telephone to Heaven the need for change is figured in the allegorical transformation of the island's terrain as "bush" takes over "garden" in Clare's grandmother's land, in Angel it is history itself that constitutes the novel's terrain. Collins's novel depicts the history of Grenada against and through the lives of her characters. The testimony of Collins's fiction is one of transformation in attitudes, ideas, and language. Her work is concerned with change—what enables it, what prevents it, why it is necessary.
Although some may perceive Collins's novel as old-fashioned realism, it is revolutionary in bringing together conventionally male and female spheres—public and private, personal and political—to chronicle the history of her country in the spectrum of creole languages available to her, and thus inscribes a "new" kind of self in her reconceptualization of the Bildungsroman.
To the individual novel of formation, Collins adds the collectivity of the testimonio, a literature of personal witness and involvement designed, according to John Beverly, to make the cause of these movements known to the outside world, to attract recruits, to reflect on the successes and/or failures of the struggle. Because testimonio is not so much concerned with the life of a "problematic hero" as with a problematic collective social situation, the narrator in testimonio speaks for, or in the name of, a community or group. In keeping with the predominant focus on the collective life of the community, characterization typically exemplifies modes of interdependence among community members. Concerned with continuity, Angel seeks to represent what gives the community its identity, what enables it to remain itself. Each individual testimonio then evokes an absent poliphony of other voices, other possible lives and experiences. A common formal variation on the classic first-person singular testimonio is the polyphonic testimonio made up of accounts by different participants in the same event. As a literary simulacrum of oral narrative, testimonio represents an affirmation of the individual subject, even of individual growth and transformation, but in connection with a group or class situation marked by marginalization, oppression, and struggle. Beverly dismissively contends that if it loses this connection, it ceases to be testimonio and becomes autobiography, that is, a "sort of documentary bildungsroman."
Collins transforms the Bildungsroman by incorporating into her novel elements of a polyphonic testimonio, to produce what could indeed be termed a documentary Bildungsroman. Rene Jara has discussed testimonio's influence on other literary forms that become impregnated with what he considers a new combativity, "al mismo tiempo, acusacion y desafio," but he holds on to what ultimately is a false distinction: that between the novel and testimonio. For Jara, testimonio's subject, more than in other discursive forms, must be historical reality itself. The difference Jara sees between the novel and testimonio is that while the novel's configuration implies an ending, testimonios are evidence for a history that still goes on.
Collins's Angel bridges some of the differences between the novel and testimonio through its powerful oral quality, for it achieves the effect of an ongoing conversation among characters. Collins creates a Grenadian creole which is ritualistic proverbial, and metaphoric, embedding songs, poems, and proverbs which give the narrative a people's (not an individual's) perspective on events and communicate the complexity of their traditions. More important, like a testimonio, Collins's novel represents an affirmation of individual growth and transformation in connection with a group or class situation marked by struggle. The unifying feature of a testimony novel is its consciousness of a collective objective beyond the individual person. Collins becomes the living witness to a historical process, faithfully recreating both characters and society in a state of becoming.
The novel also achieves its documentary quality through its multiple narrative centres which convey sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflictual versions of self and history. Angel points to a social model of self, a self that exists in relationships, a self that is a product of all the discourses that the growing child incorporates as she develops. It is a more complex, less teleological model than the ideal of the European Bildungsroman, for there is no possibility (or desire) for an organic development. Collins's Angel focuses on the growth to political consciousness of three generations of Grenadian women and ultimately points to the children as the hope for change. Like Cliff, Collins implies that an understanding of her mother and grandmother is necessary for an understanding of her protagonist's development, which suggests interconnected rather than individual development.
With Angel, moreover, Collins reverses the erasure of the mother, and the daughterly act of "speaking for her," as Marianne Hirsch characterizes it, and enables both mother and daughter to speak for themselves as well as for and with one another. In the novels that Hirsch reads in The Mother/Daughter Plot, it is the woman as daughter who occupies the centre of the reconstructed subjectivity while the woman as mother remains in the position of other. Collins writes in the voices of mothers as well as daughters by constructing Angel as a novel of Bildung for mother, for daughter, and for nation. The first section of the novel focuses more on Doodsie and her circle of family and friends, since Collins indeed adapts the conventions of individual development—of great expectations and lost illusions—to a communal model.
In Angel, three generations of women experience the changes that Grenada undergoes under Gairy's regime and the New Jewel Movement. "The Revolution has given me a theme," Collins tells us, "and has also developed a greater awareness of self and pride of being." The Revolution was also instrumental in validating the Creole language and affirming its power through popular culture. It effected a re-evaluation of the language and a reconceptualization of the curriculum which Grenadians initially resisted, as we see in the chapter that deals with the elections for the teachers' union, with secret campaigns "to ensure that Angel and those who shared her views did not get on to the executive."
Collins's novel explores the function of education, reading, and writing in nation-formation and decolonization. The Caribbean child's encounter with language through the colonial school drove a wedge between the "real" world she saw about her and the world of the school and its curriculum. While the reality of the colonizers' books is made to supplant the reality of the island, Collins traces the evolution of Angel's consciousness until she ultimately rejects the world the colonial school has created. Like Annie John, Angel devours Enid Blyton's adventures and the love stories her friends bring in. Angel's name is with time perceived as inadequate as she becomes darker, for in all books the children read "angels [are] white." Rather than concentrating on Sunday service, Angel thinks up all sorts of stories about faraway places: "In her mind, she went off sometimes by boat, sometimes by plane…. She never arrived anywhere in these daydreams; but she was often travelling." In Angel's case, however, the Revolution creates a discursive space in which she can posit herself as a subject in the new Grenada, and she is able to see through the "mist."
Only when she is very young does Angel feel sorry for herself and ashamed of her "unglamorous mother … who looked nothing like those of the pretty mothers in all the books, who never wore one of those frilly white aprons which made kitchen work look so inviting, whose kitchen looked nothing like the beautiful ones in books." Although initially Angel wishes herself transformed into one of the ladies in some of the love stories she reads—"long blonde hair flying in the unruly wind, blue eyes sparkling, laughing up at some dark-haired young man of indeterminate colour"—she grows to love black as beautiful and stops dreaming that "she was in fact really the child of some queen in a distant country, that she had been given a drug to change the colour of her skin." We see signs of future strength in the growing child when, for example, Angel wants to wake up her brother to help with the housework, but Doodsie tells her to let him sleep longer because he is a "man" whereas she is a "little girl." From Angel's feminist point of view, Doodsie submits too much to a patriarchal system of domination represented by her submission to her husband, whose betrayals she accepts.
We also perceive the changes in Angel, as she develops, in her reaction to the figures on her mother's wall. An image of Christ is initially in the family's living room but both Angel and her brother Simon want the Jesus pictures removed to the bedrooms. Auntie Ezra gives Doodsie an outline of the map of Grenada framed in mahogany that is placed next to the glass-covered words proclaiming Christ the Head of the House. Later on, however, when Angel thinks of the picture of "a white man wid a globe floatin aroun somewhere inside me," she feels sick. Angel's reaction to Leader's picture is almost as intense: "It upsetting enough having the man ruling the country and so many asses supportin him! But how you could have his picture up on the wall in you house?" When Angel returns from college in Jamaica, she brings a picture of a little rasta boy to put in her room, which her father objects to but does not say anything until Angel removes Leader's picture from the living-room. What gets figured through these changes in the images is the evolution in Angel's consciousness, from passively conforming to Christian values and wanting to be the "angel" in a Christmas play to rejecting this indoctrination with an iconography of revolution embodied in the rasta child.
The many different ways in which Collins conveys the evolution of both Angel's and Grenada's consciousness help create the documentary effect of the narrative—we get the truth from many angles of vision and through different channels—which makes the novel not only less teleological but more politically effective. Another evolutionary movement is figured in both the content and the form of the letters that the characters exchange throughout the novel. The epistolary validates creole as a written language, and the letters ultimately serve to represent the unity of the Caribbean peoples in diaspora. As they trace the characters' movement among islands and to the U.S., in search of better economic conditions, they ultimately help the reader to perceive them not only as an extended family, but as constituting a Caribbean community. The letters also allow Collins to articulate in the voice of the people the significance of the events that are occurring in the society: their own writing and interpretation of history, as in the first letter Doodsie writes to Ezra in Aruba, where she emphasizes their need for "a change but not in this way." Allan's letter to his friend Martin in St. Lucia shows Allan's and the Grenadian people's initial enthusiasm about Leader (Eric Gairy): "We want we own people to lead us. You should see him, black as me you know and talking big with the best in the land." Doodsie, however, cannot be fooled, and in more than one letter to Ezra she points out how "Leader just want everything for himself." In another letter, Doodsie complains that "The country is in a total mess," and Independence means only flag and anthem. Allan's letters from Wisconsin and Florida show the nature of migrant work and also point to other people from the Caribbean who are working in the States. We learn that Maurice Bishop is in power through Angel's letter to Simon in New York, where she tells him of "a revolution directed by radio," asking him to come home since "We need you for nation-building." Angel's former classmate from Jamaica writes to her to inquire whether she is "finding the answers we felt had to be found? Is it rewarding? Is it going somewhere?"
When Angel goes to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, she is exposed to ideas such as Walter Rodney's call for Black Power and for a black class struggle, and she joins with other students to take an active role in the political transformation of the region. Collins fictionalizes the "Africa Night" held at Mary Seacole Hall (Mona Campus), in November, 1968, the first time that students were exposed in any serious way to African art, music, dress, poetry. The rhetoric of Black Power was appropriate to the Caribbean to the extent that it responded to a popular discontent with those black people who had managed to acquire economic resources or political power and had become, in Collins's figuration of Fanon's "black skin, white mask," like "roast breadfruit," black on the outside, but white on the inside.
Collins depicts the University, however, as a privileged space, an island which isolates the intellectual from the reality of most of the people living in Jamaica. The students start a group called "Search" to improve their "knowledge concerning the surrounding communities." Angel, Collins writes, maintained a "sort of detached interest," but gradually she remembers the knowledge of injustice that her grandmother and her mother passed on to her, and she is able to hear what Edward has to say:
We have to live in the society and we live in a capitalist society. But we know it don benefit de majority and that we're on our way to reaping benefits that the women who come in to eat our left-overs are not likely to see…. It is because we see the unfairness that we would want to be involved in trying to change that even while we know it would mean individual losses for us … at least initially.
Collins challenges received images of history by telling it from multiple points of view. Her nested reconstruction of history can be found in inserted texts, like Sister Miona Spencer's poem. A member of the Literacy Programme, the Sister opens a zonal council meeting with a poem that recovers Grenada's history until that moment to celebrate the benefits that the Horizon government has brought to the people, and the year she refers to is 1951, the date Eric Gairy called for a general strike. Leader's rise to power comes at a time in Grenada when people came together yet one more time to try to stop being exploited by the big landowners:
From all over the island, people walked, drove, rode to the city. Shouted. Laughed. Pulled one another along. "Make it! Make it, Papay-o! Is we day dat come!"
The novel actually opens with the burning of the De Lisle estate, an event which seems to be approved by all spectators. Maisie's humorous description of the burning cocoa as ungrateful children who do not acknowledge their own mother foreshadows, according to Carolyn Cooper, the theme of generational conflict that the novel develops later. The analogy also suggests the distortion of the organic relationship between the worker and the products of her labour. Because she is alienated from the fruits of her labour, the worker is forced to rebel:
The lan coundn't be mine because I too black for one, an is white people that own lan because is them that did have slave in this country. If I was high brown I might ah have white background dat leave lan give me or I might ah be able to get big job, but it din work out so.
It is not only the call to Black Power, as Patrick Taylor notes, that ultimately underlies the revolutionary trajectory in the novel. The rhetoric of Black Nationalism gives way to the discourse of revolution as Horizon, which takes control of the state with the full support of the majority of the Grenadian population. The New Jewel Movement (an acronym for Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation) brings to light "the kind of talent that was there hidin all de time." The Party negotiates a socialism with an open plan until the crisis of October 1983 reveals that "truth" has solidified—that a universalized and closed narrative (encoded as Marxist-Leninism) has been imposed on the Party and the nation. The New Jewel Movement (Horizon) in Collins's textualization of history turns Marxism-Leninism against itself and the people.
The novel is so constructed that the line of the Party, assumed by Angel, is subverted by the interwoven comments of the family members who confront her. Faithful to the Party, Angel will not reveal what she knows about the crisis within. The Party will find its own solutions she repeats over and over. But from the community's point of view, the revolution is theirs, not that of the Party leaders. Carl, Angel's brother, accuses her of belonging to a "secret society." Rupert, once close to the Party, attacks its "ivory tower" elitism. He also tells Angel that "any Party dat in Mars while people on earth is not no party we want to know about anyway! Let it stay to ass in Mars!" This mode of representation foregrounds the fact that both fiction and history are discursive practices, subject to questions of authorship and authority: whose version of history ultimately prevails does make a difference.
The American myth of a liberated Grenada is another obvious target for demystification in the novel: "Is our country still, Carl. We wrong. We do real stupidness. But nobody don have a right to invade. We doesn invade dem when dey killin black people in their country." The American soldiers who invade the island act on the basis of a particular ideological conception which constructs the "other" as the communist enemy, black men as "boys," and women as "babes." Once the U.S. invasion occurs, a new contradiction appears: traumatized by the Party's dashing of her hopes, Doodsie thanks God for the intervention of the Americans thus succumbing to the new regime of terror. Angel, in contrast, picks up a gun to defend herself and her nation when the American troops land. As Angel's brother Rupert states, "people jump off one dream to go for a ride on another." There is no irony in Collins representation of the tragedy of the Revolution. Though "truth" is turned on its head, social transformation remains a historical possibility, a possibility underscored by the voices of the exploited black women.
Providing a site of resistance to narrative closure, the female voices in the novel have their own genealogy in relation to the independence movement and the critical response to that movement articulated in the Black Power and socialist movements. But Angel's vision is not enough to maintain a critical distance from Party doctrine, whereas Doodsie knows better: "when ting just start all of us been speaking with one voice … Now mos people on same side again, saying leggo Chief, but now some of all you who fight wid us self sayin is because we stupid and we caan see de truth!… If a few of you see it an de res of us don see it, what you go do, tie us down? Is not so it is, Angel. Dat is not what we fight for. We moving together or if not, we jus not moving, ah suppose." If the novel presents unity from a woman's perspective, it does not exclude men. The words and actions of Angel's brothers help us see that it is not only from a female perspective that totalitarian structures can be recognized. It is in the very paradox of unity and fragmentation that the novel reaches history, as Taylor suggests, neither as utopia, nor as tragic failure, but as the hope and possibility of a new future.
Angel ends allegorically, with Doodsie warning her fowl to stay together so that the chicken-hawk cannot get any of them. Through the chicken-hawk metaphor a female authorial voice draws a moral from history: unity makes survival possible. Collins reiterates the idea of strength in people coming together that is first introduced with the hurricane: "Look how dis ting make us one, eh!" Later, she says: "We caan let one another sink. Is you, is me. We ha to hol one another up!" For Grenadians, Collins is saying, internal division allowed the U.S. invasion to temporarily end their revolution. Now it is time for the children "to fix that coop an keep the chickens inside." It is time for renewal (which the rain symbolizes), for Grenadian people to "fix" their country, to get rid of the "dirt" and to start again. The land, Collins tells us, "remains washed and waiting."
It is also significant that Angel returns to Grenada to perform a ritual wake. Although she feels "a little bit stupid" about what she is going to do, to light a candle and sing the song they always sang at wakes, with her good eye, in "her mind's eye," Angel sees that the spirits are sympathetic. As a communal form, the wake is a way for the living people to deal with the reality of death and the loss of a loved one. Angel sees the "figures circling the room," and she tells her Sunday school teacher, who has been dead for ten years, that the spirits are "either gone, or they sympathetic." The wake at the end of the novel functions as a symbol of past traditions which Angel must retain if she is to have an awareness of her community and her heritage. Angel is lighting a candle not only for the part of her self that was lost with the blinding of her left eye—the Angel that got carried away with party arrogance and detachment from the people they were supposed to be accountable to—but to all Grenadians who lost their lives trying to keep the Revolution alive.
In contrast to Cliff's apparent rendering of social transformation as a tragic impossibility, Collins's novel suggests that it is possible for Grenadians to come together again. Collins's historical novel recovers the discontinuities that Walter Benjamin refers to in his "Theses," allowing the oppressed to correct the distortions of official history. Cliff's more allegorical figuration of history, on the other hand, converts images of time into images of place, creating a dehumanized, almost paradoxically a historical space which ultimately removes the possibility of human agency. Although both writers are pursuing a common goal, to proceed beyond a deterministic view of history, their commitment to an emancipatory project cannot offer any guarantee that their narratives will indeed be liberatory. Collins's novel more than Michelle Cliff's functions as a call to arms because she emphasizes the notion that people are the agents of history through recreating their many voices. Both novels are intent on the destruction of boundaries and inventive in new ways of seeing. These novels of development are indeed central to nation-building since one of the functions of postcolonial writing is to turn a population characterized by differences of language, ethnicity, and religion, into a national unit to achieve some form of wholeness out of fragmentation.
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.]
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 not choose, the creole is bound to her birth-right by her race, since, as Albert Memmi observes, the colonial who does not accept the ideologies and privileges of the colonizer does not—cannot—effectively exist. Still, the white creole is in many ways culturally "black," or Afro-Caribbean: the Afrocentric dynamic permeates all classes and races of Anglophone Caribbean society regardless of its particular configurations within those groups. The creole is, in this sense, representative of both colonizer and colonized.
The question, then, of where the white creole writer locates herself in the West Indian intellectual community becomes of critical importance in evaluating whether her literature is to be read as an English novel of the tropics or a "Third World" narrative (and therefore backward, an anthropological document not destined to join the ranks of "real" literature). Whereas the novels of the first generation of white West Indian writers in the 19th and early 20th century, such as H. G. De Lisser, can for the most part be read as no more than extensions of European colonial ideology placed in exotic locations, the white West Indian writers of the pre- and post-independence era wrote, as did their non-white compatriots, with the intent of creating a regional cultural consciousness. The basis of this new consciousness was an Afro-Caribbean identity, and these texts are marked by their focus on the black poor and lower class as subject and the incorporation of the African-based patois into the narrative. Yet those writers did not examine their own status as "white," privileged West Indians even as they pursued an oppositional consciousness: in their uncritical acceptance of an Afrocentric-based discourse, they submerged—as did others of their generation—the implications of their race to the requirements of the genre, roundly criticizing the hypocrisies of the bourgeois mulatto and the arrogance of the white colonizer with the detachment assumed by someone who belongs to neither. Their unmediated acceptance of an Afrocentric-based definition of Caribbean culture arguably was in a sense as much a dissimulation as that of the previous era's wholesale acceptance of a Eurocentric-based definition. Even though it must be acknowledged that inasmuch as the West Indian concept of race is a fluid category such that a "white" creole may choose to designate himself as politically "black" if he so chooses (a proposition that sounds particularly absurd in the American or European context), yet it is only through the juxtaposition with his European heritage that the white creole achieves this fluid status.
Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, white Dominican writers whose novels reflect the profoundly ambivalent relationship of white creole society to black West Indian society, have met with a peculiar critical resistance that questions their novels' fundamental "West Indianness." Kenneth Ramchand believes their works reveal the white creoles' "terrified consciousness" of the emergence of black power. Edward Brathwaite does not accept Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea as an authentically West Indian novel in that it does not evince an Afrocentric outlook and dismisses Allfrey's Orchid House about a white West Indian family as a "brilliant but irrelevant novel in the West Indian context." According to Brathwaite, the white creole is fundamentally incapable of representing genuine (read black, "folk," politically revolutionary) West Indian society and their discourse reflects this. Even criticisms of Brathwaite's theory tend to accept its premise. For instance, though Evelyn O'Callaghan takes Brathwaite's formulations of "West Indianness" to task, her reasoning is that white creole writing represents an essential—if politically regrettable—part of the "creole continuum" which represents the different linguistic, social, and economic sectors of West Indian society, and thus cannot be separated from the West Indian literary tradition. She does not interrogate the assumption that the white creole's compromised location within the discourse necessarily dictates a compromised consciousness, with its inherent assumption that the empowering resistance properties of a West Indian text are to be found only in a narrative "blackness" which operates in direct relation to the writer's subject position.
In similar fashion the status of Michelle Cliff, a contemporary "Jamaica white" (a Jamaican of mostly white ancestry) West Indian woman writer who explicitly seeks to revalue black identity in her novels, is debated by West Indian feminists and intellectuals, many of whom feel that even as Cliff is described as a black feminist novelist in America (where she lives and writes) her novels are not truly part of an Afrocentric Caribbean discourse because her project as a feminist emanates from an American feminist sensibility and perhaps more importantly that her discovery of a black identity is a foreign fashion that she has appropriated. Yet I think it significant that it is white women in the West Indies who are questioning the terms of their ambivalent status and not the men; Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell observes that she has heard the working class blacks of Trinidad call white women—but never men—"whitey cockroach," and claims this is evidence of the blacks' perception that the white woman creole shares the status of the working class as a marginalized outcast. However, while certainly several feminist critics have used Fanon's model of colonialism to describe the relationship between male (colonizer) culture and female (colonized) status, and feminist scientist Sandra Harding has even suggested that the world views for white women and Africans converge, these do not begin to address the contradictions of white creole women, who are simultaneously both and neither. If we extend the binary logic of these genderized formulations, white creole women embody not simply both "First" and "Third" World sensibilities but also "male" (white, Euro-American) colonizing culture and "female" (black, post-colonial) colonized nature, a conflation of geo-political and gender categories that is highly suspect.
Thus, the problem of how to situate the white creole writer is further complicated when gender becomes an issue, as we have seen. The contemporary West Indian novel reflects a somewhat different sensibility than its predecessor: a significant percentage of today's West Indian writers are women, and they have recast the familiar project of articulating a national identify to reflect their specific experiences as women. Michelle Cliff's novels are critical to working out the problems of race and gender in this regard because they reflect her search for an Afrocentric identity through her matrilineal ancestry while attempting to come to terms with her father's lineage of planters and slave-owners; thus, the search for a black history/identity is intimately bound up with a latent feminism as well as with a revolutionary social consciousness.
In this essay I shall explore how Cliff negotiates the dilemmas posed by race and class by exploring the convergences of personal and collective history in her largely autobiographical novel Abeng and its more fictive sequel, No Telephone to Heaven. She attempts to construct narratives that map the history of black, white, and mulatto Jamaica, mixing genres of narrative—historical, autobiographical, myth—to achieve a dialectical representation of the West Indian experience. I will discuss, first, how these novels extend and re-evaluate the preoccupations of Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, her literary forebear, and second how in doing so her narrative experiments engage and attempt to transcend the twin poles of Naipaul's now-famous negation of West Indian history and Helen Tiffin's notion of the white creole identity as a double negation. Lastly, I will discuss the novels from the standpoint of Wilson Harris' dictum that the West Indian novel requires a revolutionary form which must transcend the traditional "novel of persuasion" in order to convey a revolutionary agenda.
At the conclusion to her excellent study of Jean Rhys' fiction, Mary Lou Emery points out the extraordinary similarity between Antoinette's break with Tia in Wide Sargasso Sea and Clare Savage's dream in Abeng, both of which I have reproduced here:
Then, not so far off, I saw Tia and her mother and I ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not. When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.
Compare this to the conclusion of Abeng:
That night Clare dreamed that she and Zoe were fist-fighting by the river in St. Elizabeth. That she picked up a stone and hit Zoe underneath the eye and a trickle of blood ran down her friend's face and onto the rock where she sat. The blood formed into a pool where the rock folded over on itself. And she went over to Zoe and told her she was sorry—making a compress of moss drenched in water to soothe the cut. Then squeezing an aloe leaf to the wound….
She was not ready to understand her dream. She had no idea that everyone we dream about we are.
Emery reads Cliff's rewriting of the scene as an extension of Rhys' anxieties about cultural marginality and an incipient formulation of a Third World women's tradition of writing and exile. Yet what is important about this scene is that Cliff does not simply repeat the doubling of black and white female identities but actually reverses the scene, so that "white" Clare Savage is the one who inflicts damage on black Zoe. If we consider this scene within the context of its literary history, Cliff is rewriting an historical relation of black and white West Indian women not only to link their cultural identities but to acknowledge the white woman's relation to power. That the scene is a dream highlights its status as part of a fictive (that is, literary) history as well as a real one; only an "unreal" medium can uncover the brutal power dynamics behind Clare's and Zoe's close friendship while allowing for future possibilities of healing. But Clare must first understand and acknowledge this unequal power dynamic before she can be (re)integrated with the society, with her history, and consequently her paradoxical identity. She comes to this understanding only in Abeng's sequel, No Telephone to Heaven, when Clare, after much soul-searching and a sojourn abroad, joins a group of black working-class guerrillas and participates in an attack on an American film crew. First, however, by having Clare read Jane Eyre Cliff shows Clare's direct relation to Antoinette Cosway, the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre who is the subject of Wide Sargasso Sea:
The fiction tricked her. Drawn her in so that she became Jane…. No, she could not be Jane…. No, my girl, try Bertha…. Yes, Bertha was closer to the mark. Captive. Ragout. Mixture. Confused. Jamaican. Caliban. Carib. Cannibal. Cimarron. All Bertha. All Clare.
This passage is particularly important for the link it provides between Caliban and Bertha, the two gendered symbols of Caribbean independence and invisibility. Both inhere within the identity of Clare, who has been characterized as an epistemological paradox in the narrative. That the misnomer of Bertha—this is the name that Rochester forces onto Antoinette—is the name designated as "closer the mark" reminds us of the misnomer of "West Indies," and the struggle between the imposition of hegemonic history and uncoded reality which it embodies. The name represents a locus of struggle over identity, and we are guided to read Clare's name in this way. As the inheritor of her father's cultural and racial whiteness—her father has designated Clare to be the "white" child, to whom he shall impart the "gift" of European history and knowledge—Clare is the "masculine" daughter.
Yet whiteness, as a masculinized epistemology, and femaleness, which is aligned with blackness and historylessness, cannot be assimilated to each other. Clare's name points to this fundamental schism: "Clare" represents, obviously, the "light" of European ancestry, and yet Clare is named after a black woman who saves her mother's life—the sign of good, therefore, is black. "Savage" is an illustrious Jamaican name, and yet, as the name implies, it carries with it a barbaric history. Thus even within the paradox of the name are concealed paradoxes. The "Savage" reminds us of Caliban, and yet this is not to whom the name refers—Caliban/Black/Man and Bertha/White/Woman are reversed within Clare. As such, by the end of the narrative when Clare meets the mad white woman who had an affair with her black servant, we see the possibility of madness in Clare's future, the result of inexorable historical forces that cannot be assimilated into each other. This parallels Antoinette/Bertha's descent into madness at the conclusion of Wide Sargasso Sea.
The above passage also engenders within the reader a full realization that the site of dialogue is not simply with an ambivalent white creole tradition but also with the European literary canon itself, which freezes the colonized subject in an eternal relation of subject/object. Much scholarship has recently dealt with the feminist, anti-colonial critique contained in Wide Sargasso Sea, but, using the conflating logic referred to above, they tend to collapse the categories into one or the other.
As Emery points out, "feminist and Third World perspectives rarely combine in readings of Rhys' work. When they do, the resulting analysis usually depends upon a structural analogy between colonial hierarchies and sexual oppression that still positions the protagonist as a victim who lacks agency and offers little or no resistance." This can be said of most analyses of white creole women,… Furthermore, Emery notes, post-colonial and feminist scholars who both work on Rhys rarely converse with each other. (Even as feminist scholars are now utilizing postcolonial theories, the merging of discourses remains decidedly one-sided.) Again, this can be extended to the relations between post-colonial and feminist theory in general, and is, considering the suspicion under which feminist theory has been held in the "Third World," not surprising. The idea that feminist theory only utilizes the Third World as fodder to attain status within the elite Western theoretical discourses remains pervasive among Third World scholars.
… cruelty … resistance … grace. I'm not outside this history—it's a matter of recognition.
—No Telephone to Heaven
These, then, are the critical and historical frameworks that Cliff has inherited, and ones which she must reconcile in order to rewrite West Indian narrative to fit her peculiar position as both "white" and yet "Third World," "black" and yet "First World," feminist and yet post-colonialist. To achieve this she rewrites white creole history of privilege and collaboration to integrate it with the unwritten black and Amerindian histories of suffering and resistance; her texts attempt to dismantle notions of "official" history and the relation of that history to myth, myth to "real life," and "real life" to fiction by conflating Jamaican legends and myths with ancient and contemporary histories, autobiographical anecdotes and among all of these, intertwining Clare Savage's personal journey.
In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Stallybrass and White emphasize that to properly understand discourse one cannot separate it from its social space ("It is only when such related concepts as critical judgment, taste, authorship and writing are reconnected to their 'planes of emergence' as Foucault has called them, the social points at which such ideas surface, that they can be fully understood"). In returning Bertha Mason back to the West Indies where her "real" name is revealed, Rhys acknowledges that geo-political location is the crucial referent to "reading" Bertha, and by extension to making sense of West Indian discourse. Similarly, in No Telephone to Heaven Clare Savage returns to Jamaica after moving first to the United States and then to London, thereby retracing the "triangle" of the slave trade, only the other way around. Both of Cliff's novels reveal Clare Savage at different stages in her life, and yet the point is not to embody Clare as a character separate from her "plane of emergence" but rather to read that location through the conflicting and multiple identities that are Clare Savage: she is, as such, not a "character" in the traditional sense at all. Clare's final destination is not England and a descent into madness, but Jamaica and conscious resistance, though she, like Bertha, dies in the act of resisting.
Whereas Antoinette Cosway dreams of a location that is "somewhere else" to remove her from the Manichean world in which there is no psychic or social space for someone such as herself, Cliff seeks to actualize that location of "elsewhere" for Clare by creating within her novels a geo-political space of memory arising from Clare's slaveowner, slave, and Arawak ancestry. In this way she deconstructs the traditional historical chronological narrative, with its understanding that the "conclusion" allows us to elucidate the meaning of the history. In the Caribbean, whose "conclusion" was one of slavery, colonization and consequent "Third World" status, the historical narrative has functioned to contain or erase other histories by reading the region solely in terms of how it served to construct the historical realities of Europe or America.
In Resistance Literature Barbara Harlowe notes that narratives of resistance must not only undo hegemonic recorded history, but they must also invent new forms of encoding resistance by inventing spaces of resistance. West Indian authors similarly emphasize the spatial aspect of narrative for West Indian literature; Wilson Harris suggests that the "authentic" West Indian novel uses the historical memory of the land, with its unknown past and infinite possibilities, to deconstruct the colonizer/colonized opposition, and thus up-end the subject/object relation of European discourse to West Indian literature. Others, notably Alejandro Carpentier, have advocated magical realism as a way of recovering the "true" history of the region. But as Selwyn Cujoe observes, what they understand to be the "magical" properties of West Indian history—conquistadores, obeah, an extinct Amerindian culture—are in fact based on a critical understanding of reality, and that, as such, West Indian narrative should not be read as circular but rather as a spiral, not a repetition but rather an extension: what he terms a "critical realism." This is a useful concept for explicating Cliff's narrative in that Cliff explicitly seeks to rewrite and yet not to repeat history. In the following passage we hear the "official" history of Jamaica, resurrecting Naipaul's vision of West Indian History in The Mimic Men ("We pretended to be real … we mimic men of the New World" who are irretrievably "sunk in the taint of fantasy"), but infusing it with different meaning:
These are the facts as I believe them. But as you no doubt are well aware, there are no facts in Jamaica. Not one single fact. Nothing to join us to the real. Facts move around you. Magic moves through you. This we have been taught. This fact that there are no facts. Wait. I can call up one fact. "The adamantine refusal of the slave-women to reproduce"—a historian report that. What of Gamesome, Lusty Ann, Counsellor's Cuba, Strumpet called Skulker—not racehorses, mi dear, women: barren. Four furious cool-dark sistren. Is nuh fact dat? Fact yes, but magic mek it so.
By blending the voice of the "official" history, which denies that there is a history, with the oral transmission of historical resistance encoded in the "magical" narrative of myth, the passage reveals historical representation in discourse to be the site of conflict, a point I will come back to later in this essay.
Unlike Rhys, whose novels reveal simultaneous attraction to and fear of Afro-Caribbean society and the consequent ambivalence which I have already discussed, Cliff understands that an understanding of black consciousness is crucial to resolving the complexities of being a white colonized subject, and more importantly is empowering not only to black people in the Caribbean, but to white people as well; her novels attempt to reclaim her African identity, which was "bred out" of her during her childhood in Jamaica. Jamaican sociologist and writer Erna Brodber observes of West Indian society, "[The literate] tended to see booklearning not simply as a tool for making a livelihood but as the ultimate truth…. The unlettered lowerclass, depending on the oral tradition for its information, was kept in touch with its past of Africa and slavery and with its African identity." The conflation of story and history in the West Indian context is therefore particularly important as a way of empowering the entire spectrum of people and providing a means for all to participate in the discourse of shaping a West Indian identity.
Cliff describes the process of coming to consciousness through writing in these terms:
To write as a complete Caribbean woman … demands of us retracing the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or scattered as potash in the canefields, or gone to bush, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification…. It means finding the art forms of these of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us…. ("A Journey Into Speech")
For the colonized West Indian, Europe had a history, Jamaica did not: the little history it did have consisted of a recitation of the skirmishes of the European imperial powers fought to determine who would own the territory. In colonial and much of post-colonial Jamaica, Jamaicans lived without knowledge of their past—they lived with absence. The unwritten history of Jamaica—the genocide of its inhabitants, the suffering of the black slaves, the cruelty of the white plantation owners—survived in myths. Abeng's odd blend of narrative techniques is an attempt to show how these historical events created the cultural duality that is the legacy of the creole. The narrative reflects that duality: it moves in abrupt staccato from historical facsimile to historical fiction to autobiography (in an essay she describes as factual events and people described in the novel, though the novel itself offers a disclaimer as to any similarities), and the choppy switching back and forth from genre to genre creates a restless tension in the narrative which is never resolved—or meant to be.
The novel traces the coming-to-consciousness of Clare Savage, a "Jamaica white" on the edge of adolescence, who becomes aware of her place in society through her relationships with various people; her autocratic Protestant white father, descendant of Judge Savage who burned his hundred slaves on the eve of Emancipation in 1834, who teaches her to be proud of her white heritage; her mulatto, rural-born mother Kitty, who belongs to a "clap-hand" church and is "more comfortable speaking patois and walking through the bush"; her poor black friend Zoe, whose mother rents land from Clare's grandmother; and finally Miss Winifred, a white woman vilified and called mad by her family for falling in love with a black servant. Through these relationships Clare learns the parameters of her position in Jamaican society. When she tries to transcend those parameters retribution is swift: after Clare takes her grandmother's gun and accidentally shoots her bull, she is sent to live with Miss Beatrice who will teach her her "proper place" and not to "act like a boy." The white woman's enactment of a specific gender role, then, is a crucial link in maintaining class and power distinctions while simultaneously nurturing the vital contact with black culture. Her relationship with Zoe also is saturated with the imperatives of class, since it is only possible because Clare has the ability to move in and out of Zoe's world.
Still, the landscape of the country serves as a meeting place for these two children on opposite sides of the race divide:
This was a friendship—a pairing of two girls—kept only on school vacations, and because of their games and make-believe might have seemed to some entirely removed from what was real in the girls' lives. Their lives of light and dark—which was the one overwhelming reality. But this friendship also existed close to the earth, in a place where there were no electric lights, where water was sought from a natural source, where people walked barefoot more often than not.
This landscape, then, does not simply contain an unwritten history but also contains the potential to heal that history.
Clare's love for Zoe is a manifestation of her more deeply rooted yearning for her mother's love and approval; her mother prefers her sister because she is darker and therefore closer to Kitty's black heritage, while Clare is considered to be her father's child. The narrative never really analyzes Kitty's perceptions of race, characterizing her simply as a woman who "loved darkness," is more comfortable "speaking patois and walking through the bush, and refers to Africa with 'reverence.'"
The ideological project in this arrangement is easy to see: Cliff is setting up a dichotomy in the white father/black mother parallel, so that Clare's search for a black identity becomes aligned with a woman-centered, incipiently feminist consciousness. This is borne out by Cliff's rewriting of the Jamaican myth of Nanny, a maroon fighter in the 1800s who was reputed to catch the bullets of redcoats between her buttocks; in Abeng she is transformed into Mma Alli, a lesbian obeah woman who teaches the slaves how to escape.
By recreating Nanny as a "woman-centered" figure Cliff is attempting to insert a wedge in the historical narrative of Jamaica which will revalue not simply a black experience but will also provide an empowering history for West Indian women. Similarly, she casts Kitty—and indeed all black women in this novel—as having a direct and unmediated linkage to a positive black history and consciousness. This contradicts the implicit logic of the narrative structure: it hopes to construct an historical identity from fragments and dislocations of identity, yet it leaves Clare as the sole embodiment of historical fragmentation without acknowledging that the imposition of colonial ideology and racial attitudes must have affected their relationship to black identity. Kitty, for instance, has, despite her desire to teach African history to poor black children, married a racist white man, yet her sense of black identity is never questioned in the interests of preserving the narrative's clear racial ideology (indeed, Kitty's explanation that she was pregnant and had no choice is meant to be interpreted as further evidence of the black woman's plight in Jamaica but rather smacks of an authorial "quick fix" to deal with such glaring ambiguity). Despite Clare's pivotal role, the power relations in this novel are structured in binary terms of a source of power (white men: Judge Savage and Boy Savage) and reactions to that power (black women: Mma Alli, Kitty). The logic of this arrangement dictates that were the oppressed (black women) to accede to power, the existing organization of class/race relations would be dismantled, an arrangement that does not acknowledge the diffusion of power in terms more complex than simply economic or racial.
Creating History, Creating Discourse
In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon declares that violence is an inevitable part of the decolonizing process, and much of West Indian writing acknowledges this potential for violent social upheaval. However, in the two most prominent West Indian novels dealing with revolutionary violence, Naipaul's Guerrillas and Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance, the revolution fails because of the internal incoherence of the protagonists. In Dragon rebellion leader Fisheye does not know what he is fighting for or indeed what he is fighting against, and in Guerillas Jimmy Ahmed seeks only to be a "real" hero, like the one he is writing about in his novel, whose "reality" is sustained in the fact that he is much admired—and feared—in England. Naipaul's novel is particularly important to our discussion of No Telephone to Heaven because it contains several thematic issues which are extended and rewritten in the latter.
In Guerillas a semi-retarded ghetto boy's murder of an Englishwoman is constructed as the ultimate act of black violence run amok. It is violence that is the result of an existential crisis of identity, an identity which can only conceive itself on the other side of "reality": the revolution is revealed to be an empty contemporary cliché that masks this "truth." The depiction of revolution as symbol, as sign without connection to referent, echoes Naipaul's emphasis on the guerrilla's writing fantasy scenarios of revolt—the implication is that his rage, like his writing, is only given expression by romantic European liberal ideas, and consequently his violence, like his writing, can only be a caricature, an echo, or inversion of a European referent.
In what I shall read as a parallel scene to the above, Christopher (the garden boy in No Telephone to Heaven) murders his wealthy brown employers and their black maid because they refused to give him land to bury his grand-mother, who had died some 13 years before. Christopher too is "mad" in one sense, but his "madness" becomes coherent in the historical context of the narrative, where the injustices of the past and present converge into a single act of "random" violence.
A doubling of this act occurs toward the conclusion of the novel when Clare Savage tells the leader of the guerrillas—a nameless black woman from a nameless country—that she is joining them because she needs to "mend" herself by burying her mother. Like Christopher, Clare's mother had died some time before. And, like Christopher's mother, Clare's mother is black, a significant element in the chronology of West Indian narrative where, as we have noted, the bodies which represent the site of dialogue have been those of white females. That these maternal bodies have been dead but not buried remind us of the invisibility of black women in the narration of West Indian oppositional discourse, as embodied by Caliban's mother, the absent Sycorax, who represents Caliban's past heritage of might and agency. Therefore, the attempt to "bury" the grand/mother becomes a metaphor for reconciling the "unburied"—that is, unrepresented, ghostly, "magical"—history of the people with the possibilities contained in the land, a fusion which requires violent rupture with present reality.
What the guerrillas understand, however, is that it is the power of representation, more so than the physical manifestations of poverty and privilege, which is the source of power. Significantly, it is the statue of Pocahontas which Clare encounters in England that hastens her return: in the symbol of Pocahontas is frozen the entire history of the New World, its violent resistance to European imperialism converted to acquiescent, feminine (I use the term deliberately) collaboration. The guerrillas' attack on an American film site would be the capstone of existential absurdity in a Naipaul novel. But even as the helicopters flying over the guerrillas' hiding places in the bush tell us that their mission has failed, the novel ends with a burst of sounds—English, patois, bird sounds—which signify the unharnessed possibilities of discourse: the power to name, signify, create. These remain embedded in the landscape, future potential to reclaim representation.
No Telephone to Heaven builds upon Abeng by deconstructing the reductive gender/ race ideology in the former so that it is not solely white, male, European culture which is the focal point of conflict but language itself, wherein gender and geo-political categories are both created and fixed in memory. To attempt to imitate the "reality" of these categories thus becomes a futile project. In the final analysis, it is discourse which creates meaning; by creating an alternative "reality" in a narrative structure which both extends and engages West Indian and European representations, the text attempts not an imaginary nor an imitation universe but a new kind of reality.
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 rebirth. In this powerful novel, which centers on the fictional character Annie Christmas and the historical figure Mary Ellen Pleasant, Jamaican-born Cliff explains that she is continuing the work begun in Toni Morrison's Beloved—"remembering and reconstructing the past." Cliff calls Beloved a "watershed" for her and other writers, "the first modern novel to take on the subject of slavery in its deepest sense."
In an interview prior to a reading at Vertigo Books in Washington, D.C., Cliff explained that she became intrigued with Pleasant through a reference to this woman—who kept hotels in San Francisco and contributed $30,000 to finance John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry—in Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters. According to Cliff, however, Free Enterprise began with the character of Annie, a Jamaican living in exile "who is in many ways standing for me." Her interest in Pleasant grew as the novel took shape until "she sort of came into the novel on her own," says Cliff. "I've always been interested in the black woman resister, and Pleasant defeats every stereotype of an African-American woman in the 19th century: she was a successful business-woman, an entrepreneur; she was always a revolutionary, and she never gave up the cause, even after the failure of the raid on Harper's Ferry." Pleasant wanted her grave carved with the simple statement, "She was a friend of John Brown," and Cliff herself made the pilgrimage to Napa, California, to witness the marble headstone bearing that testimony.
It is there that the fire began, a destructive fire that would sear away untruths and half-truths. An outraged Cliff recalls the response of a man working in the Napa Cemetery whom she asked for directions to Pleasant's grave, "Oh, you mean Mammy Pleasant?" "In the 1990s!" Cliff rails, "Mary Ellen Pleasant is still known by the name she detested," a name that symbolizes the "history" that remembers this extraordinary woman as a madam, voodoo queen, arsonist, and on and on rather than entrepreneur and revolutionary. In Free Enterprise, Cliff re-views history and invites her readers to participate in the process (in fact, she insists).
Annie and Mary Ellen are comrades whose relationship grows out of commitment to their common cause of liberation. In 1858, after both women hear Frances Ellen Watkins Harper speak on "The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race," Annie accepts Mary Ellen's invitation to supper at a restaurant named the Free Enterprise. The richness of this phrase unfolds, as does the novel, and resonates long after. Ironically, free enterprise refers to the slave trade, which Cliff points out was the main industry in the country in the 19th century, as well as in the rest of the world. Says Cliff,
Slavery wasn't just about the transportation of people; no, shipping companies were involved, insurance companies, people who provided salted fish for the slaves. It was an interlocking industry. To me it seemed the apotheosis of free enterprise, of capitalism. Also, Mary Ellen is an entrepreneur and believer in capitalism, and the enterprise that John Brown had in his heart was the enterprise of freedom—he and others; one engaged in an enterprise to free oneself and others. So the title has all of these different meanings. Then there's this little restaurant that's called Free Enterprise, which a man and his wife are trying to set up. This was meant to evoke things like the People's Grocery in Memphis, one of the first successful businesses owned by black people after the Civil War. You see, so many things are meant to ring a bell in people's minds about other things.
Free Enterprise opens with an epigram from Miles Davis, "I always listen for what I can leave out," which Cliff believes describes her fiction. "It's like wanting to leave out the main theme—things we all learned, like Lincoln freed the slaves, emancipation was handed to black people, slavery wasn't so terrible—to get to the more unusual music, the music that one hasn't heard yet." Cliff writes that "the official version is a cheat"; it has been "printed, bound, and gagged, resides in schools, libraries, the majority unconscious. Serves the common good. Does not cause trouble."
Cliff's fiery vision breaks down "the official version," but alternate versions emerge only through blendings and fusings that resemble Annie Christmas's decoration of the trees outside her house with various bottles, "ingredients from here, there, and everywhere." Cliff mixes myth and story, fact and fiction, madness and sanity, a range of time periods and even forms. "I can't stand the idea of the novel here, the history there, the biography there," she explains, "I can't see why these things can't be mixed. We have to bring our imagination to our history, because so much has been lost."
Mary Ellen Pleasant and John Brown are not the only historical figures in the work. Cliff includes the photographer Clover Adams and her cousin Alice Hooper. In their contact with Pleasant, Cliff intends her portrayal of these women to be "sympathetic."
Part of my purpose in this novel is to show the problems of different lives of women in the 19th century, not just black women. Clover Adams is someone who intrigued me way back in the 1970s, when I was an art history student. My interest in her and Mary Ellen came together in this book. What I wanted to show was how the privilege of a woman of the upper class in this country, Brahmin Boston, pales beside the privilege of Mary Ellen as an activist. Clover Adams was more encumbered by her place in society than Mary Ellen was. Mary Ellen was able to transcend what was seen as her place by resisting. Unable to do that, Clover Adams committed suicide. I wanted her to stand for those women in the 19th century who were artists and who were passionate but were unable to practice their art or fuel their passion except in a very limited way, because of gender, class, and race.
The thing that is available to these women is the cause of abolition. They're not able to engage in the feminist movement, for example, because they're too early for that historically. So, when Alice and Clover both say in different parts of the novel that they want to feel 'real,' meaning alive, the only time they can do that is during the Civil War, when they are able to leave their drawing rooms in Boston to work actively for the cause of abolition. When the war is over, they have no place to go because nothing is available to them. So they both die. Alice Hooper died a sort of lingering mysterious illness when she was in her thirties, and Clover killed herself by drinking her own chemicals.
Malcolm X strides into this novel of 19th-century action, a "hologrammatical man" who is a waiter in the famous Parker House, "waiting on his time, when he would first be called Homeboy, then Detroit Red, then X." Cliff recalls her decision to bring him into her novel, some time before the Spike Lee movie came out, when she was writing the scene in that Boston restaurant: "Mary Ellen is in this very snazzy restaurant with dark paneling, pictures of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Emerson, and I remembered that Malcolm X had worked as a busboy there. It occurred to me that I could show him as a ghost of the future."
What had happened was that I had driven across the country by myself when this novel was just a germ in my head in 1990. I stopped on the way back to California in the Omaha Black Museum on the weekend when Malcolm X would have been 60. I went into this beautiful museum—a neighborhood place, not funded or anything—and the people who ran it had done a terrific exhibit. I drove on to Grand Island, Nebraska, to the Pioneer Museum, where I asked about material on black Nebraskans. I was assured that there were no black people in Nebraska! So, that incident shows the whole thing I was writing about.
I thought [about] what it was like for Malcolm X not to know somebody like Mary Ellen Pleasant ever existed; how would knowing about a female role in the earlier movement have changed what he might have done? When he says to her in Free Enterprise, 'Why didn't I know about you?' it's meant to be a very poignant statement, because he recognizes her as his ancestor.
In Free Enterprise, Cliff goes about setting some parts of the record straight. The outrage, anger, and occasional violence that burn through this novel lead to a clarification and reconstruction missing from her earlier works. Characters who have or find access to their own history survive and have something invaluable to pass on. A schoolmistress near the novel's close cautions her students about the fragility of books: "What they contain can easily be lost. We must become talking books; talk it on, like the Africans, children. Talk it on."
Whether in letters, dinner table conversations, heated debates, or interior monologues, characters in Free Enterprise "talk it on" to make connections. Through their own close friendship, kindred spirits Mary Ellen and Annie construct and share a history that finally links life and death when Mary Ellen writes, "I bequeath to you the story of my life." Cliff, too, bequeaths history and story to her readers: "What I wanted to do in Free Enterprise is to show people, wherever we come from, whatever our backgrounds, what it has done to us not to know this history. Not to know that people like Mary Ellen Pleasant existed, that John Brown was not a crazy person but a decent human being. What has it done to lose that history? What unites all my books is the loss of history and my attempt to restore pieces of it for myself and the reader."
In Free Enterprise, Mary Ellen Pleasant wonders, "If bone structure is passed on, why not memory?" Why not indeed? In this latest novel, Michelle Cliff has written in fire, and memory is the phoenix.
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.
Free Enterprise takes its inspiration from one such act of resistance: John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry in October 1859. History has cast Brown as the lone and fearless warrior, the hero of folk songs and monuments, who first risked family, fortune and social standing, then martyred himself for the abolitionist cause. But in Cliff's novel, John Brown has a female collaborator, Mary Ellen Pleasant,
Dedicated fighter … Mother of Freedom, Warrior and Entrepreneur, who some believed came back from the dead in nineteen and six to avenge her good name, and the loss of property she suffered at the hands of the fathers of San Francisco, who finally brought her down, charging she was a witch, casting spells with her one blue eye and her one black eye, poisoning the city water supply, wreaking havoc at the stock exchange, souring the milk of nursing mothers.
Mary Ellen's message—"The axe is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money to help"—is found on John Brown's body the night of the October raid. Though a fearless warrior, Mary Ellen does not act alone. At least a year before John Brown's raid, she meets Annie by chance in a Boston auditorium where Frances E. W. Harper is speaking on "The Education and Elevation of the Colored Race." They meet again later that evening in the back of a restaurant named Free Enterprise. There, in an act reminiscent of classic slave narratives, Mary Ellen gives Annie a new name, Annie Christmas, after the legendary figure of revolutionary times who was said to possess the physical power of John Henry. From the restaurant, they begin plotting a revolution before joining Brown's illfated raid. And after the raid is thwarted, they head south, armed with guns and passes forged by Mary Shadd Carey, founder of a Canadian school for refugee slaves.
Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Shadd Carey and Annie Christmas are three more names added to the pantheon of guerrillas Cliff has crafted and on whom she has conferred the legendary status that history denied. I think of the two revolutionaries from her first novel, Abeng (1984): Nanny, the sorceress, who could "catch a bullet between her buttocks," and Mma Alli, the "one-breasted warrior woman" who was "bred to fight." And then, in No Telephone to Heaven (1987), there is Clare, the light-skinned daughter of Jamaican landowners, who casts her lot with a band of freedom fighters marooned on an abandoned farm turned forest.
But Free Enterprise is not so much about "correcting" or adding names to the official story of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, or, for that matter, about wanting "ownership of history," as Mary Ellen calls it, but rather about exploring what happens to the official record of one man's heroism when those formerly "in the silence" and the shadows emerge to tell their tales.
And there are tales aplenty here. Of Annie Christmas' cold-blooded murder of two white women on her way south to arm the slaves. Of her battle-fatigue and ultimate retreat to a leper colony on the banks of the Mississippi River following the aborted raid. Of Mary Ellen's later life as a successful California businesswoman who owns a string of hotels that cater to wealthy whites while doubling as safe havens for runaway slaves. Of maroons who kept each other company in hush harbors and hiding places. Of the murder of Captain James Cook by the "natives" he'd "discovered" on the Sandwich Islands in his great tropical sweep of the Pacific. Even of a Malcolm X-like figure who appears hologrammatically as a waiter in the dining room of the Parker House hotel.
But while there are multiple stories here there is little in the way of "Story," at least not according to the conventional laws of plot and character, cause and effect, probability, verisimilitude. Like all good post-modernists, Cliff frees herself from conventional narrative burdens, implicitly nodding to the truism that this age lacks the structure of story and must thus content itself with fragments of a narrative that can never be wholly written.
The novel boldly cuts back and forth in time and roams wildly and suggestively over territory that some might declare off limits. Cliff takes great liberties with a tissue of familiar historical and literary references that give the narrative the qualities and structure of a dream.
The richly evocative title—Free Enterprise—offers surprising twists and turns. While it refers, most obviously, to the material realm of money matters—free market, private property and profit margins—it refers perhaps most trenchantly to the free play of the imagination, to the dreamlike state that Cliff has entered to weave this tale in which fantasy and history are reflections of each other.
This strategy of telling is entirely consistent with the novel's implicit war on the notion of the all-seeing, all-knowing, "objective" eye of history. This attitude has become a convention unto itself, at least in academic circles: history is no longer to be revered or reposed in any single body. No, history must be seen as produced, co-produced and contested by all who have a stake in whatever story is being told. And it turns out that everyone in this novel has a stake in the story of slavery and its consequences, none more so than the band of "New World" guerrillas who populate its pages and their "New World" author who fights right alongside them.
Cliff's own stakes are plain to see. In stringing together this series of stories, she takes anything but a laissez-faire, laissez-passer approach to the business of telling the histories of resistance. The play of voices she orchestrates makes, at once, for the fertility and frustration of Free Enterprise. Allowing those "in the silence" to speak as co-producers and partners makes for a novel full of accounts that could never be incorporated into a single narrative frame with a shapely structure of beginning-middle-end. But the stories of these co-producers keep vanishing from the narrative almost as suddenly as they appear, scattering like the fugitive images of last night's dream.
They leave behind the lingering echoes of set pieces or speeches, illustrating this or that point about the philosophy of history and memory toward which Cliff has long been tending. For example, Clare Savage, the rebel of Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven, explains her investment in a "new sort of history" that complicates, if not brackets altogether, mundane concerns about proof and rules of evidence:
[This history] involves me … the practice of rubbing lime and salt in the backs of whipped slaves … the ambush tactics of Cudjoe … the promised flight of Alexander Bedward in rapture back to Africa … cruelty … resistance … grace. I'm not outside this history—it's a matter of recognition … memory … When I study Tom Cringle's silk cotton tree, I wonder about the fact that I have never been able to bear a necklace around my throat … not even a scarf.
This explanation calls to mind the concept of "rememory" in Toni Morrison's Beloved. As Sethe explains to Denver:
I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory…. Some things you forget. Other things you never do…. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.
In confronting the nature of memory, Free Enterprise, in its most interesting moments, works off a similarly imagistic view that effectively nullifies forgetfulness. In one exchange, a character worries that "all we have are these stories, and they are endangered." She is reassured by another that "[o]nce something is spoken … it does not die. It … escape[s] into the cosmos, space," is "carried on the air."
Whatever we think is forgotten, then, actually lives in the timeless zone of the unconscious and the ether of the universe, capable of being retrieved or, as one of the voices in the novel puts it, passed down like "bone structure." This is one way of answering the question posed by the narrator of Gay Jones' novel, Corregidora (1975), with which Free Enterprise has much in common: "How could she bear witness to what she'd never lived?" It is also a way of resisting the domination of official historical dogma and its enslavement to "facts."
I worry, however, that Cliff's act of resistance is caught partly in domination's noose. Although the voices of those formerly "in the silence" rub against and stress the power of the official word, Cliff cannot finally let them have their say. In other words, they are silenced again by her compulsion to over-ponder her decision to be free of blind fidelity to time, space and ideas of the real. Story is sacrificed to philosophical meditation again and again in the novel and throughout Cliff's fiction. While these explanations contain their own value, interest and narrative appeal, they coexist in ungainly balance with the operations of the plot.
Cliff does not need to work so hard to justify her decision to attempt this free fantasia, moving backward and forward in time to form the points and counterpoints of history cum myth cum legend. When she frees herself of the compulsion to explain her decision to inhabit the "wild" and etherized zone, to rely upon the power of suggestion, of evocation, the result is a rich and strange layering of scenes and haunting suggestions that linger in the mind long after the book is done. This layering lends to the narrative a paradoxical quality of movement and stasis, of time going forward yet simultaneously standing still. For example, the story of the origins of the Mississippi River leper colony where "everyone was numbered" bears an eerie resemblance to descriptions of Nazi concentration camps and contemporary myths about the etiology of AIDS. And seen from yet another angle, the leper colony takes on the shapes (and sparks the fears) of the present-day "inner city" enclaved and encrypted from the "rest" of the world by the colonization of space and structure designed to quarantine the threat of "blackness," to prevent its spreading into "white."
The relation implied between the colonization of space and the values of the marketplace opens some intriguing questions in the novel. Cliff has obviously read and absorbed the heated debates in the abolitionist press about the links between free enterprise, based on property rights and ownership, and the ownership of slaves. To her credit, she has not written a morality play in which the wolf of free enterprise downs the lamb of political dissent. That Mary Ellen owns a string of hotels that cater to wealthy whites and secretly double as havens for runaway slaves indicates that wolf and lamb can and must lie down together.
While Cliff's John Brown wants to found a "communist African state as a Christo-utopia," believing that slaves were "better than capitalism, since we had been crucified by it," Mary Ellen will have no part of such idealism. She resists the idea that commerce is foreign to African heritage, countering that "In Africa, commerce came easily to us, there were no communist states." She then insists (does one hear Cliff's sotto voce support of "enterprise zones"?) that "the future of the African in this country … will only bear fruit if and when we get our own. Banks, schools, real estate, printing presses, newspapers, grocery stores … and partake fully in free enterprise."
I sense no irony in this passage. The novel seems committed to the idea that free enterprise affords the "freeing" enterprises of resistance, narrative and non-narrative alike. And yet, in the final instance, it offers dismal prospects for such liberation for people of African descent, since liberation depends on the ownership of capital and the means of production, and blacks lay claim to neither. As one character tells another. "We might as well give it up, our telling of the past. We own but a few of the presses. We wield no power in the mills that train the minds."
Michelle Cliff is certainly not the first to suggest that the industry of publishing and an industrialized academy are jointly employed and mutually complicit in the maintenance and manufacture of the status quo, including "official" stories and discourses from which all signs of wildness and resistance have been purged. But in invoking the publishing industry—one cog in the free market's vast and grinding machinery—she opens another string of vexing questions about the relation between domination and resistance, production and consumption, in the act of "representing history" in a free market economy.
Cliff has already anticipated her own problem, using a painting as a parable about publishing. Early in the novel, Alice Hooper, a rich New Englander on whom "the responsibility of capital" weights heavily, writes Mary Ellen to smooth over the commotion following the unveiling of "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On," a painting by one Joseph Mallord William Turner, bought for her as an investment by those who would free her of the disdainful task of "investment and planning." Expressing her regrets that too many New England fortunes "rest in the enterprise of slavery," she vows to try "as much as possible to separate [herself] from any profit which might … have been linked to the trade."
Writing to Annie two nights later, Mary Ellen expresses her revenge fantasy: "What if last night I'd emptied my mother's chambers into Mr. Turner's painting?" Then she goes on to lament again the "official version" of "John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry," adding that this is for "public consumption—in both senses of that word."
But if the "official version" is indeed written—or painted—for "public consumption," figured at once as degenerative disease and oppressive economic reality, how does Free Enterprise free itself from (and immunize itself against) this enterprise? That question assumes a special urgency in light of an apparently thriving trade market for fictionalizations of slavery. Free Enterprise invites comparison with a growing number of contemporary novels that challenge canned and synthetic narratives of slavery and refuse the lulling consolations of forgetfulness: Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Caryl Phillips' Cambridge and Crossing the River all come to mind. These books clearly do not constitute a chorus in unison or one quick to do the bidding of the literary establishment (whatever that might be). But the proliferation of such novels does indicate the willingness of a publishing industry to trade on slavery.
I'm reminded here of the question Gary Trudeau posed in his recent spoof on the newly-minted videos of Michael Milken's high-yield investment strategies: "Can history be bought?" Judging from publishers' lists, we could say that the history of representing slavery not only can be bought but is being bought—true to the nature and dictates of free enterprise. But at whose expense?
If, as Milan Kundera writes, the "struggle of [humans] against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting," and if the act of writing is part of that struggle, how can, how does, that writing remain free of the "official word" that publishing has some hand in manufacturing? Free Enterprise conjures up these messy material questions, but flings them—like the stories of resistance the novel beads together—outward on the winds, to melt like "all that is solid" into air.
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 metanarratives and when Fukayama talks of an 'end of history', we must ask: precisely whose narrative and whose history is being declared at an 'end'? Dominant Europe may clearly have begun to deplete its strategic repertoire of stories, but Third World people, First World 'minorities'—women and gays and lesbians—have only begun to tell, and deconstruct, theirs." Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's pointed question disrupting the diegetic hold of Western master narratives opens up a liminal space for Third World stories to be told whose possibilities we have barely begun to explore. But the massive project of an anticolonialist retelling and remapping, of enacting historical agency in the "slenderness of narrative" (Foucault's phrase), or as Homi Bhabha poignantly puts it, of "encounter[ing] a past that is your own country reterritorialized, even terrorized, by another" is bound to founder if we do not in our engagements with and resistance to Western hegemonic theories also unmask colonialism's demonic Other, namely, imperialism and its incestuous relationship with psychoanalysis. In this respect, the distressing problem is not so much the relation of postcolonial culture to psychoanalysis, since both are implicated in a long durée in and as history. What has not been adequately addressed, however, are the fundamental and constitutive elements of psychoanalysis itself, whose brutal colonial history is deeply grounded in and inseparable from its virulent racism. My interest lies in exploring the weighted valences on either side of the "and" between psychoanalysis and postcolonialism, whose pairing stages both a problematic link between the two disciplines that is yet to be theorized and also a temporal cut whereby one discourse undermines the totalizing tendency of the other.
In tracing psychoanalysis's discursive formation in relation to imperialism elsewhere, I argue that through the primacy of an elaborate machinery of visual relations, in particular the colonial gaze, psychoanalysis objectified, scripted, and racialized the exotic non-Western "people without history" for the prurient fascination of the masses in the West while masking and remaining obstinately silent about the racialized assumptions of its own ideological formations. By a perverse paradox, the transplantation of psychoanalysis onto alien soils also hybridized and fissured its praxis, producing the same ambivalence and destabilization of authority that occurred at the level of the state apparatus's interactions with indigenous peoples. If we are to rewrite history/narrative through the peculiar lens of the dispossessed/colonized, "not univocally but contrapuntally," in Said's sense of the term [in "Secular Interpretation"], "with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominant discourse acts," then we must enact a seismological shift in perspective, one that encompasses the painful disruption/eruption of history as trauma and trauma as history.
To rephrase Spivak, no writer more insistently says an "impossible 'no'" to structures of modernity, "which one critiques, yet inhabits intimately," than Michelle Cliff in No Telephone to Heaven. The back-and-forth migration of her protagonist from Jamaica to America to England and back again to Jamaica provides a frenetic frame to her novel that frustrates any attempt at a vantage point from which to gain mastery of the text. Refusing to cast the cultural debate in hackneyed binary oppositions—center versus margin, metropole versus colony, ruling class versus subaltern—Cliff's ambivalent double articulation on one level explodes the fixed boundaries of identity and difference. At the same time, the in-between space from which protagonists like Clare Savage enunciate poses the question, "Who am I in the transnational context?" Is Clare Jamaican or British or American? Is the process of hybridization always liberatory? What relationship exists between the freedom to travel that comes with race and class privilege and the perilous border crossings made by Mexicans to the United States? Like Toni Morrison, Cliff grapples with these and other issues by turning the colonial space, what Michel de Certeau has famously described as "the non-place from which all historiographical operation starts," into the "not-there," the site of other historical enunciations, of an "other" narrative of writing one's identity.
Cliff uses the ideological determinants of that preeminently Western genre, the novel—plot, character development, moral values, linear narrative—only to subvert its false claim to consistency and univocal meaning. As Cliff points out in her essay "A Journey into Speech," "I alternate the King's English with patois, not only to show the class background of characters, but to show how Jamaicans operate within a split consciousness." Cliff's hybrid narrative, in which several genres meet, jostle, and collide, defies all attempts at categorization; fiction, poetry, lyric, multiple references to both Western and non-Western contexts, canonical and noncanonical texts are all combined and recontextualized to serve the author's artistic purpose. The narrative is partially filtered through the sporadic "rememoration" of Clare Savage—in a creative rewriting of the past as opposed to a simple reminiscing—as she is driven up the crest of the hill in a truck with her fellow revolutionaries. The truck emblazoned with the phrase "No Telephone to Heaven" is a prophetic embodiment of the way the revolutionaries will be excluded from the nation-state, as subalterns generally are from the socializing ends of the novel. Since Cliff's novel is deliberately episodic and fragmented, with several stories within stories, any attempt, as is the custom, to summarize the plot for the reader would be fraught with difficulties. One can partially and only imperfectly say at the outset that No Telephone to Heaven is about "not-there" place of the dispossessed within both the geopolitical context of Jamaica and a transnational framework.
No single character or image or voice constitutes the hub around which the other elements of No Telephone to Heaven rotate; instead, Cliff activates a melange of images in relation to a polyphony of voices. Disparate incidents across national boundaries—Jamaica, England, and America—are not only deeply connected but also inform, construct and deconstruct, and corrupt each other. Senselessly brutal or bizarre passages—relating the Sunday School Bombing on 15 September 1963 that killed four school children in Georgia; or speaking of "dark women in saris cleaning the toilets at Heathrow"; or describing the "most beautiful beach on the island; the most secluded" owned by an "American absentee" landlord; or recounting the Triangle slave trade—are disjunctively syncopated.
In response to bipolar studies that principally emphasize the relationship of the mother country, England or France, with its colonies, Cliff redraws the political map to include the indispensable role played by American imperialism in the formation and perpetuation of the very same empire that existed at the turn of the century, besides performing on several colonial stages of her own. Lest we lose sight of America's pivotal role in the imperial project, W. J. T. Mitchell provides a timely reminder that "Americans are less disturbed by the idea of imperial decline than with the notion that the word 'empire' could ever apply to us." Similarly, the argument for the overlapping and disjunctive histories of Europe and America and "the rest" of the world is well made by Sandra Harding's Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Building on the pioneering work of Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Harding has this to say: "the history of Europe and the United States is African history also and … African history is also European and U.S. history."
In keeping with such a transnational cultural engendering and politics, for Caren Kaplan:
Cliff articulates the boundaries between homelessness and origin, between exile and belonging…. A creole culture, Jamaica exists in many levels and time periods. Cliff moves through several of these identities. She rewrites her history to 'claim' an identity through her powers of story-telling and imagination…. This is a new terrain, a new location, in feminist poetics. Not a room of one's own, not a fully public or collective self, not a domestic realm—it is a space in the imagination which allows for the inside, the outside, and the liminal elements of inbetween.
For Françoise Lionnet, "[l]ike German writer Christa Wolf and Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston, Cliff uses postmodern fictional techniques that, in the words of Sidonie Smith, 'challenge the ideology of individualism and with it the ideology of gender.'… Cliff's strategy is to let the narrative show how authority is a construction of language, and how the multicultural subject is always the site of contradictions."
The multiple clashing genres that inform and "cut" across Cliff's text frustrate any reified one-to-one equation of mother/woman and the Jamaican nation-state. In fact, the eye of the British-American camera that is brought into play at the end of the novel, instead of functioning prosthetically as the "transcendent subject" for the viewer in Christian Metz's sense of the term, produces what Rey Chow has called "evidence-cum-witness" in a revolutionary refashioning of the elements of testimonio facilitating the transformation of the yardboy Christopher, enlisted as an actor in the film, from a savage "authentically" playing a role scripted for a Western audience into a forest god that comes to haunt and transform the very import of the novel. In other words, a facile, ahistorical reading of the plot structure, character development, and stylistic nuances of the novel performed from within what Richard Ohmann calls the "prophylactic view of literature" can only yield a dominant version of the story. But shimmering underneath the surface of the text lies another, more interesting tale that begs to be told.
Psychoanalysis and Postcolonial Subjectivity
Since Michelle Cliff works within and against the deleterious effects of visual politics in the construction of the subaltern, I wish first to examine how the gaze structures subjectivity within a neocolonial space. According to Lacan, the child's discordant reaction to its image—simultaneous attraction and aggression—is triggered by his conflictual perception of that image, which is unified and whole while the child himself lacks motor control. The child's entry into language positions the white male in possession of the symbolic while relegating the female outside it in a negative relation; men and women of color (which is not to ignore the complex gender and cultural differences between and within the two groups) are also jettisoned to the margins of the symbolic, to the limits of meaning and representation within Eurocentric traditions.
I wish to argue that what the child sees in the mirror is not simply an innocent, nonideological reflection but rather a complex image imbricated in the contradictory structures of social, historical, cultural, and political practices. In this regard, Abdul JanMohamed, fails to ask a crucial question: Are the emotive effects of the image in the mirror the same, for example, for an Afro-American or a Chicano or an Asian man or woman as they are for the white man? Or, for that matter, do men and women relate to the mirror stage within the space of the middle-class white bourgeois family (nuclear or single-parent) in the same way? The white man's reflection in the cultural mirror within psychoanalytical paradigms tells an altogether other story. We have to ask ourselves not only why the primacy of the visual in Freud's and Lacan's theories of ego formation and subjectivity, but also who sees whom, in what asymmetrical cultural, sexual, social, and gendered contexts? In the heart of civilization and its discontent there lies a disquieting tribulation. Just as the Lacanian mirror presents a false image of unity to the growing infant, the cultural mirror in my aberrant reading becomes the place in which the white, heterosexual male body is erased, providing, more crucially, for the liminal moment of the invisibility or silence of his race and ontological status. As Elizabeth Grosz has written, "[t]he evacuation of the male body is the condition required to create a space of reflection, of specul(ariz)ation from which it can look at itself from the outside." Deliberately keeping his own racial status undefined and abstract, and therefore invulnerable and superior, the white male, the "I/Eye" of the imperial subject, arrogates to himself the power, in Mary Louise Pratt's succinct words, to be the "monarch-of-all-I-survey," the inalienable right to see, to know, and to have commerce, in both senses of the term, with the land and the bodies of the subjected peoples.
Racial Theories and the Empire
What could more strikingly substantiate my thesis than the dialectics of race in Robert Knox's 1850 work The Races of Men, in which the racially unmarked Anglo-Saxon gains in racial superiority to the extent that the working-class Irish are denigrated? Robert Young's brilliant analysis of Knox's illustrations brings home the point: "Whereas the Irish Celts are portrayed as poor, over-fertile, their faces displaying negroid characteristics, there is no need to illustrate the Saxon type at all. Rather, Knox shows 'A Saxon House,' adding 'standing always apart, if possible, from all others': his stately mansion thus manages to suggest the fundamental class basis of the racial distinction, at the same time as implying the instinctive racial purity of the bourgeois Saxon." Set against the racial purity of the Anglo-Saxon, which is self-evident and therefore warrants no explanation, the Celtic race is depicted by Knox in a way that draws on stock stereotypes: the bodies are tightly compressed in a confined space; an adult male figure is seen in crumpled working-class clothes, his hair disheveled, his body slightly tilted to suggest a drunken stupor. The prominent portrayal of the men contrasts with the demure and lower position allotted to the women, who are dwarfed as a result. The woman in the foreground holding a baby has her back turned to a looking subject, while the other woman positioned close to the frame almost disappears into it. The two men wedged between the women blur any clear-cut alignment of the relationships among the sexes. The downcast glance of the woman away from the baby as the baby stares tangentially into blankness suggests that the baby's paternal identity is as much in question as is the morality of the figures in the frame. Reinforcing the motif of compromised morality, all the figures' glances are skewed and turned away from the judgmental gaze of the onlooker. Knox goes on in his book to claim that Irish misery cannot be attributed to English misrule but rather that "the source of all evil lies in the race, the Celtic race of Ireland. There is no getting over historical facts. Look at Wales, look at Caledonia; it is ever the same. The race must be forced from the soil; by fair means, if possible, still they must leave" (emphasis added).
Significantly enough, Knox's original version in his Races of Men illustrates "A Saxon House" twice, once on page 40 and again on page 56 with a slight alteration of the caption that carries significant meaning. The first caption reads, "A Saxon House; standing always apart, if possible, from all others"; the second reads, "An Anglo-Saxon house; it always, if possible, stands detached" (emphasis added). In the second version the foregrounding and inflection of the Englishness of the Saxon race is subtly insinuated with the prefix "Anglo." Interestingly, the word "race" in Knox's account applies only to the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish, but not to the Anglo-Saxon, a fact that raises a crucial question asked by Robert Young: "Did not Europe itself provide examples of successful hybrid races?" Young recognizes the twin forces of capitalism and colonialism in the establishment and legitimation of the slavery system, a system dating back to the "plantation" economies of the British colonies and the American South. However, Young's solely class-based account of the internal dissonance and racial tensions among the Anglo-Saxons, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish fails to acknowledge how the intertwined categories of race and class are imbricated in the fragile composition of Great Britain itself as a nation-state—at the very heights of its imperial dominance. Faced as Britain was with internecine struggles and racial divisions within and among the white races in the mid-nineteenth century, Her Majesty could not afford not to project a facade of national unity in order to maintain and vindicate the empire's show of force in the colonies.
It was against such "raceless chaos" that Matthew Arnold advanced his "theory of culture" in the widely acclaimed Culture and Anarchy and On the Study of Celtic Literature, works characterized by Young, despite Arnold's "claims for detachment," as "in fact fully immersed within the ideology of his time." Arnold becomes the perfect spokesman for an imperial culture at its apogee. As Young rightly observes, "Arnold leaves his reader in no doubt about how it [that culture] is manifested materially: [in its] institutions—Oxford University, the Established Church of England, the State." As in Knox's residential illustration of the invisibility of the Anglo-Saxon race behind the walls of stately, detached homes, in Arnold's depiction of race as culture we see the same disappearance of the racialized Anglo-Saxon body. Subsuming the older notion of "race as lineage" under what Young calls the newer "scientific notions of race as 'type,' as language, as mental difference, and above all as culture," Arnold can contain the threat from the imaginative and feminine Celtic culture and language by incorporating the latter within their more robust and virile English counterparts to produce a quintessentially English national spirit. Only Arnold's rhetoric of Englishness allows the disjunctive discourse of race to be circumscribed by notions of culture in Britain while lines of blood remain the operative factor in the colonies. This double trope of race provided Britain with the ideological basis it needed for the project of civilizing so-called "restless natives," without endangering Great Britain's racial "purity" or its status as an imperial nation-state.
Lacan, Fanon, and Subaltern History/Agency
To clarify further the enmeshed relationship between colonialism, psychoanalysis, and empire, I wish to make another shift and read Fanon along with and against Lacan. Fanon's interpellation of the historical and social subject, in spite of its Lacanian leanings, never loses sight of the difference of race and class in the cultural formation of the colonial subject. What a black man sees in the mirror, writes Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, is not a single but a conflictual double image that splits the subject and leads to a racialized struggle between the dominant values of light and darkness: "Moral consciousness implies a kind of cission, a fracture of consciousness into a bright part and an opposing black part. In order to achieve morality, it is essential that the black, the dark, the Negro vanish from consciousness. Hence a Negro is forever in combat with his own image." How is a colonized subject supposed to escape the self-destructive trap of the specular image? For Fanon a way out of the governing fiction is through a third term that is not "personal but social." Unlike Lacan, who sees the alterity and literariness of the symbolic exploding the myths of a unified, autonomous subject and the imaginary's fantasies of unity and resemblance, Fanon inserts differences of race and class into Lacan's symbolic narrative by exposing the internal hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion constituted by the very processes of the symbolic. Put another way, in the absence of social forms that would legitimize the subaltern's subjectivity and history, the oppressed people's struggle with sites of meaning requires, as it were, an "underground narrative of liberation," one "depicted … memorably," as Edward Said points out, in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.
In order to flesh out the "second," or other, narrative lodged within the multilayered No Telephone to Heaven, it is necessary to contextualize the politics of gaze in the novel. A case in point concerns the ghastly scene the reader explores along with Paul, an obsessively visual scene depicting the grisly murder of Paul's immediate family—his father, Charles, his mother, Evelyn, and his sister. Paul's visual appropriation of what has happened in his parents' house recalls the way the eye of the camera territorializes the body of a film scene. Paul is returning home after an all-night party at Buster Said's house. The Porsche he drives, his palatial home in the Stony Hills tucked away from the glaring, stark poverty of the shantytown dwellers on the outskirts of Kingston, the iron gate to ward off intruders, the Great Dane, and the swimming pool at the back of the house are sufficient indications of Paul's class, privilege, security, and sense of personal entitlement. As Paul enters through the iron gate, he is jolted by a series of surprises: "the dog hadn't barked when he approached"; "he called his name until his eyes met with Carlos' neck and Paul saw the thick red line of a wound from ear to ear. Machete"; "the dark, heavy mahogany door" to the house is ajar; his mother's almost always locked larder is also open wide; the kitchen floor is strewn with "salt, thyme, coffee, ginger root … all the ingredients of Jamaica were mixed together in this mess."
Disoriented as Paul is by this chaotic scene, nothing prepares him or the reader for what unfolds in his parents' bedroom. In the manner of a cinematic camera eye that controls, delimits, and ideologically positions not only what but, more important, how we see, Cliff introduces us to the chilling scene. Her lens, however, is split. Unlike the Godlike cinematic apparatus that stays hidden and even unobtrusive in Hollywood movies, completely immersing the audience in the seamless flow of the narrative unfolding on screen, Cliff's camera lens presents us with an ambivalent, "double" view. Paul surveys the scene:
His father, it seemed to Paul, had put up no struggle. He lay on his back, naked and barehanded, his pajama top on the floor at least five yards away, his trousers not to be seen. His throat was cut like the dog's throat was cut and his penis was severed, so that it hung from his crotch as if on a thin string, dangling into the place between his open legs. How could he not defend himself? His wife? His eyes were closed—they told nothing.
Where Paul had previously sought to reaffirm his manhood through his identification with his father, in keeping with the Lacanian Law of the Father, he now finds himself emasculated by the sight of his father's severed penis. In the words of Kaja Silverman, "he is unable to align himself with the phallus because he is no longer able to believe in the vraisemblable." With the fictional power of the phallus taken away from him, Paul also loses the concomitant power to signify. His defense mechanism is to turn his disgust at his father's dereliction of the paternalistic duty to protect his wife into disgust for the feminized body that his father now symbolizes. Paradoxically, Paul eroticizes his father by writing on his body a feminine image—the horrifying empty space between his father's "open legs"—even as the scene compels a de-eroticized distance from the murdered body. It is in the disjunctive temporal gap between symbol and sign, in the gap between the phallus as the symbol of power in patriarchal culture and its ambivalent and unpredictable role in the scene to which we bear witness that we find what Homi Bhabha calls "another locus of inscription and intervention, another hybrid, inappropriate enunciative site, through that temporal split—or time-lag,… for the signification of postcolonial agency." We will reach a better understanding of the local and historical struggles associated with subaltern agency a little later in the essay, when we go over the same scenes of massacre through the eyes of Christopher, the yard boy, and the perpetrator of the crimes.
Paul's next discovery, of his mother's dismembered body, again denies him the classic affirmation and disavowal of castration and difference that psychoanalysis perpetuates from a male perspective. It is a boy in Freud's account of sexual difference who sees the woman as castrated, as bearing a wound, and it is through the tropes of voyeurism and fetishism that males are able at once to acknowledge and to disavow castration by fantasizing the little girl as having a penis. The gift of speaking in one's culture and language exacts a heavy price of both men and women: the sacrifice, or castration, of one's being. Cliff frustrates Paul's desire to see castration not on his body but elsewhere, on his mother's body:
Naked, as his father was naked, but with one arm across her eyes as if protecting herself from the eyes of others. Her Nature…. Afraid of her. Even his gentle touch to her cool face created chaos, as the back of her head sank deep into her pillow, widening the gap in her throat. His throat caught. He looked down at her, away from her neck, to where he had emerged twenty-five years before. The base of a rum bottle was caught between her legs. Wha'fe do? Terror at approaching this part of her. Have mercy. He pulled the bottle and saw that the neck was broken. Jagged. Blood poured from between her legs, catching in her fine curled hair. The flies swarmed anew as a new banquet lay before them. He felt a terrible shame.
The paralyzing distress for Paul pivots around his utter failure to shore up his sense of maleness, his power as doer and possessor of the gaze, in attempting to displace all that is passive, feminine, and the object rather than the subject of signification onto his mother. Paul's "gentle touch[ing]" of his mother's "cool face" is an act of fetishism that, in Laura Mulvey's words, "builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself," while the gesture of pulling out the jagged rum bottle from between her legs is symptomatic of his voyeuristic side. Summarizing Mulvey's essay, E. Ann Kaplan writes, voyeurism, as in Paul's case, is "linked to disparagement, has a sadistic side, and is involved with pleasure through control or domination, and with punishing the woman (guilty for being castrated)."
Paul's hopes of finding his sister alive are also dashed: "Her legs were spread wide and she was bloodied. The gold bangle on her wrist glinted in the light. Beast, came into his spinning head." Paul's last discovery leads him "to the small room at the side of the garage" where the maid, Mavis, lives. In chilling detail Paul's gaze informs us that "her body was on the floor, slashed in a way none of his family had been slashed. The machete had been dug into her in so many ways, so many times, that Mavis' body became more red than brown. She had no more eyes."
In the cold, stringent account of Paul's naive desire to formulate Mavis's identity and history, we find Cliff's tracking of the two levels of history, one dominant and myopic, the other exploding at the subterranean level. Although Mavis had lived with Paul's family for the better part of her life, Paul still knows nothing of her history: "He did not know her surname, or the name of the place she had come from,… but there would be no canceled checks to reveal a surname, because Mavis was paid in cash each week, and each week his father complained to his mother about the amount … on top of the dresser was Mavis' Bible and her limegreen plastic purse. He opened the purse to find a couple of dollars and some change, nothing else … No papers. No birth certificate. No savings book, no insurance policy." Reading from the vantage point of a dominant discourse that does not simply reflect the appalling conditions of the poor but constitutes them through its material process of othering, Paul's literate mind is too illiterate to read the signs of the other narrative/history, invisible and yet writ large between the fault lines of his discourse.
In order to understand subaltern history, which cannot be bound in discourse or deciphered within the matrices of a dominant history that "tells the beads of sequential time like a rosary," we have to investigate the close links between trauma and history. Kaja Silverman writes that "trauma can best be understood as the rupture of an order which aspires to closure and systemic equilibrium by a force directed toward disruption and disintegration." Following Fredric Jameson's lead in The Political Unconscious, Silverman defines "history as a force capable of tearing a hole in the fabric of the dominant fiction, and so of disrupting its internal economy. In short, I will identify it with trauma."
The first blow that dislocates and ruptures the power relations of the dominant discourse is struck by none other than Christopher, the yard boy, with whom Paul has spent many a evening shooting birds. But apart from this veneer of camaraderie, differences of class and skin color (backra versus dark-skinned) set them a world apart. Christopher's history cannot be traced within the structures of the bourgeois culture, with the high premium it places on enlightenment, civility, rationality, and progress. He exists relentlessly to remind the bourgeois culture that he is a "hole in the (social) cell," as Hélène Cixous would put it. His formative years were spent in the "Dungle," where he lived with his grandmother; his makeshift house is a structure "crowned with sheets of zinc, [and] the places where the zinc rusted filled with cardboard or newspaper or left to gape." "The Word was beyond him," since the social formation had assigned him the burden of living at the level of debasement and defilement. Christopher becomes, in the words of Sander L. Gilman, "the antithesis of European sexual mores and beauty," and his body symbolizes "the essential black, the lowest rung on the great chain of being, [which] is the Hottentot. The physical appearance of the Hottentot is, indeed, the central nineteenth-century icon for the sexual difference between the European and the black." Christopher's grandmother dies when he is only eight years old, leaving him orphaned and penniless. Even "De government men tek her body away fe bury dem say and leave him dere, never once asking if him have smaddy fe care fe him." Christopher becomes a wandering outcast who makes his bed in the cemetery and does casual yard work twice a week at Master Charles's home to stay alive. Beguiled by a retired police officer to think that he can retrieve the remains of his grandmother "thirteen Chrismus" after her death, Christopher arrives at Charles's house in the middle of the night, hoping "backra people could be soft around de Chrismus—dem who so mean the rest of the time" and grant his wish for a small plot of ground so that the restless "duppy" of his grandmother could now rest in peace.
Between Christopher's request for a small plot of land and his massacre of Charles's family with the machete lies the unfathomable chasm where the dominant and subaltern histories clash head on, shattering the acquiescence of the dispossessed to the settlers' appropriation of their homeland. Unlike Paul's controlling gaze, the white male gaze that is constituted by and in turn constitutes the paradigms of psychoanaylsis, Christopher's "other" gaze functions in the manner of Chow's evidence-cum-witness to "supplement the identification of the native-as-image" with a simulation of the gaze that witnesses "the native's oppression prior to her becoming image." Entering the premises, however, Christopher's demeanor shows that the dichotomy and power relations between the master and the servant are still securely in place. Bruce Robbins notes in The Servant's Hand regarding Dickens's time that "the servants of life are themselves signs—signs of their master's status." In spite of the "ease given him by the rum," Christopher is "fearful" of the master. This fear of the backra-master evidences itself earlier in the text when Christopher is described as too "'fraid fe ask dem to stop de cyar, so him peepee 'pon himself. She [mistress] complain about de stink again an' about fe dem cyar seat." We encounter an undercurrent of deep anxiety regarding Charles's authority as master, masked skillfully, however, when this character refuses to grant Christopher's wish in the most acidic and acerbic tone that he can muster:
"It cyaan wait till mornin'?" Harshness stayed in the man's voice. My God, there was a yardbwai in him bedroom. Askin' favor. Lord have mercy.
"Please, sah." Christopher was trembling. He looked down at his black rubber boot—his bare feet washed in sweat inside them.
In this discourse's performative enunciation of undecidability, what Foucault would characterize as "signs apparently without meaning and value—empty and excentric—in events that are outside the 'great events' of history," we see the emergence of a new Christopher, one who challenges our efforts to categorize him. The new Christopher is imaging rather than being imaged, signifying rather than being signified, enunciating rather than being enunciated; in the words of David Spurr, he is "neither one thing nor the other, neither civilized nor savage, but strangely without definition." Charles was looking forward to "a morning of golf at Constant Spring while his wife was at mass." Instead, Christopher, a man who has "no past" and "no future," strikes the blow that meets with "no resistance a-tall, a-tall" from Charles. Having done the same to Charles's wife and their daughter, Christopher punishes the maid, Mavis, "in a terrible way, exacting not just silence but obliteration, and he could not have said why. He cut her like an animal, torturing her body in a way he had not tortured theirs."
The question resonates through the novel: Why did Christopher wreak such havoc and wrath on Mavis's body, that of a sister who belongs to his own dispossessed class? The answer lies, ironically, in Mavis's hybrid identity, an identity spatially figured by her migration between the mistress's wealthy home and her own "small room" next to the garage on the premises, a migration symbolic of her mistress's position at the center and of her own subject position on the periphery. Having completely internalized her subordinate position in relation to her masters, Mavis is able to see things only from the masters' point of view: "'Wunna talk 'bout owe, bwai? Whatsoever wunna have, wunna owe to dem. Dem nuh rescue wunna?" It is Mavis as a contradictory threshold figure, her subject position rooted in subalternity but her discourse smacking of the masters, that Christopher must obliterate or else himself stand obliterated. As Christopher observes of this character, she was "in death, as in life, their faithful servant." Mavis's hybrid and hybridizing potential is what threatens Christopher and gives birth to his trauma. Trauma, as noted earlier, is another word for history—not for the dominant Hegelian History that imposes a unified vision but for the local bits and pieces of a history that "hurts" in Jameson's sense of the term and "can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force."
The effects of history are made disturbingly palpable and material in Cliff's novel's numbing violence. Mahatma Gandhi taps into the root cause of violence with his profound statement, made in another context, that poverty is a terrible violence against humanity. Is it gratuitous violence that Cliff recklessly subjects us to in going over the same heinous crimes from two different perspectives, or does the novel's violence serve another purpose? The question becomes all the more compelling in the light of Christopher's revisiting the dead bodies to obliterate them further with the jagged edges of the rum bottle.
Cliff provocatively speaks both within and against the socializing and civilizing ends of the novel and the nation-state in order to highlight the complex difficulties of speaking in one's own voice. Hers is a distinctive postcolonial style that does not ape that of the West while recognizing the colonized as deeply worked over by the processes of colonization. Christopher, in effect, says no to the oppressive socializing ends of a literary form that constructs him and his fellows in demeaning ways by unleashing another mode of narrative, another principle of organization, one that requires us to learn and cultivate a different mode of reading identity.
Whereas the novel's striking ocular motif fixes the Other as transparent, natural, and completely knowable to the penetrating gaze of the dominant subject, Cliff's counternarrative frustrates the desire to territorialize the Other by producing subaltern identity elsewhere. The interesting doubling of the gaze, those of Paul and Christopher, produces different valences at the level of language. Paul notices that his father's "eyes were closed—they told nothing"; his mother had "one arm across her eyes as if protecting herself from the eyes of others. Her nature"; Mavis "had no more eyes." On one level, the closed eyes of the victims at once acknowledge and disavow not only the otherness of Christopher but also his association with abjection, defilement, and filth. On another level, the closed eyes that say "nothing" also refuse to mirror and affirm the coded stable and proper bourgeois identity for Paul. Paul's retching and vomiting at the sight of his mother's body makes the domestic bourgeois space the very site of the filth that cannot be displaced elsewhere. Earlier on, Christopher's sheer fear of his new masters results in his "peepee 'pon himself" in their car, but now the fear is replaced by a defiant piss on their wall. The doubling of the scene produces an uncanny liminal effect, blurring the boundaries separating Paul from Christopher, bourgeois from subaltern, the pure from the contaminated.
Paul's failure to appropriate the "other" as History, his failure, in other words, to chronicle the lives of Mavis and Christopher with authority and certainty, is only one aspect of the larger problematics of the representation of subalterns in history and as history. Having "never been concerned with a mess in his life," since "he [Paul] and his surroundings have been tidied by darker people," Paul has no difficulty in presenting a myopic vision of Jamaica. As Clare Savage, who nonchalantly lets him "stick his cock into her" a day before Paul falls victim to Christopher's machete, observes. "He assumed, like so many of them, that Jamaica was the world; he said so. Not realizing, or willing to admit, that it was only one of the saddest pieces of the world." Cliff's archaeological excavation of the sedimented and multilayered histories of the neocolonial ruling class opens up a cultural future for postcolonial peoples by recasting the pertinent issues from a transnational, feminist, diasporic perspective. Her double articulation of the dominant ruling class has one resonance in Jamaica and quite another in England, the "motherland," or the United States, as the Savage family, who emigrate to the United States in the sixties, will painfully discover for themselves. It is through these figures—Boy Savage, who believes and lives out the advice he gives his daughter: "Self-effacement. Blending in"; Kitty, his wife, whose "point of reference—the place which explained the world to her—would always be her island"; Clare Savage, the elder of their two daughters, whose hybrid history is "composed of fragments"; and Harry/Harriet who plays havoc with the Western desire to classify and categorize individuals on the predictable grounds of race, class, and gender—that Cliff carries out a savage critique of the enabling and paralyzing effects of modernity on postcolonial societies.
The Politics of Location
I will begin with Kitty Savage, whose confidence in her dominant class position is shaken to the roots soon after the Savages arrive in Miami. Holding fast to his philosophy of remaining "invisible" in America, Boy Savage takes the "secondary roads" as he and Kitty travel to the home of relatives in New York, where they stay until Boy finds them a basement apartment in Brooklyn. Their trip marks Kitty's and Boy's two sharply contrasting styles of adapting to their new country. Whereas Boy Savage ignores the racist slogans dotting the route through Georgia, Kitty is quick to realize how unwelcome they are in the so-called land of immigrants. Next to an "abandoned NAACP office" the bold sign reads, "A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY … 'Hello, America,' Kitty muttered to herself, after repeating the words on the sign for the family." Kitty's dominant status in Jamaica has no bearing on her shifting subject position in America, as is clear from the repeated discursive assaults on her being as a person of color: "RACIAL SELF-RESPECT IS NOT BIGOTRY, black ink on a white background promised, as if explaining the sign-post beside it: YOU ARE IN KLAN COUNTRY." The disturbing slogans function to reposition Kitty as a subject in demeaning ways that compel us to view the way subjects are interpellated in discourse not in the unitary fashion outlined by Althusser but in a way that acknowledges a heterogeneous semantic field where the inflections of subjectivity are multiple, conflictual, interchangeable, and often contradictory. Althusser's ideological apparatuses may well be used by the state to hail its citizen-subjects, but the real sites of self-fashioning, of refashioning ethnicity, as Kitty's Brooklyn community exemplifies, are eccentrically local, made up of bits and pieces of life whose contours shape and are in their turn reshaped by cultural nuances introduced by new immigrant groups. For example, in one of her countless efforts to make a better living than she makes working in the laundry, Kitty interviews for a job at a bank. Before long the racist discourse of the manager constructs the lowly life to which she should aspire. Beginning with the question "'And where does that musical voice come from?'" the conversation turns more squarely to putting Kitty in her place: "'my wife and I have not had the pleasure of visiting your beautiful island, but we have heard all about it from our maid … ah, perhaps you know her … her name is Winsome.'" In the manager's discussion of race and ethnicity here, we have to bear in mind that these words themselves have to do with the social positioning of the other and are thus never free of relations of power and value. The manager's naive assumption that Kitty ought to know the maid Winsome bears two derogatory implications. First, the island is so small that one is bound to know all the inhabitants. Second, that Kitty herself is a maid and would therefore know her peers. Cornel West has suggested that the unity of racist discourse is a product of the "structure of modern discourse,… [of] the controlling metaphors, notions, categories and norms that shape the predominant conceptions of truth and knowledge in the modern West." Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than the controlling metaphors that structure the bank manager's discourse. His parting shot to Kitty—"'there is a vacancy in our executive washroom. Perhaps your husband might be interested?'"—is a telling example of what "produces and promotes such an object [the white supremacy] of modern discourse."
If the controlling power of the gaze is the basis of Paul's racist discourse, the othering of Kitty revolves around the smell of her "curry," which the Brooklyn neighbors find offensive, since "smell, whilst, like touch, encoding revulsion, ha[s] a pervasive and invisible presence difficult to regulate." "Once, when the neighbors called about the smell of the curry, Kitty went out immediately and bought something called Air-Wick … which was supposed to remove all odors from the atmosphere. Instead, it seemed only to mask other smells, placing its own acridity over their sharpness or sweetness … and the smells of people." Her attempts to smother the smell with "Air-Wick" is an appropriate metaphor for Kitty's own divided life, a life that alternates between "straining to adjust to this place where she seemed to float, never to light" and the comforting familiarity of the "shopkeepers of Bedstuy," her "home away from home."
I now turn to the multiaccentual weight of racist discourse by shifting the critical study of its production from a national to a transnational theater in order to examine the metamorphosis of the Savages. Although they are largely the objects of racist slurs in America, the Savages themselves participate in a discriminatory discourse with regard to their own less fortunate underclass. The Savages not only draw clear boundaries separating their bourgeois identity from the lower-class identity of the maids who serve and wait on them but also draw upon their Caribbean heritage to distinguish themselves from the other ethnic groups, particularly from the Afro-Americans with whom they share more than a triangular slave history. Kitty seeks no one but Dorothy, for instance, her confidante and maid, to share her premonition that her mother, Mattie, is dead, a premonition that proves true when she receives the sad tidings from her brother the next day. Although "Kitty and Dorothy had wet the same bed when they were small," both children having been brought up by Mattie as if they were sisters, Kitty fails to share the actual loss of her mother with Dorothy. Reminded of her station in life, Dorothy can only react out of the mistress's earshot: "'Dem never change.'"
In a similar vein, Kitty's relation with her two Afro-American fellow workers is one of mutual suspicion: "Kitty and the women in the packing room—named Georgia and Virginia—spoke only from necessity. But when Kitty was in the outer office, not sitting between them, she could hear them chatting softly, laughing." Perhaps the history lesson of the divide-and-rule policy of the British Empire is not lost upon Mr. B., the white man who owns "White's Sanitary Laundry," as he draws the most purchase from suspicion and prejudice among minorities. Even before Kitty has an opportunity to confess to being the author of the supposedly offensive advice she had slipped in among the laundered clothes, Mr. B. had taken upon himself to fire the two Afro-Americans, who in his eyes can alone be the source of such duplicity and baseness. As Mr. B. says to Kitty, "'But, you know, that kind is just no good. Unstable. You know what I mean.'" The examples of racist discourse I have cited so far, taken from diverse sociopolitical and cultural groups, undermine and cut across fixed notions of race, class, and national origin. Put differently, the "controlling metaphors" of racist discourse have multifarious historical and cultural enunciations that take us beyond the binary ways in which, as Kwame Anthony Appiah asserts, "the margin is produced by the cultural dominant; Europe defining her sovereignty by insisting on the otherness of her colonies."
Having had no access to the power-knowledge axis, Christopher's manner of combating the racist discourse tattooed on his body is by way of the machete; the contraband notes on the subject of racial hatred that Kitty writes to her white clients and includes with their clean laundry offer a different way of disrupting the racist discourse that imprisons the minds of the colonized. Kitty Savage sets out to dismantle and negate systematically the association between black and evil, the notion of black bestiality as a metaphysical fact, as Fanon would say. Functioning initially within the demands and limits of white ideology, Kitty develops a persona, Mrs. White, the imaginary wife of an imaginary man, who at Mr. B.'s behest sends out wholesome advice to accompany the freshly laundered clothes. The word "sanitary" was "a keystone" to Mr. B., and the complementary image of an "older woman with gentle gray curls, pink skin," and "clear blue eyes" that was sent out with Mrs. White's advice served as a wholesome domestic image with which the normative white household could identify. Kitty's underground narrative soon changes everything, however. In her subversive messages to customers, Kitty performs what Gloria Anzaldúa calls "linguistic code-switching" in the face of censorious forces, "transforming silence with (an)other alphabet." The interesting point is Kitty's failure to provoke a response as long as the illusion of her whiteness is sustained among her invisible clientele. The eruption of race sends bourgeois narrative, which has failed to contain blackness, careening to a sudden death. "HELLO. MRS. WHITE IS DEAD. MY NAME IS MRS. BLACK. I KILLED HER." When Kitty gives up her job to return to Jamaica, no longer capable of feeling at "home with pretense" in America, she paradoxically serves the socializing ends of the bourgeois novel, which cannot be read or written as long as the recalcitrant voices of the silenced others are firmly lodged within its boundaries.
Neither Kitty's nativism nor Boy Savage's desire to become assimilated into white culture by way of his constant "streamlining for America" provides a cultural space from which to see Jamaica as being any different from its neocolonial shadow. Perhaps the hope for a cultural future comes from an unusual source: Clare Savage, "a light-skinned woman, daughter of landowners, native-born, slaves, emigres, Carib, English," who takes her place alongside déclassés "who easily could have hated her." Made up of "many bits and pieces," Clare's hybrid identity is itself mediated by a double structure. On the surface, Clare's colonial education in Jamaica and the freedom with which she has traveled, spending her formative years in America with her father before moving to England, her "mother country," to pursue a degree in Renaissance art, provide her with all the glaring signs of neocolonial privilege that we have seen elsewhere. They do not sit well with the idea that she might champion the cause and revolution of the underclass. However, a closer scrutiny of Clare's painful navigation of the straits of identity and history shows what R. Radhakrishnan would call "forms of self-consciencization," a practice of "self de- and re-identification, a deracinated consciousness." Cliff, in Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, makes a point that calls to mind the travails of Clare Savage. Cliff notes that "the question of my identity is partly a question of color: of my right to name myself. That is what I have felt all along." Although light-skinned, Clare faces discrimination and racism when her father places her in a school in New York. Mrs. Taylor, the principal, tells her father that "'foreign students begin a year behind so they [won't] get lost.'" She further adds that "'children from underdeveloped countries develop at a different rate than American children. Believe me, it's for the girl's own good.'" Mrs. Taylor stands by her decision in spite of Boy Savage's protest that his daughter is already well versed in Latin, French, and Greek. Troubled by Clare's hybrid racial identity, which fails to conform to biological topologies of "pure" race difference between whites and blacks, Mrs. Taylor makes a racist remark deriving straight from her incapacity to contain the inexorably shifting and multiple discourse of race. Referring to her spuriously scientific physician husband, Mrs. Taylor says to Boy Savage, "'He would call you White chocolate…. I mean, have you ever seen a child's expression when he finds a white chocolate bunny in his Easter basket? He simply doesn't understand … he thinks it strange. I do not want to be cruel, Mr. Savage, but we have no room for lies in our system. No place for in-betweens.'"
The racism Clare faces in England while studying for her master's degree is no better. During a seminar on the "hermetic tradition," the class as a whole hears "Chants. Shouts. Noise slamming against the glass of the well-appointed, high-ceilinged room. KAFFIRS! NIGGERS! WOGS! PAKIS! GET OUT! A banner—white bedsheet with black paint—went past. KEEP BRITAIN WHITE!" Vivienne Hogg-Hunter, a fellow student, commenting on the demonstration, has this to say to Clare at recess: "'I say, those nignogs are a witty lot.'" Clare in indignation turns to the woman and suggests softly, "'Why don't you go fuck yourself.'" The issue arises again when Liz, another fellow student, tries to separate Clare from the other blacks. "'I mean,'" says Liz, "'you are hardly the sort they were ranting on about.'" Although Clare uses shock to end the racist conversation, "'some of my ancestors were Caribs … cannibals,'" her comment cuts both ways and shows how Clare is implicated in the very outrage she also protests against. The context in which she speaks, in the library looking down and outside into the street, shows her three-way separation, by race, education, and class, from the working class.
Gendered Body as Nation and Nation as Gendered Body?
Divided by race, class, and nationality, Clare's fragmented identity is nowhere more excruciatingly written than on the surface of the body. She meets head on with the contradictions within her when she becomes pregnant with Bobby's baby. Because of Agent Orange, Bobby has a cancerous wound that drips yellowness "from a bright pink gap—no matter what Clare did." A facile reading would urge us to see Bobby's never-healing wound as a polyvalent metaphor not only for Clare's sterility after her miscarriage but also for the Jamaican land itself, particularly Clare's Nanny's land, which turns into a "ruinate." "Implicit in the metaphor of land-as-woman," Annette Kolodny explains in a work that explores the exploitation of the American Western frontier [The Lay of the Land], "was both the regressive pull of maternal containment and the seductive invitation to sexual assertion," a statement that applies equally well to Jamaica. Cliff refuses to essentialize and equate the body of Clare with Jamaica as motherland/land-as-woman or vice versa. In fact, a reductive reading can draw close parallels between Jamaica's uncertainty and fragility as a nation-state and Clare's girlfriend, Harry/Harriet, a medical officer and formerly a nurse at Kingston Hospital and the mobilizing force behind the revolution. The central question to pose is whether Harry/Harriet, who is variously described by an "old woman, one who kenned Harriet's history," as "Mawu-Lisa, moon and sun, female-male deity of some of their [native] ancestors," is, like Clare, a metaphor for Jamaica. Is there an analogy between Jamaica's struggle to carve out an identity and Harry/Harriet's struggle to negotiate between the oppositional and split gendered identities designated by the names Harry and Harriet? Raped at ten by a white man in a "khaki uniform" in the service of "Her Majesty," Harry/Harriet refuses to blame her gender trouble on the white man's "brutishness": "'No, man, that t'ing didn't make me who I am. Didn't form me in all my complexity.'" Besides militating against the authority of biological determinism, Harry/Harriet reaffirms, to use the terms of Judith Butler's argument, that gender is not fundamentally an interior state but a performative act, that "gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed." Harry/Harriet's narrative speaks against the facile gesture of allegorizing his/her fate, any more than Clare's miscarriage, as the fate of Jamaica. Cliff's heteroglot narrative does not tell a tale of narrow, individual angst, with all its attendant psychologizing and interiority; rather, it constitutes a polycentric world based on the plural social discourse of the communitas.
Cliff frustrates our easy coddling of what Paul Gilroy would call "ethnic insiderism" by shifting the focus of the novel from essentialized, fixed subject positions to multiple and even contradictory subject positions. However, in sharp contrast to some versions of postmodernism, Cliff's interest is not so much in uncritically orchestrating and celebrating access to multiple subjectivities as in exposing how subject positions in different geographical locations and historical moments produce and legitimate different social locations, different social discourses, and vice versa.
Indeed, to that very end Cliff elaborates how the wishes' of subalterns must be stifled and exorcised in order to facilitate the production of ethical citizen-subjects whose desires are subordinated to the higher demands of the abstract "imagined community." In one of her last letters to Clare, Kitty Savage writes, "I hope some day you make something of yourself, and someday help your people … your responsibilities lie beyond me, beyond yourself. There is a space between who you are and who you will become. Fill it." This is precisely the in-between or interstitial space that becomes the locus for Clare's rewriting of her history from a postcolonial perspective. Armed with a burning desire to fill that gap Clare promptly returns to Jamaica. Unlike Harriet, who realizes that she "'cyaan live split'" and finally makes an ethical choice to live as Harriet and "'Harry be no more,'" Clare has a tougher road ahead of her before she can fulfill her mother's dream for her. While Harriet had been studying the "healing practices" both at the university and with "old women in the country, women who knew the properties of roots and leaves," Clare had been, as Harriet puts it, "'dragging her ass through parts unknown'" in Europe. The difficult task of "unthinking" the Eurocentric side of her education, an education that cannot help, in the fine formulation of Sandra Harding, but leave its "social fingerprints on the picture of the world," can only begin from the small steps that Clare takes to view the world not from the dominant perspective but by looking, in Harding's words, to "the lives of those who have been devalued, neglected, excluded from the center of the social order;… who provide perspectives from the other side of racial struggles; who enable a different perspective, one from everyday life;… and whose activities provide particularly illuminating understandings at this moment in history." Clare marks her homecoming with a pledge to educate schoolchildren about the "history of their … our homeland"; a history which can be found "underwater." Clare also realizes (and herein lies her process of deracination) that "the history I have learned … rather, recognized … since my return is something else. I know only that the loss, the forgetting … of resistance … of tenderness … is a terrible thing."
The Enthographer's Gaze, Hollywood Film, and Visual-Cultural Violence
Perhaps the key question to ask toward the end of Cliff's novel is why the insurgency that ought to be aimed against the neocolonial government is instead planned against a joint film company from Britain and the United States. Far from being facetious, the revolutionaries' proposed attack on the film crew strikes at the heart of the violence of visual culture, the ethnographer's violence of representing the other as History. Indeed, as the "contemporary heir of a more ancient visual medium: cartography," and I would add print capitalism, "the beginnings of cinema," in the apt words of Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, "coincided with the giddy heights of the imperial project, with an epoch where Europe held sway over vast tracts of alien territory and hosts of subjugated peoples." Michelle Cliff's strategic objective in depicting the methods of one mode of representation (film) within another (the novel) in her last chapter; appropriately titled "Film Noir," is not to mediate between the two genres as is common in classic Hollywood films but to use one to provide a "cut" or temporal break to bring the order of representation of the other to crisis. Put differently, the jostling and colliding of the two genres in Cliff's narrative produces not familiarity or a naturalization of received social meanings but, entirely to the contrary, a defamiliarization that opens up a space for the production of antihegemonic new knowledges and new social locations.
Michelle Cliff does not begin this process by providing a neatly packaged summary of the film's plot. Instead, she takes the reader painstakingly through the nuts and bolts of the making of the film, unmasking the imperial modes of its production. Unlike James Clifford, for instance, who as "participant observer" practices an enlightened academic ethnography, the Eurocentric filmmakers don't even maintain a sanctimonious pretense of "gathering up" and memorializing the last vestiges of the valuable, and vanishing, primitive culture they are filming. Their objective, in other words, is not to problematize the representation of the scarce Coromantee people but to commodify them. A fancy Hollywood story line focuses on the romance of "Nanny, the Coromantee warrior," and Cudjoe, who rescues Nanny just in time from the monster played by Christopher, who is also called De Watchman after a reggae song that speaks of violent, revolutionary upheaval. Lost in this gross commercialization is the real history of the native Jamaican Nanny, "leader of the Windward Maroons, whom one book described as an old woman naked except for a necklace made from the teeth of whitemen—sent by the orishas to deliver her people." The English filmmaker does not shrink from blaspheming and distorting the indigenous story in his efforts to create the illusion of a French Mediterranean beach in Jamaica. But "all the black bums on the beach" stand in his way. His American counterpart, according to whom "'Jamaicans will do anything for a buck,'" clears them away with a little help from the almighty American Dollar. Having been warned by a traitor of the revolutionaries' planned attack, the British-American film crew are prepared to crush the insurgency. Clare Savage and Harriet, unaware of the traitor among them, lie in wait, "as silent as Maroons," for the ambush in a bitterbush as the shooting of the film begins.
In keeping with mainstream cinema's obsessive concern with establishing the "authenticity" of its narrative—a process that in fact serves to camouflage the inscription and production of stratified knowledge and absolute racial and cultural differences—the filmmakers choose not a seasoned actor but De Watchman, existing on the margins of society, to play the role of the savage: "'You look pretty good to me. Can you howl?'" asks the English director of the film. About the figure that De Watchman cut in a local rum shop the narrative has this to say: "[He was] draped in his split crocus sack, snake-haired…. The man's stench began to fill the tiny establishment, and the two white men edged back as far as they could." Furthering the desired goal to "make it real!" a woman whose racial identity is unknown but who nonetheless has been called upon in the past to play "any Black heroine, whether Sojourner Truth or Bessie Smith," is now commissioned to play the role of Nanny. In an equally stereotypical way, the role of Cudjoe goes to a "strapping man" who could well be a "former heavyweight or running back."
Despite the film crew's compulsive attention to caricatural details, things go horribly awry. What the Third World film producers and critics Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien call "representation as a practice of depicting" (merely saturation with descriptive details) is interrupted and transformed by De Watchman's howl, a howl that goes beyond his assigned scripted role to become instead "representation as a practice of delegation" (which historicizes who speaks, how, and in what context). The instructions given to Christopher are easy enough, but at the performative and enunciative levels the filmmakers have no control over the tide of signification they unleash: "'Howl! Howl! I want you to bellow as loud as you can. Try to wake the dead … Remember, you're not human. Action!'"
We may recall Paul's controlling gaze whose reduction of the other-as-image was frustrated by what Rey Chow defines as a "form of evidence-cum-witness." Here once again, the eye/gaze of the camera captures a double signifying chain. Before Christopher's "bellows carrying into the darkening country" freeze into the image of a monster, the piercing howl activates the "simulation of the gaze" (in this case, the eye of the camera) that witnesses Christopher's "oppression prior to [his] becoming image"—and by extension that of all subalterns in Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven. The evidence-cum-witness shows for a brief moment the mythical transformation of Christopher into "the chaos of the forest god, until a new sound drowned him out." Subverting and transforming a series of oppositional binaries, something intervenes between symbol and sign, between Christopher as monster and Christopher as forest god, between representation as depiction and representation as delegation, between the genres of novel and film, between the Western visual violence of exoticizing the primitive and the counterviolence of the revolutionaries: it is the other narrative.
The double articulation of the gaze demonstrates the impossibility of cross-cultural translation, the failure of the dastardly process of reducing Christopher/De Watchman to the level of a monster. On a more interesting political level, the other narrative encountered here by the gaze—Christopher's transformation into forest god—cannot be read within the traditions of the Western novel as a form. Christopher the subaltern, at once an outcast/monster and a god, and Clare Savage the privileged landowner, an "outsider within" who painstakingly "reinvents herself as the Other," hail from two different and incompatible walks of life. They come together, however, in dying as they do in the fight for a more egalitarian and inclusive democratic society. Caught between rewriting a history that remains under water and wresting power for the people through revolutionary means, Clare and Christopher, like the rest of the makeshift insurrectionary army fall victim to counterrevolutionary gunfire in the "bitterbush." As David Lloyd in Anomalous States amply demonstrates, both Bakhtin's "heteroglossia" and Benedict Anderson's notion of the nation-state as an "imagined community" fall short of recognizing the bellicose voices of subalterns that "cannot be drawn into identity." Unleashed during the making of the Anglo-American film, those voices disrupt the internal diegesis of the narrative, leaving, in Lloyd's words, an "inassimilable residue that it can neither properly contain nor entirely exclude."
Such an intervention comes, in my view, from the maternal language—not an essentialized or mystified secret language, but a maternal discourse that constantly pokes holes in the symbolic structure of culture. At the liminal moment between life and death, when the itch for a positivistic definition of Jamaica is irretrievably lost in Cliff's shattering of the grammar of the Western novel, Clare hears that maternal language:
Kitty-woo, kitty-woo, kitty-woo Whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip Back-raw, back-raw, back-raw, back-raw, back-raw She remembered language. Then it was gone.
The other narrative, suspended between Clare's life and death, has no subject (in the guise of an imperial I/Eye), no predicate, not even the comfort of a punctuating period allowing us to gather up and master the dispersed shards of meaning retroactively. Whichever way we read, nonetheless, whether within the privileged terms of the novel or within the unspeakable horror of the subaltern, that narrative has meaning all right. That meaning resides in an unspeakable horror that tenaciously clings to the body of the text like mushroom dust: it is history as trauma and trauma as history.