A Tribute to Michelle Cliff

By Antonia MacDonald

Born: November 2, 1946. Died: June 12, 2016. Cause of death: liver failure.

These are the bald facts of Michelle Cliff’s life.

But these facts do not speak to the personal history of a mixed-race Jamaican-American lesbian whose prodigious creativity centered around her anxiety to give lyrical and impactful voice to those silenced by injustice, prejudice, and oppression “I have involved myself in finding my voice, unique to me, and that I see as a journey into my imagination without regard to the boundaries of genre.” (Michelle Cliff, interviewed by Julie R. Enszer, June 2010.) These facts do not speak to the life of a writer who worked tirelessly to construct into being, a self that represented all those who have been hidden by histories of conquest, and the traumas of colonial conditions. “Something had happened to her –was happening to her. And it didn’t really matter that there was not another living soul to tell it to” ( Abeng, 166).

In her novel, No Telephone to Heaven, Cliff’s crossroad character, Clare Savage imagines herself as an albino gorilla. Different from the members of her tribe, the albino gorilla paradoxically struggles to be part of even while simultaneously resisting belonging to the tribe. Clare’s search for roots, her need to connect herself to Jamaica, its people and its landscape is part of the personal history of Michelle Cliff, her own story about her dark colonial past and the hyphenated condition it engendered. This condition is one that she unceasingly sought to discursively resolve. “Her story is a long story. How she came to be here. There are any bits and pieces to her. For she is composed of fragments. In this journey she hopes is her restoration” (No Telephone to Heaven, 87).

In many of her early interviews, Cliff talked about her journey into speech –her triumph over the forces that had brought her to speechlessness. The search for her creative voice, the anxiety to tell her personal story after having been long silent: “I could speak fluently but I could not reveal. . . when I begun finally to approach myself as a subject, my writing was jagged, nonlinear almost shorthand” (The Land of Look Behind, 12). That journey was an ongoing one. It was marked by different rest stops. It was facilitated by different guides: “We live in an oral society where everything, every move, motion, eyeflash is commented upon, catalogued, categorized, approved or disapproved. The members of this society are my writing teachers. But I don’t know this yet” (Store of a Million Items, 35).

The process, the cathartic benefit of telling her life stories, stories she wished she could write in fire, led Cliff to communities of similarly silenced – be it by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality. And it is in, and to those communities that she testified to the healing power of stories. “Sometimes I think all we have is stories, and they are endangered. In years to come will anyone have heard them—our voices. . . . once something is spoken, it is carried on the air, it does not die” (Free Enterprise 58-9).

Indeed stories do not die. That is what Michelle Cliff taught me.

In 1998 I met Michelle Cliff at the Association of Caribbean Women writers and scholars conference in Grenada. As a youngish scholar, one who was fresh off the PhD boat, I recall still the trepidation I felt seeing her in the audience when I presented my paper on her first two novels. How would she receive my exposition on her work? She sat quietly at the back of the room, dark glasses on. I kept looking in her direction, speaking to her, telling her my story of her work. And as I warmed up to my story about her construction of Caribbeanness in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven, I stopped thinking of her as the author of these novels. Now she was a Caribbean woman whose stories about voicelessness had brought others like me to voice – albeit not in my case creative voice. I ended my paper by dedicating my presentation to her. She smiled her acceptance. Said nothing. Now everyone turned in her direction. Applauded. She never stood up, never stepped out of the background, her expression one of the quiet humility in the face of this loud praise for her literary contribution. At the end of the panel session, long after the room had emptied, I sat there waiting for my equilibrium to return. Michelle Cliff reentered the room. “In the distance is a mountain of glass. The light grazes the surface and prisms split into colour” (Everything is Now, 128). “Thanks,” she said, “for such a moving analysis of my work.”

In her online tribute to Michelle Cliff, Jamaican poet/novelist, Opal Palmer Adisa talks about the generosity with which Michelle Cliff supported fellow Caribbean women writers. I concur. That generosity was extended to me and, I suspect, to many other Caribbean scholars. She was also generous in her affiliations with other writers, her way of inserting herself into a Caribbean literary tradition, defining herself both in terms of it and against it. In her collection of short stories, Bodies of Water, one of the characters affirms: “I am in the world to change the world” (191). Cliff was in the world to change her world. And she did so in poetry and prose. Writer of four novels, three collections of short stories, two collections of prose/poetry and numerous essays, Michelle Cliff returned, with unceasing passion and polished creativity, to themes of wholeness and healing, reconciliation and homecoming. “You have no mother, save for language” (Into the interior, 121).

A special issue of Cliff’s life and works will be published by Sinister Wisdom, a journal that she, along with her partner Adrienne Rich, once edited. I hope this collection is just the first of many special tributes to Michelle Cliff. Let us keep alive her contribution of our Caribbean literary heritage.

Silhouette of Ashes, scorched, return to earth, release of soul through fire”
(If I could write this in fire, 77).

Honor and respect.

Antonia MacDonald was born and grew up in St. Lucia.  She now lives in Grenada where she is a professor in the department of Liberal Studies, Senior Associate Dean in the School of  Arts and Sciences, and Assistant Dean in the Graduate Studies Program. Professor MacDonald-Smythe writes on contemporary Caribbean women writers and more recently, Derek Walcott and on St. Lucian Literary Studies.  She has published articles in Journal of West Indian Literature (JWIL), Callaloo and MaComere and is the author of Making Homes in the West/Indies.