R.I.P. Michele Cliff

June 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

The New York Times is reporting that the Jamaica-American novelist Michele Cliff has died at the age of 69.

Earlier this year, after I enjoyed Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, I completely forgot about an earlier Jamaica-set book I had read: Cliff’s Abeng, published in 1984. I had first read it in college, in a course on Caribbean authors, a course that also introduced me to Jean Rhys, whose novels I am reading now.

Abeng is the first of two novels by Cliff about Clare Savage, a light-skinned girl of mixed race born to a dark-skinned mother and white father. (The second, No Telephone to Heaven, was published in 1987.) In Abeng Clare is twelve, on the cusp of discovering powers both sex- and class-related in an environment that seeks to pull her in opposing directions, her name itself an indicator of the clash between her dark African heritage and the forces of white British imperialism:

“Emotionally, the book is an autobiography,” Ms. Cliff told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 1986. “I was a girl similar to Clare and have spent most of my life and most of my work exploring my identity as a light-skinned Jamaican, the privilege and the damage that comes from that identity.”

The action is set in motion when Clare steals a gun to hunt a wild boar but instead, startled by a gawking cane-cutter while sunbathing nude with her dark-skinned friend Zoe, she fires a warning shot that accidentally shoots her grandmother’s prized bull. She precedes the shot by yelling at the man: “Get away, you hear. This is my grandmother’s land.” Cliff’s narrator explains the significance of Clare’s switching of code: “She had dropped her patois—was speaking buckra—and relying on the privilege she did not have.”

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