Michelle Cliff, Rejecting Speechlessness, Part 1

“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.”

— Michelle Cliff

Michelle Cliff is one of the more modern figures we'd discussed here, having died in 2016 at the age of 69. Much of her legacy is still fresh within our global consciousness, so to look at her, we have the unique opportunity to gain help from her posthumously. As a writer, she left behind so much work, much of which is described as semi-autobiographical. When we look at her work, we're able to see how she might have seen herself.

When discussing her work, she often pointed out how many of the stories she told, while different in specific details, were mirror images of her life. One of the characters she relied most heavily on to work through the story of her life with was Clare Savage, a character who appeared in two of Cliff’s novels, Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven.

With this character, she explores racism, internalized prejudice, light-skinned and class privilege, and how all of these elements interact with one another, something to which she had a close personal relationship.

Born in 1946 in Kingston, Jamaica, Cliff was raised in an upper-class family that highly valued her light skin and encouraged her to “pass” as white whenever she could. Her first fascination with the injustice that surrounded her and at times protected her would come from The Diary of Anne Frank. She later skipped school to go see the movie. This book, in fact, inspired Cliff to begin writing her own diary, she said:

“I then read her diary and started to keep my own … which was based on Anne Frank's diary. I would never have thought to keep a diary without having read her. She gave me permission to write, and to use writing as a way of survival”

This permission though would soon be cut off, when her parents searched through her things, broke the lock on her diary, and read it aloud in front of her friends and family. She remembered this incident much later in life, and the trauma of it often affected her. So much so that she blocked much of it out, only to rediscover it when writing about it later in her life.

When the memories did come back to her she realized where a part of that trauma and shame came from, beyond the public humiliation. Within the diary was one of her first mentions of having a crush on a girl, who would later be removed from school and never seen again.

Through her character Clare, she explores the surface of her sexuality but never delves deep. She thought the character could not reach that completion of identity in the narrative she was writing. It was not possible for Clare to fully realize and embrace her love for women without becoming a complete person herself, which she was never able to within the books.

“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”

Cliff saw the development of Clare from book to book reflected in her own life. When asked about some of the stances from the first book, she pointed out that they came from a less mature version of herself. She even commented that she had reread her book and came back noticing how much had changed from the time she wrote it to the present.

But she points out, in the end, that Clare died before Cliff would have come out, and thus stays an incomplete character. And within the character, she recognized much of what she has had to untangle, including recognizing her light-skinned privilege in the world of Jamaica and America.

It was something she struggled with much of her life, often feeling like an outsider within any group she identified with because of the intersections of her identity. A mixed race, Jamaican, immigrant, lesbian, woman was not always the most understood identity, and certainly not the most represented one. But she worked much of her life to fix that, writing not only fiction with many diverse characters included, but also non-fiction discussing her life and untangling her identity for the world to see. It was not an easy task to face, but she tried her hardest to do justice to her heritage saying:

“To write a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands of us retracing the African past of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or scattered as potash in the cane fields, or gone to bush, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on colour stratification. Or a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the art forms of those of our ancestors and speaking in the patois forbidden us. It means realizing our knowledge will always be wanting. It means also, I think, mixing in the forms taught us by the oppressor, undermining his language and co-opting his style, and turning it to our purpose.”

And she more than followed that advice. She was educated at Wagner College and the Warburg Institute at the University of London. She also held academic positions at several colleges including Trinity College and Emory University, and she gathered all this information and institutional backing to write what she felt needed to be said. In fact, she once noted the reason she wrote:

“Because I had something to say about the place I come out of”