Michelle Cliff was, beyond all of this writing and academic success, a person with a rich inner life. She was friends with and interacted with many of the greats in writing at the time such as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, and was an activist for most of her life. This, of course, didn’t come without conflict.
An interview with her revealed that there was animosity within her community regarding her light-skin with one example:
“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.”
She felt alienation from her home country of Jamaica for another reason; her sexuality. Having been disowned by her mother for it, she did not return home in her later years. In fact, her last visit to her country was in 1975, the same year she started a relationship with the poet Adrienne Rich. There's was a lifelong relationship that was only drawn to a close by Rich’s death in 2012 at the age 82, four years before Cliff’s death. Rich died of complications due to arthritis, and Cliff of liver failure. The two loved each other deeply and had a long and active life together. We may also be doing a piece on her in the future.
Putting our focus back on Cliff, we find so much left to say, but difficulty saying any of it because she said it all herself. In her own words:
“I choose to define myself the way I define myself, and if people can't deal with it, then that's tough. Really.”
And it is difficult to pin down someone who was so resolutely self-defined, and this was a trouble in her friendships as well. Though she had many queer friends she relied heavily on herself and her self-reflection to get through the messy journey of self-discovery, and it wasn’t always easy, she admitted in an interview:
“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.”
This is not a rare narrative to hear from a queer person, but she worked hard to keep much of her processing internal instead of external, which made her a deeply self-aware person who was always striving for improvement. And she turned this desire for growth not only to herself but to the world around her. With a deep interest in history she worked to raise up the voiced of people in history who had been silenced, saying:
“Most of my work has to do with revising: revising the written record, what passes as the official version of history, and inserting those lives that have been left out.”
A desire that we at Making Queer History also share, but her focus was much more steadily set on uplifting people of colour and their histories uncovering stories not only from Jamaica but America as well, and within her work, she worked to highlight the failed rebellions within communities. Though much of what she wrote about was technically a failure she found the beauty in it, using it as a reminder that people of colour were not passive victims in history but full real people who never stopped fighting even if they knew they might lose. They were people who fought because they knew someone had to because they could not just go quietly into the night, even if it meant losing everything. They screamed even though they may have known no one was listening, but the sound waves travelled through the years and through Cliff’s pen and she raised up the voices of those who had been silenced.
And that message is one that resonates deeply within our current political climate, as she is quite a current figure, and we find ourselves inspired by her work, her passion, and most importantly by her words. Her tool for revolution is what we leave you with this week, and let these words be the ones you grasp onto as we approach the hurricane on the horizon:
“Even if you didn't succeed, just to resist is important.” — Michelle Cliff
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
Barnes, Erin M, and Lily L Miles. “Michelle Cliff.” Voices from the Gaps, 17 Oct. 2004, pp. 1–5., conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/166124/Cliff%2C%20Michelle.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
Grimes, William. “Michelle Cliff, Who Wrote of Colonialism and Racism, Dies at 69.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/books/michele-cliff-who-wrote-of-colonialism-and-racism-dies-at-69.html.
Judith Raiskin, and Michelle Cliff. "The Art of History: An Interview with Michelle Cliff." The Kenyon Review 15, no. 1 (1993): 57-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4336802.
“Michelle Cliff.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/michelle-cliff.
Schwartz, Meryl F., and Michelle Cliff. "An Interview with Michelle Cliff." Contemporary Literature 34, no. 4 (1993): 595-619. doi:10.2307/1208803.