No Telephone to Heaven

by Michelle Cliff

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Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven dramatizes a woman’s, a generation’s, and ultimately a whole culture’s struggle toward identity and self-determination in a world that seems too often to conspire against these fundamental human aspirations. The movement is “toward” rather than “to” because the author’s grim vision does not allow for a happy ending in which all turns out well. In overview, the novel’s structure may appear nearly chaotic, jumping as it does back and forth between past and present and from one country and continent to another. Yet the near-chaos is appropriate to the characterization and theme, reflecting Clare Savage’s confused sense of her personal, sexual, and ethnic identity.

As do several, though not all, of the novel’s eleven chapters, the first chapter, “Ruinate,” opens with a scene involving a number of young men and women aboard a truck, traveling toward a destination that the reader will not discover until the very end of the novel. Among them is Clare, whose grandmother once owned the estate upon which the young people apparently live in some sort of communal enterprise. Eventually, it becomes apparent that they are political activists—or, more properly, guerillas—and that they are setting out on a mission whose end, the reader might very well guess, will be violent. It is the truck which bears the slogan “No Telephone to Heaven,” a comment painted on its side by a despairing former owner. The slogan turns out to be sadly prophetic for the group, which is ambushed by what seem to be government forces. One wonders, however, what Clare—product of a family that was apparently prosperous at one time—is doing among them. That question reveals the purpose of the novel: to dramatize what it was about Clare’s life that finally caused her to throw in her lot with a band of people driven to desperate measures.

The nonlinear chronology and the apparent randomness of events—characteristic of the modernist novel in general—are in fact products of the author’s careful design. The novel opens and closes on the young guerillas, and acts of brutal violence introduce and conclude the narrative. This roundness is reflected more subtly in the novel’s imagery. The young people in the beginning call one another nicknames inspired by Hollywood B-films that they watched as children. The apocalypse they move toward at the end transpires on a film set where a film is being shot by an English and American crew as oblivious to the culture they are exploiting as the guerillas are to the destruction that is about to descend upon them.

In between, Clare visits her grandmother on her farm, lives in Jamaica, and moves to New York, back to Jamaica, then to England, and after roaming continental Europe, back to Jamaica once more. This restless movement reflects Clare’s psychological rootlessness. She is Jamaican, but what does it mean to be Jamaican in a world that ignores or exploits its underdeveloped nations? She is black, “technically,” but she and her family are light-skinned enough to pass for white. Will the world allow her to choose which color to declare herself? She is a woman, but does that fact do anything but consign her to a too-often powerless, voiceless “minority” comprising fifty percent of the earth’s people?

Clare’s experiences teach her the way the world is, and the people she encounters represent possible directions for her to take in her life. Will she become one of the rare minority “success stories,” like Paul H. and his family, relatively wealthy blacks who have cut themselves off from their ethnic roots and can no longer identify with the indignities...

(This entire section contains 679 words.)

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suffered by most of their brothers and sisters? If so, is her fate—like Paul’s family’s—eventually to run into someone like Christopher, a black man driven to murderous rage by the inequalities of the world? Whatever direction she takes, the novel’s apocalyptic climax suggests that the outlook for the world’s minorities is grim indeed.


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Unlike pointedly feminist fictions such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), which announce their program at the outset and then follow their feminist concerns to the virtual exclusion of other themes and interests, Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven is more subtle in its portrait of a woman trying desperately to find a viable place in a hierarchical power structure. Cliff’s women are not always heroic, and her men are not always villains. Rather, the enemy seems to be bigotry and power itself, almost always wielded cruelly or at least capriciously—whether it be in the hands of a country (the United States), a black male minister, or a white woman teacher. The victims are not only women but an African American veteran, a father driven to despair by the need to fit in, and a mass murderer who horrifies readers at the same time that he demands their compassion. Thus, No Telephone to Heaven is best placed in the category of those finest women’s novels—such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962)—which locate women in a broader and more revealing historical and social context.

More specifically, No Telephone to Heaven is a Bildungsroman, tracing the life of a woman from youth to maturity. Unlike more traditional works of this type—James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), for example, which climaxes with the protagonist dedicating himself to the world of art—No Telephone to Heaven’s feminist persuasion is indicated by Clare’s central conflict: She cannot be considered fully mature until she establishes her identity as a woman struggling for independence within a largely male power structure. This subgenre of the feminist novel seems especially attractive to women writers from Third World countries, where issues of identity are not only sexual but ethnic and national as well. Two examples among many fine novels are Zee Edgell’s story of a girl coming-of-age in Belize, Beka Lamb (1982), and Buchi Emecheta’s account of a Nigerian girl’s struggle for identity, Double Yoke (1982).


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Cliff, Michelle. “Clare Savage as a Crossroads Character.” In Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990. The best analysis of Clare Savage comes from the author herself. Cliff discusses Clare as a thematically pivotal character, caught in the tides of change and yet too often tied to cultural, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes. Cliff’s personal perspective is intriguing.

Cliff, Michelle. “A Journey into Speech.” In Multi-Cultural Literacy, edited by Ricke Simonson and Scott Walker. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1988. While not addressing No Telephone to Heaven specifically, this essay provides useful insights into the author’s attitudes and beliefs. Especially interesting is the author’s analysis of colonialism—the historical context within which No Telephone to Heaven operates—and its relationship to self-identity, which is the novel’s central theme.

Cornillon, Susan Koppelman, ed. Images of Women in Fiction:Feminist Perspectives. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1972. This collection of twenty-three essays addresses various aspects of the issue of women in literature and society. Provides a context of commentary by prominent feminist writers and critics, in the light of which Cliff’s concerns may be seen as part of a larger whole.

Morgan, Robin, ed. Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1984. This anthology addresses the rise of the women’s movement in a variety of nations. In general, there is an essay per country, but Cliff’s readers will welcome four essays on the Caribbean. The essay “The English-Speaking Caribbean,” by Peggy Antrobus and Lorena Gordon, is especially helpful for its discussion of Jamaica.

Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women Novelists. New York: Routledge, 1992. Sage discusses the phenomenon of the growth of women’s fiction since World War II. Her perspective is both literary and sociological. She addresses twenty-two authors at some length, and readers of Cliff’s fiction should find the discussion of feminism and race in the novels of Toni Morrison especially enlightening.


Critical Essays