An interview with Michelle Cliff.
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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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 ffom 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.
Q. That multicultural sens of identity seems to contradict some of the things you've written.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. So you're moving toward a conception of affiliation based on political allegiance rather than origins?
A. Political enthusiasms.
Q. The title of your recent essay, "Caliban's Daughter," suggested to me that you were still writing out of a sense of Jamaican identity.
A. 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 ...
Q. I loved your suggestion in "Clare Savage as Crossroads Character" that somebody write Heathcliff a life.
A. 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.
Q. It's hard for me to imagine the Earnshaws integrating Heathcliff into the family to the extent that they did if he was African.
A. 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 Brontes 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.
Q. 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?
A. No, I don't think it will ever be finished.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. Due to the extent of neocolonialism?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. Right, that's one way of becoming whole, but she's still dead.
Q. So her death is not a moment of a consummate coming together; it is premature?
A. I think so, but you can go back and forth about that ending.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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 --
A. And realizes her love for Zoe.
Q. 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.
A. No, it doesn't.
Q. What happens there?
A. 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.
Q. So the change of emphasis in Clare's development from gender politics to racial politics is autobiographical.
A. 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.
Q. Where, In your fiction or in essays and poetry?
A. 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.
Q. So the school or your family had been aware of the relationship.
A. 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.
Q. And its absence from your writing has been very striking.
A. It is there, but as a subtext.
Q. But it's not the focus.
A. 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.
Q. 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 anticolonialgist politics.
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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!
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. Well, they would. How could they not?
Q. Can you talk about how that relates to your personal experience?
A. 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.
Q. And in this country as well -
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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 -
A. That it's noblesse oblige?
Q. Right. And you seemed to need to assert that that's not what motivates you, that your politics are for you.
A. Exactly. It is for me.
Q. Let's talk about audience. It seems to me that you imagine a North American and British audience when you're writing.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. So that is part of your language?
A. 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.
Q. You talk about the homophobia in Jamaica. Do you see this as part of the colonial legacy?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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 movement - 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.
Q. So that was a period when you were in Jamaica?
A. 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.
Q. You first left Jamaica when you were three. Why did your parents leave at that point?
A. 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.
Q. So you were never quite as uprooted as Clare Savage.
A. No, not at all. Although the last time I was in Jamaica was 1975.
Q. Why haven't you been back since then?
A. 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.
Q. Since 1975 is such a long time.
A. 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.
Q. So many exiled writers have said they couldn't write while they were in their native lands.
A. I think that's valid. James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie - there are a lot of us.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. The characterization of Christopher raises the same sorts of questions that Native Son raises about the extent to which social circumstances determine individual development.
A. 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.
Q. In a sense, Christopher's and Clare's struggles are both about self-hatred.
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. 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.
Q. So you don't feel that any number of years of living in the U.S. will make this home?
A. No, not in the way it would be if I was a native-born American. It's just a different kind of being.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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.
A. They can't transcend it, even as girls.
Q. Has the impossibility of transcending those differences been something that you've experienced throughout your life?
A. 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.
Q. So that those differences are perhaps erased in a different way in this environment than in jamaica?
A. 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.
Q. That white woman was incredibly horrible.
A. 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.
Q. How successful do you think the women's movement has been in dealing with white women's racism?
A. 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.
Q. To what do you attribute the current popularity of writing by people of color?
A. 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.
Q. Do you think that the positive reception this literature is receiving is purely on aesthetic as opposed to political grounds?
A. 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.
Q. 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."
A. 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.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Schwartz, Meryl F.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Post-alienation: recent directions in Jewish-American literature.|
|Next Article:||The big strip tease: female bodies and male power in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.|