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Journey into speech - a writer between two worlds: an interview with Michelle Cliff.

Among the subjects Jamaican born writer Michelle Cliff explores in her writings are ancestry, the impact of colonization on the Caribbean, the relationships among and interconnection of African people in the diaspora, racism, and the often erroneous way in which the history of black people is recoreded. In her latest novel, Free Enterprise (1993), Cliff attempts to rewrite the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, the African American woman who supplied money with which John Brown bought arms for the raid at Harper's Ferry. Her other two novels, No Telephone to Heaven (1987) and Abeng (1984), are semi-autobiographical and explore the life of Clare Savage, a fair-skinned girl raised between Jamaica and North America, who must reconcile her mixed heritage in a changing society. Other works by Cliff include Bodies of Water (1990), The Land of Look Behind (1985), and Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980).

The following text is based on two separate interviews: one done in person in Albany, California, in December 1989, and the other conducted over the telephone in September 1993.

Adisa: When did you find your voice, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

Cliff: I always wanted to write. Actually there was a terrible incident. I don't know if I should tell you, but I will. When I was at Saint Andres,(1) I was keeping a diary. I had been very influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank, and as a result of seeing the movie and reading her diary, I got a diary of my own. I wasn't living with my mother and father at this time; I was living with my aunt in Kingston [Jamaica] and going to Saint Andrews. This aunt also had a house in Saint Ann, where we used to stay on the weekends. Anyway, my parents broke into my bedroom in Kingston when we were not at the house. They went into my room, broke open my drawer, took out and broke the lock on my diary, and read it. Then they arrived at the other house. My father and mother had my diary in their hands and sat down and read it out loud in front of me, my aunt, and everybody else. My sister was there. There were very intimate details; there were a lot of things about leaving school and not going to class and playing hookey, but there was also the experience of the first time I menstruated, and I remember just being shattered. My father read it, and my mother was in total collaboration. (Pause.) Anyway I remember just crying and being sad and whatnot. I spoke to my sister about it once, and she remembered, even though she was seven at the time. And she said, "Don't you remember screaming and saying, 'Don't I have any rights?'" (Pause.) That incident really shut me down as a writer. I had wanted to be a writer from a very early age; I always wanted to write. The subject I liked most in school was English, and I read an enormous amount as a kid. But that really shut me down until quite late.

Adisa: How late?

Cliff: Until the mid-seventies. The only thing I wrote after the diary was my dissertation. Then I wrote "Notes on Speechlessness." the reason I wrote "Speechlessness" was ... I guess it was all working inside of me for a while. I was involved with a group of women in New York who got together and discussed their works. We met once a month, and each person had to present something--and it was my turn. I was terrified, and I had a hell of a time just speaking. I was shy and tongued-tied a lot of the time. I didn't know what to do, so I thought I'd write something and just read it, because that would be easier than speaking. So I wrote this thing about feeling speechless. I wrote that in 1977.

Adisa: So that is your first piece towards being a writer.

Cliff: That was the first piece, and that led me to "Obsolete Geography."(2) For a long time I hadn't thought about what it meant to be a Jamaican, even though I was going back there a lot. I was sort of creating myself but not really dealing with a lot of different things.

Adisa: You mentioned that growing up you read Anne Frank and Great Expectations, and that you loved literature. What else did you read?

Cliff: Everything! I loved Hemingway, and I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. That was when I was quite young. I read a lot of poetry.

Adisa: What were you thinking as you read all of these works? How did they influence you?

Cliff: I think I used reading almost totally as an escape when I was young. I used to long for Saturday afternoons so I could go to the library and take out all these books, and then I would sit and read them all. I was very isolated. I was alone much of the time, and if it wasn't the library, then it was the movies. I was absolutely addicted. I still love movies, but, as a kid, they would lead me into a completely other world. I used to go to matinees, and I remember that when I would come out it would still be light, and I would feel totally disoriented.

Adisa: Your work is very detailed, vivid. What impact have the movies had on your writing?

Cliff: A lot. My writing is very visual. And I find movies coming into it a lot, using movies as an idea, and the effects of movies. Growing up in Jamaica movies were one of the only contacts with the outside world for many people.

Adisa: You left Jamaica around 1960, then didn't return until you were a teenager. What was it like living in New York, then going back to Jamaica every summer?

Cliff: It's hard to describe fully. First of all, we never assimilated into America at all. Most of the time my mother was employed by the British government and my father by various businesses, but they only socialized with Jamaicans. And whenever they had to socialize with Americans there was huge tension in the house. They never fit in, and I think one of the reasons they were very uncomfortable was because of racism. Even though both of them are very light-skinned and could pass easily, they were never comfortable with that kind of thing at all, and they always felt that white Americans were very sick. So you went back to get recharged, then came to this cold place, then returned to get recharged again. It was two completely different lives.

Adisa: What was it like growing up in your family? You say both your parents are light. What was the whole attitude toward color in your family? Did your family pass? Did you?

Cliff: They passed until we were with black people. It was a weird situation. We never would have passed in Jamaica because it never would have been an option.

Adisa: In Jamaica wouldn't you have been considered "local" white?

Cliff: Yes, exactly, or reds. So you're passing not because you want to be white but for self-protection--but it's strange and very schizophrenic.

Adisa: Was there a sense in your family that white was better?

Cliff: No, but there was that awful color sense which is almost unspoken--the closer you are to white the better things are. They hated the English, and they hated the Americans.

Adisa: What are the images that come to mind when you think of growing up between here and Jamaica?

Cliff: I feel that I had much more freedom in Jamaica than here--and I felt that when I was in my grandmother's place in Clarendon and we had no running water, no electricity, but there was this extrordinary landscape and these long days to wander in it.

Adisa: What does Jamaica mean to you? You say you feel close through the writing.

Cliff: It is an incredibly provincial and oppressive place. There are things about it like the landscape, and some of the people, that I really love, but I hate the classism that I grew up with. I hate the system of oppressing other people of color. I hate pettiness, obsession with appearance, what things look like, how you appear to the outside world. It's such a waste of time. I hate the sexism, the extraordinary double standards. It's unbelievable! See, I experienced a lot of it as a negative place, but also it breaks my heart when I think what might have been.

Adisa: And what perhaps still might be.

Cliff: I hope so. God, if they could have something just turn things around, it could be wonderful.

Adisa: When people say Michelle Cliff, Jamaican writer, does that feel comfortable to you?

Cliff: Well, I think I'm more of a Jamaican than an American writer.

Adisa: Is it because you write about Jamaica primarily?

Cliff: Well, it is my nationality, and my family roots go back to slaves and slave owners. I grew up in a family that was obsessed with the past. They were constantly talking about the past as though we were living it. I guess it was keeping them alive somehow. I also feel very much American. I feel this is my adopted country, and I care a lot about what happens in here.

Adisa: Let's talk about your first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise. Is this autobiographical?

Cliff: Some places are close others are rought.

Adisa: What about the title, what identity are you claiming?

Cliff: It's from a piece in the book about being a Creole and about being neither one nor the other. And, basically, the identity is Jamaican and black. This is the first time that I was breaking the silences of my childhood in the book about race, class, sex, and all of those things. And about the secrets in the family and violence and whatnot. There's a lot of rough stuff in this book, so I'm claiming there--in a way, demanding--to be a whole person.

Adisa: To identify yourself, to name yourself?

Cliff: Exactly, and not to deny any piece of who I am.

Adisa: Your first novel, Abeng, seems to chronicle your life somewhat.

Cliff: It's not autobiographical per se, but I wanted to show somebody like me growing up partly in Jamaica (except I wanted Clare(3) to have her whole life there)--how much of the past was kept from me, from such a character, how much she did not know.

Adisa: So this was your attempt to write your own history?

Cliff: Reconstruct it ... what had been deconstructed.

Adisa: Your next novel, No Telephone to Heaven, is set in the late 1970s, when Jamaica was going through a lot of political, social, and violent upheaval. I was home between 1976 and 1979, and one incident in this novel that rings so true is of the gardener killing those people. I remember reading reports in The Gleaner(4) and hearing stories of such murders. Was the incident in the novel based on newspaper articles?

Cliff: I was there when all of that was happening. In fact, the family of a girl I went to school with was killed, herself included. But I wanted to show how someone like Christopher [the gardener] could become who he was. And if anything, in this book I want people to have compassion for the character. He does a terrible thing, but you can understand why he would do it. At least that was my intention.

Adisa: How do you see Harry/Harriet, the homosexual character, functioning in this novel?

Cliff: I wanted to portray a character who would be the most despised character in Jamaica, and show how heroic he is. The homophobia in Jamaica has always appalled me; I have often wondered what the source is. Why is it such an homophobic place? Does it go back to slavery? Is it something that has its roots in slavery? Were the slaves used in that way? Anyway, he really loves his people. He is there helping, yet if they knew what he really was, they would kill him. I also wanted him to have endured what a woman in the culture endures, especially a woman like his mother, who has been a maid. When he talks about his rape, and then his mother's rape ... he is the most complete character in the book.

Adisa: This novel is about change, self-determination. You seem to be saying that Caribbean people have to work actively to free themselves from neo-colonialism.

Cliff: First of all they're on this truck named No Telephone to Heaven. They cannot depend on anybody to free them from their situation. They have to get out of it themselves. I have Clare on the truck because I want to show her inching toward wholeness.

Adisa: Do you think Clare's journey in the novel was somewhat influenced by the 1960s movement? You were in high school in New York during that period. What impact did the '60s have on you?

Cliff: A lot.

Adisa: Did you get involved in any of the marches or demonstrations?

Cliff: I did when I was older. I was in high school when the Birmingham bombings happened in '63, and because our family was so nuclear and so non-assimilated, it was also very stifling. My parents were very strict about access and where you could go. I really wanted to go to a demonstration in New York after the Birmingham bombings, but my father and mother didn't want me to go. And it was this weirdly reasoned excuse that this is not our country, it is not our business, you don't want to get involved in it. But I got much more involved in civil rights activities in college and went to marches on Washington against the war in Vietnam. It had a good effect on me.

Adisa: It made you more aware politically?

Cliff: Thinking politically more.

Adisa: What do you mean "thinking politically more"?

Cliff: Seeing politically reasons why things happened, becoming conscious of the fact that certain people are not destined to be oppressed. It's pretty simple. During the '60s, I was spending a lot of time in Jamaica also, and the attitude expressed in my family a lot was, "Well, of course, Jamaica isn't racist. So that kind of thing is never going to happen here."

Adisa: But it does. Your work fits into the post-colonial literature genre. You write about Jamaica as a colonial society. What does it mean to be a colonized person? What does it mean to have been colonized?

Cliff: It's very complicated. I think if you're a girl, and you're growing up in a colonized country ... when I was growing up in Jamaica it was still a colony, and the teachers I had at Saint Andrews were, for the most part, white women or light-skinned Jamaican women who believed in white supremacy and English supremacy--the Empire. The Jamaicans were somehow to feel ashamed of Jamaica, and the English were horrendously superior. You felt inadequate. I don't know how else to put it. You were taught to worship something you could never really be a part of, and you were taught to be grateful to these people. But I always hated this. It was hard not to hate them.

Adisa: In the late 1960s, when you were coming of age, the feminist movement was beginning to gain momentum. What contact, if any, did you have with this movement, and how did you feel about a women's movement?

Cliff: The main contact I had was through reading. I was disillusioned by what had happened in the 1960s--for example, the crackdown on the Panthers and other progressive groups--so I went to England and tried to lose myself. My first real contact was through Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970) and The Female Eunuch (1971) by Germaine Greer. But I've always been interested in women as historical figures. In my family I bucked against what was expected of me: marriage and children. So I found the feminist movement liberating, to discover that there were other women who thought like me. It meant I was not a freak. My fate in Jamaican society as seen by my family and the middle-class community was to marry an upper-class Jamaican man and have children. My role was to become a collaborator, and in Jamaican society that would mean collaborating in the oppression of other people of color as well as myself as a female. I think that liberation has to begin with oneself. The feminist movement allowed me certain things, like choosing to live alone, which was frowned on in the world in which I lived. Feminism for me was a way of looking in a mirror and seeing possibilities. It gave me support for my choices. One of these choices ultimately was to become a writer, which was something not at all encouraged in the world in which I grew up.

Adisa: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Cliff: I consider myself a feminist in the way I chose to define feminism. That is, a world view which focuses on the experiences of women. It doesn't mean excluding men. I have real problems with that idea. Feminism should be inclusive, not exclusive. It should concern itself with the liberation of all people.

Adisa: How has the feminist movement influenced your writing?

Cliff: The focus of my writing would have been different if it hadn't been for contact with feminist writings, particularly with the idea of foregrounding women's lives. One of the things feminism has allowed me to do has been to focus on the experiences of women. In my novels Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven, I have been able to focus on the oppression of women with regards to class and race as well as gender, and I've also been able to focus on the resistance of women with regard to class and race and gender. Both of these things are equally important to me.

Adisa: Some black women have problems with the term feminist. For example, Alice Walker uses the word womanist. Do you object to the term feminist?

Cliff: No. It's not important to me, but I don't have a quarrel with anyone who wants to use another term. Historically there have been black feminists in this country and the rest of the world. I would rather foreground those women like Sojourner Truth and Francis E. W. Harper, even though Harper had some limitations, like advocating the idea of the Talented Tenth.(5) I also consider Zora Neale Hurston a feminist. I think too much of the time we get caught up in quibbles over terms. That bothers me.

Adisa: Do you think the feminist movement is doing enough to embrace women of color and workingclass white women?

Cliff: I don't think we can look at one mainstream movement. There are quite a few different movements. The value of the feminist movement is that it has made women's lives important, and it has made us take notice of what happens to women. That idea really didn't exist that much before. But there is great strength in grassroots feminist movements throughout this country, especially in terms of health issues--for example, The Black Women's Health Project out of Atlanta. But there also has been a degree of self-involvement where I see self-help issues taking precedence over political action. That is, I do not want feminism to become consumed by the recovery industry.

Adisa: What changes have you witnessed since the 1960s? We're almost into another century. Is the conflict between blacks and whites, is racism still intense?

Cliff: I think it will never change until people realize where it comes from, and how deep it goes. You cannot eliminate it by changing a couple of laws which then are changed back, anyway. It's an existential thing. Racism goes very, very deep in people, and it's historically complex. I mean, it's a huge subject. I was teaching a course, the main theme of which was racism, how it is supported by the same thing that supports anti-semitism, that supports oppression of any group of people. People have simply got to, first of all, want to change, then take the steps to do so.

Adisa: What are some of the steps that need to be taken?

Cliff: You mean as far as whites are concerned? They have to educate themselves. They have to really want to change. They have to realize that they are not just damaging black people when they are being racist; they are damaging and diminishing themselves. It's like amputating a piece of yourself to hate another human being for no reason. I think that the problem with America is the dissonance between the myth of this country and the reality. To have to contend all the time with unraveling the myth of America is very difficult. And a lot of students, and I am speaking particularly of white students, find it very, very hard to deal with the idea that America is a difficult place for non-white people--to put it mildly. Du Bois hit the nail on the head when he said that racism was going to be the problem of the century.(6) And it's going to go beyond this century unless it's dealt with.

Adisa: What do you think you and others can do to help bring about change?

Cliff: Talk about it, for one thing. I talk about it constantly. When I was teaching this course, I could hear myself saying these things over and over again, so I said, "Oh, Michelle, give it a break. Everything can't be racist." But then I pick up the paper and I read about the bombings and killing, so I say to myself, I really wasn't exaggerating, racism is really all around us, constantly. So educate, educate. Constantly bring it up.

Adisa: And deal with it as a central theme in your work.

Cliff: Well, it's something that deeply concerns me. It's not like it's an imposition. I often wonder what would it be like to live a day without it. Can you even imagine it? It's unimaginable.

Adisa: Your new novel, Free Enterprise, is based on the life of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lived in San Francisco. When did you first learn or read about her, and how has living in California influenced the writing of this novel?

Cliff: I heard about Pleasant when I read The Salt Eaters (1980) by Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara has a glancing reference in there about Pleasant. Then I spoke to Toni Cade about Pleasant, but that was a while ago. Next, I found an article in Ebony by Lerone Bennett about Mary Ellen Pleasant. The whole idea of her intrigued me. When I moved to California in 1984, I went to San Francisco and saw the eucalyptus trees that Pleasant planted on Octavia Street. It was incredible to see tangible evidence of her existence. I'd been taking notes all along and have long been intrigued by the black woman's role in revolution historically, whether it was Nanny in Jamaica, or wherever. I have always been taken by the role African American people played in opening the West. I went to Pleasant's grave in Napa in 1990 when I was writing the novel, and her chosen epitaph says, as I say in the novel, "She was a friend of John Brown."

Adisa: I know you admire Toni Morrison, and reading Free Enterprise, I was reminded of Morrison's work. How, or in what ways, has Morrison influenced you writing?

Cliff: Enormously. I don't think I could have written this novel if she hadn't written Beloved.(7) Her imagining of that period, of slavery and its aftermath, opened up my imagination with regard to the rewriting of history, revising the history we've all been taught. And there are touches in my novel that would have been impossible without Morrison's having taken on the whole idea of bondage and resistance.

Adisa: It seems to me that your book is not a novel in the traditional sense of that genre. I have been examining how African, Caribbean, African American, and Latin American writers have been extending the boundary of this genre. Your novel is a combination of letters, poetry, prose, and even a sense of drama, dialogue. Can you speak about the novel form in relation to your writing?

Cliff: I think part of it is that I come out of an oral tradition, and I come out of a colonial tradition in which we are taught that the "novel" was defined in such and such a way--a rigid definition. We come from an oral tradition that encompasses the telling of history, dreams, family stories, and then we also have the European idea of what the novel is. I have always written in a non-linear fashion. Another thing I owe to Morrison is her statement in Beloved that everything is now. Time is not linear. All things are happening at the same time. The past, the present, and the future coexist.

Adisa: What do you want the reader to learn, to think after reading Free Enterprise? I mean, you seem to be on a mission. Some might say you are political writer. Can you speak to this issue?

Cliff: I started out as an historian; I did my graduate work in history. I've always been struck by the misrepresentation of history and have tried to correct received versions of history, especially the history of resistance. It seems to me that if one does not know that one's people have resisted, then it makes resistance difficult.

Adisa: From her very first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1954), Paule Marshall has been exploring the relationship between Caribbean and African American people, and in her latest novel, Daughters (1992), she makes this link more direct. Ursa, the protagonist, is the daughter of a Caribbean man and an African American woman, and raised in both countries. In your novel, Annie Christmas, from Jamaica, joins Mary Ellen Pleasant. What are you saying by joining these two women?

Cliff: Christmas and Pleasant are the two main characters who come together in this revolutionary moment, but there are other characters from other parts of the world who also represent resistance, other revolutionary moments. I want to show that national boundaries evaporate, that people can reach each other across distances and resist. One of the things I am trying to do in this book is adjust the lens, to re-vision history.

Adisa: The novel is very vivid. I can see it being made into a movie. Would you like to see that happen?

Cliff: (Laughter.) I'd love to see it made into a movie. Whoopi Goldberg would be great as Mary Ellen Pleasant. I would love to see an African American filmmaker do it, yes.

Adisa: What are you working on now? What will you be working on in the future?

Cliff: Right now I am workign on a long essay on June Jordan's work, and a new novel called Art History. It's set in the 1970s in England and is about a group of art historians. That's all I know now, but these things change as they evolve.

Notes

(1.)Saint Andrews High School for Girls is located in Kingston, Jamaica. Cliff attended this school between the ages of eleven and fourteen.

(2.)"Obsolete Geography" is one of the sections in Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise.

(3.)Clare Savage is the girl/protagonist in Abeng and the young woman/protagonist in No Telephone to Heaven.

(4.)The Gleaner is Jamaica's daily newspaper.

(5.)W. E. B. Du Bois advocated that the most talented and intellectual African Americans should serve as representatives for the masses of black people as this small cadre was the Talented Tenth.

(6.)Du Bois's observation appears in his most popular work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

(7.)Toni Morrison's Beloved (1988) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
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Title Annotation:Black Women's Culture Issue
Author:Adisa, Opal Palmer
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:4705
Previous Article:"Would you really rather die than bear my young?": the construction of gender, race, and species in Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild." (Black Women's...
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