Authors: Michelle Cliff

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

West Indian novelist and poet

Identity: African descent, gay or bisexual

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Abeng, 1984

No Telephone to Heaven, 1987

Free Enterprise, 1993

Short Fiction:

Bodies of Water, 1990

The Store of a Million Items, 1998

Edited Text:

The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writing by Lillian Smith, 1978


Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, 1980 (prose and poetry)

The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry, 1985


Michelle Cliff is generally viewed as one of the most innovative and provocative Caribbean novelists because of her critiques of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class prejudice in Jamaica, the United States, and Great Britain. Cliff was born to a middle-class family of black and white racial background in Jamaica. Although the family moved to New York when the author was three, they later went back to Jamaica. After attending a private school in Jamaica, Cliff returned to the United States to pursue a college education, receiving an A.B. degree from Wagner College in 1969. From 1969 to 1971 Cliff worked as a reporter and a production supervisor for W. W. Norton in New York. Later, Cliff moved to England, earning a master of philosophy degree in Renaissance studies from the University of London in 1974. She returned to the United States, and from 1974 to 1979 was an editor for W. W. Norton in New York. She taught part-time from 1974 to 1976 at the New York School for Social Research and from 1980 to 1981 at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Cliff taught at Norwich University in 1983-1984, and in 1985 she accepted a position with Vista College in Berkeley, California. In 1990, Cliff began teaching English courses during the spring semesters at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.{$I[AN]9810002032}{$I[A]Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]JAMAICA;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]WEST INDIES;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Cliff, Michelle}{$I[tim]1946;Cliff, Michelle}

Cliff’s first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, consists of ten sections of poetry and prose that reflects evidence of the author’s interest in history and identity. Fragmentary and imagistic sections such as “Passing” and “Obsolete Geography” reflect Cliff’s childhood in New York and Jamaica. From 1981 to 1983 Cliff published and coedited with American poet Adrienne Rich a lesbian-oriented journal called Sinister Wisdom. The Land of Look Behind includes excerpts from Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise as well as poetry and prose selections. One of the most provocative selections, entitled “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” consists of autobiographical recollections of Cliff’s developing awareness of class, race, and colonialism.

Abeng transforms the autobiographical memories of “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire” into a novel. Set in Jamaica, Abeng traces the adolescence of Clare Savage, who has both black and white ancestors, and her emerging sexual, racial, and class consciousness during the 1950’s. No Telephone to Heaven is a sequel to Abeng. Like Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven addresses the themes of colonialism history, race and class prejudice, sexuality, and the quest for identity. Spanning the 1960’s through the 1980’s, the novel chronicles Clare’s physical and spiritual odyssey from adolescence through adulthood as she journeys to the United States, England, Europe, and Jamaica in search of her heritage and identity as a black woman. Bodies of Water contains ten stories linked by images of water and/or references to traveling. It addresses social, political, economical, and historical issues such as slavery in “A Hanged Man,” domestic violence in “Election Day 1984,” and the Vietnam War in “The Ferry.”

Free Enterprise spans the period of the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century as it documents the lives of four strong, independent women: Mary Ellen Pleasant and Annie Christmas, two abolitionist friends involved in John Brown’s 1859 raid in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to emancipate slaves; Marian Clover Adams, wife of nineteenth century historian Henry Adams; and her cousin Alice Hooper, also a supporter of the abolitionist movement and equal rights for women. Although Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven feature third-person omniscient narrators, Free Enterprise uses a complex narrative structure of third-person omniscient narration and letters between characters detailing central events of the novel. Like Cliff’s earlier works, Free Enterprise addresses racism, sexism, history, and the quest for self. Cliff’s fictional and autobiographical writings are imbued with the author’s emerging consciousness as a feminist, Caribbean, and lesbian writer, and with the complexities of human experience.

The Store of a Million Items is a collection of short stories with an autobiographical bent. Most take place in either Jamaica or Manhattan and express the gaps between cultures, genders, and generations.

BibliographyAdisa, Opal Palmer. “Journey into Speech: Writer Between Two Worlds–An Interview with Michelle Cliff.” African American Review 28, no. 2 (1994). In this special issue on black women’s culture, essays explore Cliff’s work on race and oppression in Jamaica and her ideas on resistance as a form of community and the significant role of women in the history of political resistance.Agosto, Noraida. Michelle Cliff’s Novels: Piecing the Tapestry of Memory and History. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Examines Cliff’s depiction of memory as repressed history and the attempt to reclaim this history through memory.Barnes, Fiona R. “Resisting Cultural Cannibalism: Oppositional Narratives in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 25 (Spring, 1992). Examines Cliff’s use of the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) in a Caribbean setting as a means of critiquing colonialism.Browdy de Hernandez, Jennifer. Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2003. Cliff is one of eighteen women whose work–including their writing–against all forms of oppression is examined in this book. The focus is on Latin American and Caribbean women who have used literature and other creative works to resist the political regimes of the countries in which they were born.Edmondson, Belinda. “Race, Privilege, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (1993): 180-191. A useful study of how Cliff seeks out obscure events of history and reworks those histories to include factors of race and oppression.Elia, Nada. Trances, Dances, and Vociferations: Agency and Resistance in Africana Women’s Narratives. New York: Garland, 2001. Examines Cliff’s use of alternative and oral history, sexual disguise, and racial passing in her work. Chapter 3 is an analysis of the character Annie Christmas from Free Enterprise. Includes a bibliography.Gifford, William Tell. Narrative and the Nature of Worldview in the Clare Savage Novels of Michelle Cliff. New York: P. Lang, 2001. A study of Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven.Hudson, Lynn M. The Making of Mammy Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Contrasts Cliff’s portrayal of M. E. P. with that character’s portrayal in the novels of others.Lima, Maria Helen. “Revolutionary Developments: Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven and Merle Collin’s Angel.” Ariel 24 (January, 1993). Compares and contrasts the two authors’ strategies in presenting the experience of young women growing up in the Caribbean.Madonald-Smythe, Antonia. Making Homes in the West/Indies: Constructions of Subjectivity in the Writings of Michelle Cliff and Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Routledge, 2001. Examines the uses of orality and history in the Bildungsromane of the two authors.Morris, Ann R., and Margaret M. Dunn. “The Bloodstream of Our Inheritance: Female Identity and the Caribbean Mother’s-Land.” In Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Examines how the protagonist’s native land is a surrogate mother in the fiction of Jamaica Kincaid, Jean Rhys, Paule Marshall, and Michelle Cliff.Pollack, Sandra, and Denise D. Knight, eds. Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Offers an insightful introduction to the life, works, and critical reception of Cliff’s writing.
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