In This Chapter

Michelle Cliff

The Unheard Music

Authored by: Isabel Hoving

The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature

Print publication date:  June  2011
Online publication date:  June  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415485777
eBook ISBN: 9780203830352
Adobe ISBN: 9781136821745


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Political novelist, poet, critic, teacher and translator Michelle Cliff, born in 1946 as the light-skinned, daughter of what was called a ‘red’ Jamaican family, dedicated her career to the exploration of the dynamics of oppression and resistance. To grasp the psychological and historical dimensions of oppression from the point of view of the colonized, she used a variety of literary and critical genres, often mixing them, as these complex experiences cannot be expressed in one specific discourse. Significantly, Cliff called herself a political novelist, and this double orientation characterizes her work throughout. Cliff began to write her critical essays in the late 1970s, as part of an effort to overcome a colonial education that had left her without the means to express herself – as a lesbian, as a light-skinned Jamaican. Her first publication, after her dissertation (1974), was an edited volume of the writings of the white writer Lillian Smith (1897–1966), an outspoken critic of segregation and racism (1978). In the same year, Cliff published a short, personal analysis of the racial, gender and sexual power dynamics that informed her own anxious sense of not belonging, under the title ‘Notes on Speechlessness’ (1978a). She elaborated the theme of speechlessness in several essays and texts, making admirable use of the feminist modes of the time (juxtaposing the personal and the political; see Claiming An Identity They Taught Me to Despise, 1980). Two years later she published a complex yet passionate autobiographical text ‘If I Could Write This in Fire I Would Write This in Fire’ (1982), in which her tone had become much fiercer. The essay interwove intimate evocations of the role of race and sexuality within Jamaican family and friendships with angry accounts of international racist historical events.

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