Book Reviews

A Furious Voice, Forged In The 'Fire' Of Prejudice

'If I Could Write This In Fire'
If I Could Write This in Fire
By Michelle Cliff
Hardcover, 104 pages
University of Minnesota Press
List price: $21.95
Author Michelle Cliff

Michelle Cliff is the author of Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. hide caption

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While on a tour of the University of Virginia, Jamaican-American novelist and short-story writer Michelle Cliff is informed by a doctoral student that Thomas Jefferson never owned slaves. "'Villagers,' as they're affectionately known," says the student, "built [this] university, Monticello, every rotunda, column and finial the great man dreamed of. They liked him so much they just pitched in, after their own chores are done."

It's one of many unsettling moments in If I Could Write This in Fire, a collection of essays that is Cliff's first nonfiction book. Everywhere Cliff goes, she sees people treating history as if it were a story they could rewrite at will: women at cocktail parties uttering, "Pinochet was not so bad"; guests at a dinner party disbelieving that the blacks in Birth of a Nation were white actors in blackface.

Cliff, 61, has always been an outsider — a lesbian born on a homophobic Caribbean island, an immigrant in the U.K. (where she studied) and the U.S. (where she settled), a mixed-race intellectual trying to make sense of a black and white world.

Readers who enjoyed her masterful novels Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven — both thorny portrayals of growing up in colonial Jamaica — will be glad to see her opening this book in familiar territory. Cliff's essay about her childhood love Zoe is heartbreaking. Returning from London after 10 years away, she finds Zoe impoverished, her teeth knocked out by her husband and battling blackouts. Cliff gives Zoe the $1.50 she asks for and goes on her way.

In another piece, more disorientation awaits. While sitting with a visiting cousin in a London bar, Cliff watches as the waitstaff pointedly ignores them. After they retreat to an Italian restaurant owned by a same-sex couple, her cousin — unaware of Cliff's sexual orientation — asks, in a Jamaican patois, "Why you want to bring us to a battyman den, lady?" Cliff may have been able to escape her unwelcoming home as a teen, but a new sense of home still eludes her.

"Revolutionaries are made, not born," she tells us at one point. These furious essays — tightly wound, stripped of lyrical excess, often discomfiting, but emotionally urgent and illuminating, too — bear that out. Cliff's journey so far may have been a rough one, but along the way it produced a radical, powerful, and essential artist.

Excerpt: 'If I Could Write This In Fire'

If I Could Write This in Fire
By Michelle Cliff
Hardcover, 104 pages
University of Minnesota Press
List price: $21.95

Chapter 1:
If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire

We were standing under the waterfall at the top of Orange River.

Our chests were just beginning to mound — slight hills on either side. In the center of each were our nipples, which were losing their sideways look and rounding into perceptible buttons of dark flesh. Too fast it seemed. We touched each other, then, quickly and almost simultaneously, raised our arms to examine the hairs growing underneath. Another sign. Mine were wispy and light-brown. My friend Zoe had dark hair curled up tight. In each little patch the riverwater caught the sun, so we glistened.

The waterfall had come about when my uncles dammed the river to bring power to the sugar mill. Usually when I say "sugar mill" to anyone not familiar with the Jamaican countryside or for that matter my family, I can tell their minds cast an image of tall smokestacks, enormous copper cauldrons, a man in a broadbrimmed hat with a whip, several dozens of slaves — that is, if they have any idea of how large sugar mills once operated. It's a grandiose expression, like plantation, verandah, out-building. (Try substituting farm, porch, outside toilet.) To some people it even sounds romantic.

Our sugar mill was little more than a round-roofed shed, which contained a wheel and a woodfire. We paid an old man to run it, tend the fire, and then either bartered or gave the sugar away, after my grandmother (my mother's mother) had taken what she needed. Our canefield was about two acres of fl at land next to the river. My grandmother had six acres in all — one donkey, a mule, two cows, some chickens, a few pigs, and stray dogs and cats who had taken up residence in the yard.

Her house had four rooms, no electricity, no running water. The kitchen was a shed in the back with a small pot-bellied stove. Across from the stove was a mahogany counter, which had a white enamel basin set into it. The only light source was a window, a small space covered partly by a wooden shutter. We washed our faces and hands in enamel bowls with cold water carried in kerosene tins from the river and poured from enamel pitchers. Our chamber pots were enamel also, and in the morning we carefully placed them on the steps at the side of the house where my grandmother collected them and disposed of their contents. The outhouse was about thirty yards from the backdoor — a "closet" as we called it –– infested with lizards capable of changing color. When the door was shut, it was totally dark, and the lizards made their presence known by the noise of their scurrying through the torn newspaper, or the soft shudder when they dropped from the walls. I remember most clearly the stench of the toilet, which seemed to hang in the air in that climate.

But because every little piece of reality exists in relation to another piece, our situation was not that simple. It was to our yard that people came with news first. It was in my grandmother's parlor that the Disciples of Christ held their meetings.

Zoe lived with her mother and sister on borrowed ground in a place called Breezy Hill. She and I saw each other almost every day on our school vacations over a period of three years. Each morning early — as I sat on the cement porch with my coffee cut with condensed milk — she appeared: in her straw hat, school tunic faded from blue to gray, white blouse, sneakers hanging around her neck. We had coffee together, and a piece of harddough bread with butter and cheese, waited a bit and headed for the river. At first we were shy with each other. We did not start from the same place.

There was land. My grandparents' farm. And there was color.

(My family was called red. A term which signified a degree of whiteness. "We's just a flock of red people," a cousin of mine once said.) In the hierarchy of shades I was considered among the lightest. The countrywomen who visited with my grandmother commented on my "tall" hair — meaning long. Wavy, not curly.

I had spent the years from three to ten in New York and spoke — at first — like an American. I wore American clothes: shorts, jeans, bathing suit. Because of my American past I was looked upon as the creator of games. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers. Peter Pan.

(While the primary colonial identification of Jamaicans was English, American colonialism was a strong force in my childhood — and of course continues today. We were sent American movies and American music. American aluminum companies had already discovered bauxite on the island and were shipping the ore to their mainland. United Fruit bought our bananas. White Americans came to Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Discovery Bay for their vacations, and their cruise ships docked in Kingston and Port Antonio and other places. In some ways America was seen as a better place than England by many Jamaicans. The farm laborers sent to work in American agribusiness came home with dollars and gifts and new clothes; there were few who mentioned American racism. Many of the middle class who emigrated to Brooklyn or Staten Island or Manhattan were able to pass into the white American world — saving their blackness for other Jamaicans or for trips home; in some cases, forgetting it altogether. Those middle-class Jamaicans who could not pass for white managed differently — not unlike the Bajans in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones — saving, working, investing, buying property. Completely separate in most cases from Black Americans.)

I was someone who had experience with the place that sent us triple features of B-grade westerns and gangster movies. And I had tall hair and light skin. And I was the granddaughter of this grandmother. So I had power. I was the cowboy, Zoe was my "girl," the boys we knew were Indians. I was the detective, Zoe was my "girl," the boys were the robbers. I was Peter Pan, Zoe was Wendy Darling, the boys were the lost boys. And the terrain around the river — jungled and dark green — was Tombstone or Chicago or Never-Never-Land.

This place and my friendship with Zoe never touched my life in Kingston. We did not correspond with each other when I left my grandmother's home.

I never visited Zoe's home the entire time I knew her. It was a given: never suggested, never raised.

Zoe went to a state school held in a country church in Red Hills. It had been my mother's school. I went to a private all-girls school where I was taught by white Englishwomen and pale Jamaicans. In her school the students were caned as punishment. In mine the harshest punishment I remember was being sent to sit under the lignum vitae to "commune with nature." Some of the girls were out-and-out white (English and American), the rest of us were colored –– only a few were dark. Our uniforms were blood-red gabardine, heavy and hot. Classes were held in buildings meant to recreate England: damp with stone floors, facing onto a cloister, or quad as they called it. We began each day with the headmistress leading us in English hymns. The entire school stood for an hour in the zinc-roofed gymnasium.

Occasionally a girl fainted, or threw up. Once, a girl had a grand mal seizure. To any such disturbance the response was always "keep singing." While she fl ailed on the stone floor, I wondered what the mistresses would do. We sang "Faith of Our Fathers" and watched our classmate as her eyes rolled back in her head. I thought of people swallowing their tongues. The student was dark — here on a scholarship — and the only woman who came forward to help her was the gamesmistress, the only dark teacher. She kneeled beside the girl and slid the white web belt from her tennis shorts, clamping it between the girl's teeth. When the seizure was over, she carried the girl to a tumbling mat in a corner of the gym and covered her so she wouldn't get chilled.

Were the other women unable to touch this girl because of her darkness? I think so now. Her darkness and her scholarship. She lived on Windward Road with her grandmother; her mother was a live-in maid. But darkness is usually enough for women like those to hold back. Then, we usually excused that kind of behavior by saying they were "ladies." (We were constantly being told we should be ladies also. One teacher went so far as to tell us many people thought Jamaicans lived in trees, and we had to show these people they were mistaken.) In short, we felt insufficient to judge the behavior of these women. The English ones (the ones who had the corner on power in the school) had come all this way to teach us. Shouldn't we treat them as the missionaries they were certain they were? The creole Jamaicans had a different role: they were passing on to those of us who were lightskinned the creole heritage of collaboration, assimilation, loyalty to our betters. We were expected to be willing subjects in this outpost of civilization.

The girl left school that day and never returned.

After prayers we filed into our classrooms. After classes we had games: tennis, field hockey, rounders (what the English call baseball), netball (what the English call basketball). For games we were divided into "houses" — groups named for Joan of Arc, Edith Cavell, Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen. Four white heroines. Two martyrs. One saint. Two nurses. (None of us knew that there were Black women with Nightingale at Scutari.) One novelist. Three involved in white men's wars. Two dead in white men's wars. Pride and Prejudice.

Those of us in Cavell wore red badges and recited her last words before a firing squad in W. W. I: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

Sorry to say I grew up to have exactly that.

Looking back: To try and see where the background changed places with the foreground. To try and locate the vanishing point: where lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class. Lines of history and social context. Lines of denial and rejection. When did we, the light-skinned middle-class Jamaicans, take over for them as oppressors? I need to see how and when this happened. When what should have been reality was taken over by what was surely unreality. When the house nigger became master.

"What's the matter with you? You think you're white or something?"

"Child, what you want to know 'bout Garvey for? The man was nothing but a damn fool."

"They not our kind of people."

Why did we wear wide-brimmed hats and try to get into Oxford? Why did we not return?

Great Expectations: a novel about origins and denial, about the futility and tragedy of that denial, about attempting assimilation. We learned this novel from a light-skinned Jamaican woman — she concentrated on what she called the "love affair" between Pip and Estella.

Looking back: Through the last page of Sula. "And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. 'We was girls together,' she said as though explaining something." It was Zoe, and Zoe alone, I thought of. She snapped into my mind, and I remembered no one else. Through the greens and blues of the riverbank. The flame of red hibiscus in front of my grandmother's house. The cracked grave of a former landowner. The fruit of the ackee, which poisons those who don't know how to prepare it.

"What is to become of us?"

We borrowed a baby from a woman and used her as our dolly.

Dressed and undressed her. Dipped her in the riverwater. Fed her with the milk her mother had left with us: and giggled because we knew where the milk had come from.

A letter: "I am desperate. I need to get away. I beg you one fifty dollar."

I send her money because this is what she asks for. I visit her on a trip back home. Her front teeth are gone. Her husband beats her and she suffers blackouts. I sit on her chair. She is given birth control pills, which aggravate her "condition." We boil up sorrel and ginger. She is being taught by the Peace Corps volunteers to embroider linen mats with little lambs on them and gives me one as a keepsake. We cool off the sorrel with a block of ice brought from the shop nearby. The shopkeeper immediately recognizes me as my grandmother's granddaughter and refuses to sell me cigarettes. (I am twenty-seven.) We sit in the doorway of her house, pushing back the colored plastic strands which form a curtain, and talk about Babylon and Dred. About Manley and what he's doing for Jamaica. About how hard it is. We walk along the railway tracks — no longer used — to Crooked River and the post office. Her little daughter walks beside us, and we recite a poem for her: "Mornin' buddy / Me no buddy fe wunna / Who den, den I saw?" and on and on.

I can come and go. And I leave. To complete my education in London.

Excerpt from If I Could Write This in Fire by Michelle Cliff. Copyright 2008 by Michelle Cliff, and reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

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