Narratives of Passing: Racial and Gender Politics in Michelle Cliff’s
Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven
- Author: Feng Pin-chia
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 21, Issue1, p5~37, Apr 2013
Bildungsroman, autobiographical fiction, and the historical novel in her Abengand No Telephone to Heaven, Afro-Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff nuances the racial and gender identity crises of her protagonist Clare Savage, most vividly in relation to passing narratives, and further complicates the story of Clare’s Bildungwith her implicit lesbianism. Clare Savage’s unfulfilled lesbian desire comments on the imposition of heteronormality in her native land and the ways in which race, class, and coloniality are entrenched in this practice of sexual normalization. By inserting sexual minorities into her novelistic discourse, Cliff is queering the national imagination of Jamaica and questioning the homophobic Caribbean society, even though she is practicing a kind of narrative passing by tacitly avoiding directly presenting Clare’s lesbian sexuality. Together, Abengand No Telephone to Heavenrepresent Michelle Cliff’s critical project to rethink and reexamine unspeakable sexualities and their entanglement with racial issues that continue to structure and define every aspect of Jamaican public and private spheres.
narratives of passing , gender identity , racial identity , Michelle Cliff , Abeng , No Telephone to Heaven
In Michelle Cliff’s
Abengand No Telephone to Heaven, narratives of passing operate at both racial and sexual levels and interpenetrate each other. To understand the reasons why Clare’s lesbian desire remains unfulfilled and even unspeakable, first we have to look into her education about racial passing, which bears the distinct mark of colonial legacy. By definition, passing refers to a conscious practice of adopting an identity that is not one’s own according to dominant social standards and/or established laws. In the socio-historical context of the United States, passing is closely related to the enforcement of racial segregation from the 1870s to the 1960s. According to Gayle Wald, passing is “a historically and socially constructed practice shaped by the exigencies of Jim Crow and by the binary organization of racial discourse” (15). Sinéad Moynihan observes that there is a resurfacing of passing narratives at the end of the twentieth century, which echoes “a resurgence of the fascination with mixed race figures ― traditionally the focus of racial passing stories ― that characterized the 1890s” (809). As Suzanne Bost explains, both in the nineteenth century and in the 1990s, “a rhetoric of confusion, tragedy, groundlessness, and futurism inflects popular representations of mixture” and “fear and celebration work in tandem: the fascination with mixture corresponds to (and potentially masks) racist efforts to contain fluidity and to reinstate categories” (185). Published in the 1980s, Michelle Cliff’s two novels in a sense anticipate the renewed interest in the narrative of racial passing a decade later. However, her novels have to be read within a diasporic context involving multiple locations. Rather than simply contributing to the fin-de-siècle“mass-media-driven drama about shifts in American racial definition” (Bost 184), Cliff’s novels have adopted a transnational perspective that involves both Jamaican and American nationalist discourses and a transcontinental route that imitates the infamous “triangle trade” ― the route through which African captives were transferred as human cargo ― to study the problematics of racial, and, by extension, gender identity for a light-skinned creole woman.
There are different interpretations regarding the nature of passing. Donald Geollnicht argues in his critical analysis on genetic and generic passing in the African American novel
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Manthat black Americans who have successfully passed for whites practice “the ultimate act of cultural and racial mimicry, the annihilation of a residual African selfhood” (26). Gale Wald, on the other hand, regards racial passing as “a practice that emerges from subject’s desires to control the terms of their racial definition” and places passing within the “struggles for control over social representation in a context of the radical unreliability of embodied appearances” (6). In addition to the usual terms of race and class ideologies, Valerie Smith insightfully inserts a consideration of gender into her discussion of classic passing narratives. She argues that gender ideology is an important factor in racial passing because:
In other words, a woman who passes is at greater risk than her male counterpart, most likely because of her reproductive role since a woman who passes threatens the desire and demand for racial purity. Unlike a male passer, who can blame the birth of a clearly black child on his wife’s infidelity, there is hardly a way for a woman who passes to deny her black ancestry or her racial infidelity once she is discovered giving birth to a dark-skinned child. The octoroon Miss Sylvie in Patricia Powell’s
The Pagodahas to give away her three children with her white husband to cover up her racial origin and to save her life. In No Telephone to Heaven, Cliff reveals the danger of failed passing with the story of a country nurse who gets lynched because the color of her newborn baby gives her away.
Racial passing is, in fact, a recurrent theme in Cliff’s writing, and she apparently views it negatively. In a poem entitled “Passing,” Cliff notes that the prices of passing are invisibility and silence ― “Passing demands a desire to become invisible. A ghost-life. An ignorance of connections” and “Passing demands quiet. And from that quiet ― silence” (
The Land of Look Behind21-22). For Cliff, as observed from these quoted lines, what is primarily entailed in racial passing is self-marginalization and self-denial. In her fictional texts, Cliff further explores the pain of racial repression and the loss of racial identity with a stress on Jamaican cultural specificity, particularly the color system.
Anthropologist Elisa Jannie Sobo points out that out of slavery and colonialism grows a pyramid-like “color and class system” in Jamaican society, with a small white elite at the top supported by a large base of blacks, with brown-skinned people generally in the middle (22). As a descendant of former slaves and landowners, Clare Savage in
Abengis universally praised for the color of her fair skin, her blue eyes, her long hair; she is even called a “buckra” (white or white-identified) because, as stated in Cliff’s “Passing,” middle-class light-skinned creoles could declare themselves legally white under the British rule ( The Land of Look Behind22). In another poem, “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” Cliff criticizes the colonial mentality of the “color symbolism” suggested by this skin-color system:
Here the “color symbolism” is physically exposed through the list of different human features. “Potential” alludes to a class mobility that is closely connected with skin color and other racial features. For Cliff, nevertheless, such potential is immanently destructive as it is a form of internal colonization that threatens to break up social and familial ties and friendships.2 As the narrator of
Abengobserves, this color system can be further complicated by gender ideology: “She lives in a world where the worst thing to be ― especially if you were a girl ― was to be black. The only thing worse than that was to be dead” (77).
In addition to highlighting the complexities of the color system in Jamaica that resulted from its colonial past, Cliff contributes to the discussion of racial passing by inserting the immigrant experience into the plot of racial passing. In the two novels, Cliff delineates the difficulties faced by the former colonized peoples of the Caribbean who become immigrants to the neocolonial United States and are forced to give up their received concept of the racial categories programmed by a colonial education. The American society into which Clare has immigrated flatly denies the Caribbean racial classification. Instead, it observes the “one drop” and “hypo-descent” rules.3 “According to the one-drop rule,” Valerie Smith notes, “individuals are classified as black if they possess one black ancestor; the ‘hypo-descent’ rule, acknowledged historically by the federal courts, the 1930 US census bureau and other agencies of the state, assigned people of mixed racial origin to the status of the subordinated racial group” (44-45). As Vincent J. Cheng comments, the enforcement of the “one drop” rule in the early twentieth century leads to “a bizarre binary approach to race that imagines everything in black and white and rejects anything in-between, effectively denying the existence of the category of ‘mixed race’ and of racial gradations altogether” (130).
As an immigrant, the class and social privileges of “buckra” status that come along with Clare’s “symbolic skin” (
The Land of Look Behind22) are meaningless and nonexistent because, in the United States, racial boundaries are strictly demarcated and overdetermined by blood and ancestry. Hence both American and Jamaican racial ideologies are represented as entrapped in a fallacious concept of racial essentialism, in which “white” is endowed with everything positive and “black” everything negative. Whereas in Jamaica skin color is deployed to sustain class apartheid, biological origins are the bases for racial separatism in the United States. Cliff specifically aims to highlight the distance between these two sets of racial configuration to tease out the different types of racial discrimination in the two societies.
The plot of racial passing in
No Telephone to Heavenis developed mainly through what has happened to Clare’s father, Boy Savage, and the detrimental effect on his daughter. Here Boy Savage is an important point of reference since he is the quintessential passer in the family. As the patriarch of the Savage clan, he also exerts his power to enforce racial passing in the family. Hence, we cannot fully understand the practice of passing in No Telephone to Heavenwithout analyzing how and why Boy passes, as well as how he is relentlessly unmasked by a white American. Most importantly, Clare is our center of intelligence here. By making Clare the eyewitness to Boy’s act of passing and his humiliation, Cliff specifically highlights the impact of these experiences on Clare’s development as a creole subject.
Boy regularly describes for Clare their glorious family history as one descending from British aristocracy, and he deliberately whitewashes the cruelty and violence of the slave owners. There is no need for the Savages to pass in Jamaica because of this “glorious descent” and their light skin color. When the Savages immigrated to the States in 1960, however, Boy had his first experience of passing at a motel in Georgia. The moment the white innkeeper questions whether he and his family are “niggers,” what flashes through Boy’s mind is his Jesuit teacher’s lesson on the various types of mixed-blood in Jamaican society: “In the Spanish colonies there were 128 categories to be memorized” (56). This spectrum of racially mixed groups has little meaning in American society with its overdeterminism of the color line. Boy instantly decides to practice racial denial and acknowledges only his white ancestry in front of the innkeeper, who is also a Klan man. By claiming the lineage of a sugar plantation family, Boy attempts to empathetically evoke the memory of America’s southern plantation society, which instantly connects the two men in a state of intimacy based on the unspoken allusion to slavocracy. Cliff records Boy’s sudden transformation after the connection is made:
At least three levels of criticism are embedded in this scene of symbolic rebirth: Boy’s hypocrisy is satirized, the colonial hierarchy that he has internalized proves to be useless, and American racism and bigotry as embodied by the innkeeper are under discursive scrutiny. Moreover, Cliff is playing on the myth of a new Adam, which is a founding myth of the American republic, and implicitly suggests that the idea of the American Adam is as much a fiction as Boy’s whiteness.
To further emphasize the irony, Cliff goes on to describe the ways in which Boy reinforces the construction of his white, aristocratic heritage. “Boy had no visible problem with declaring himself white,” the narrator informs us (62). He even actively engages in this project of self re-invention:
Here, Boy’s attempt to “manufacture” a set of cheap family heirlooms for the purpose of self-authentication only serves to highlight the artificial nature of racial categorization. The family crest also deserves a detailed reading. The mongoose in the crest is, in Jamaica, a foreign species imported by the white landowners from India to kill off “the snakes who lived in the canfields” (
Abeng112). And, as “the true survivor,” it preys on native animals ― wild pigs, chickens, birds ― in addition to snakes ( Abeng114). Thus as a foreign species in Jamaica with another colonial connection ― that of the British colonization of India ― the mongoose is suggestive of genocidal power when a natural habitat has been disrupted by human manipulation. The borrowed family motto in Latin “ mihi solicitudo futuri” ― “my concern is for the future” ― is multiply ironic in that Boy, an immigrant passing for white who is acting upon his survival instinct like the mongoose and adapting to external environments, is virtually practicing a kind of racial self-elimination by denying his African blood. Paradoxically, the Moor in the crest is suggestive of the family’s African ancestry. Later on, Clare becomes sterile because of a genital infection, so there is clearly no future for this Savage family at all. In this context, racial passing is presented as no longer an issue of individual choice, but as a threat to racial survival, as Goellnicht has suggested (25-26).
Goellnicht nevertheless also argues that there is a subversive potential in racial passing: it “threatens to dismantle the entire structure of apartheid” and undermines the concept of white supremacy because the failure of the dominant culture to identify a black person by the measures of physiognomy disqualifies the argument of intellectual and moral inequality based on physical differences (28). In
No Telephone to Heaven, however, there is little sign of such subversion. Instead, racial passing leads to a loss of identity, even life. Cliff also shows how Boy disgraces himself when, in an interview, Clare’s white school principal sees through his new fictional identity and ruthlessly humiliates him. Mrs. Taylor, who “vacation[s] in Montego Bay occasionally” with her husband, baffles Boy’s effort to pass and, quoting her husband, blandly throws out the epithet “white chocolate” to describe the people who are white outside and black inside. She lectures Boy on his attempted racial transgression: “I do not want to be cruel, Mr. Savage, but we have no room for lies in our system. No place for in-betweens” ( No Telephone to Heaven99). Here Mrs. Taylor reaffirms America’s strict regulatory rules regarding racial boundaries and proves herself a vigilant guard of the racial line.
Amy Robinson has theorized that racial and sexual passing are in fact equivalent to reading skills. Those who are the members of an “in-group” share with each other some special visual codes for detecting racial identity and sexual orientation that are beyond the reach of an outsider: so “it takes one to know one.” The concept of an “in-group” here is not so much an essentialist identity but a position from which one can discern an act of passing (Robinson 715-16). The school scene can be regarded as a ramification of Robinson’s model: there is a triangular relationship between Boy (the passer), Clare (the in-group), and Mrs. Taylor (the supposed dupe). However, Mrs. Taylor refuses to play the role of the “dupe” and instead appropriates the “in-group” role by claiming an insider’s knowledge about the island and the passing trick. Once she foils Boy’s attempt, she immediately moves into a position based on a sense of white superiority to “discipline” these new immigrants from “underdeveloped countries” (
No Telephone to Heaven98) with quoted words and opinions from her husband, the representative of white patriarchal authority.
Significantly, Clare, who is supposed to be the one from the in-group in this drama since she knows Boy’s true racial identity and that he is trying to pass, remains voiceless and silently accepts the appropriation of her position as an insider and the racially charged label of “white chocolate.” Of course, it is necessary for the in-group to keep silent for the hoax to work. However, Cliff places a special emphasis on Clare’s silence as a result of submission and suppression. Throughout Clare’s sojourn in America, we are told, Boy “counsels his daughter on invisibility and secrets. Self-effacement. Blending in. The uses of camouflage” (
No Telephone to Heaven100). Cliff shows how Boy obeys the authoritative opinion of Mrs. Taylor and works to get rid of the state of in-betweenness that originates from Jamaica’s colonial legacy. Clare is thus advised by the paternal authority to auction off her racial identity and language for white privileges and is in a sad state of self-division and aphasia.4
Cliff states that Clare Savage’s name is meant to represent her as a character divided by two worlds. According to Cliff, Clare Savage’s first name signifies her light skin, and her family name evokes “the wildness that has been bleached from her skin”; what she has lost along with the bleached skin is the knowledge of history and the past “has been bleached from her mind” (“Clare Savage as a Crossroads Character” 265). Hence, passing or camouflage also signifies a denial of her black ancestry, especially on her mother’s side. When her mother Kitty, unable to stand the stress of passing and deracination, moves back to Jamaica with her darker daughter, Clare feels deserted and cut off from her motherland. By returning to Jamaica, this “crossroads character,” as Cliff calls her, is hoping for a chance of recovering from her fragmented state of identity.5
Once Clare returns to Jamaica, however, her racial identity is challenged with another kind of denial as represented by the distrust shown by her comrades in revolution. Clare’s racial and class background make her susceptible to suspicions of being a “
quashee” or white collaborator. At the beginning of No Telephone to Heaven, the nationalists are staging a raid on an American film crew as a symbolic gesture against neocolonialism. Significantly, all the members in the revolutionary group are dressed in uniforms. The narrator comments on the importance of a sartorial similarity for this group with their diverse racial, cultural, class, and linguistic backgrounds and skin colors ― “in these clothes, at least, they seemed to blend together. This alikenesswas something they needed, which could be important, even vital, to them” (4, emphasis added). This need for an external uniformity ironically reveals the internal divisions. When a “buckra” stands guard, the narrator observes, some of the darker comrades sleep with one eye open (5). Here Cliff implicitly comments on the reliance on “sameness” in nationalist ideology and identity politics and shows how these supposed revolutionaries are rather conservative in terms of racial ideology. Given the complicated racial and postcolonial context of Jamaica, Cliff’s implied critique against the members of the guerrilla group might appear to be somewhat harsh and overly simplified. Yet, what Cliff is trying to highlight here is that a nationalist agenda based on sameness easily overlooks the multicultural and multiracial origins of Jamaica’s creolized society and the fact that there can be no true transformation with mutual distrust. Thus, Clare’s dilemma of being “both” and “neither” represents Clare’s ― and Cliff’s ― “multiple alienation” as a creole woman, interrogates the essentialist assumption of identity politics, and unsettles racial boundaries based on arbitrary visual codes of skin colors.
1Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel defines sexile in two ways: “The first is the displacement of subjects who are deemed misfits within the patriarchal, heteronormative discourse of collective identity formation in the Caribbean nation states, neocolonial overseas territories, commonwealths, and departments . . . . The second form of displacement points to the negotiated and temporary exclusion of another from a shared communal space for the fulfillment of a diverging sexual desire” (814). For her, No Telephone to Heaven presents a key Caribbean narrative that explores “possibility of a return and negotiation of spaces after sexile” (826). 2Shirley Toland-Dix also discusses Cliff’s critique of the destructiveness of Jamaica’s color system: “In her writing, both fictional and non-fictional, one of Michelle Cliff’s primary goals is to show the damage, perhaps irrevocable, done to people and societies by racialized, hierarchical systems she frequently describes as ‘insane.’ Isolation, alienation, and self-delusion are endemic to such systems” (37). 3American society is of course more flexible now in terms of racial categorization. 4Marian Aguiar has a different reading of the scene and argues that through speechlessness, Cliff “articulates the denial of certain bodies from the socio-cultural system of speech and refuses dislocation from a body overdetermined by histories of conquest” (105). 5Yet, Clare’s name also carries a potential of resistance since Kitty named her after Clarinda, a black girl who saved Kitty, instead of what Boy has assumed all along, that Clare is named after the college that his grandfather attended at Cambridge (Abeng 141).
Just as she lays bare the color symbolism of racial passing and the demand for sameness in a nationalist agenda, Cliff also criticizes the heteronormative imposition in Jamaican society. Her critique of the homophobic complex, however, is less direct and explicit than that against racial ideology. Homosexual subtexts, especially lesbian ones, in both novels are camouflaged, and the lesbian one becomes a hidden subtext that needs to be ferreted out. In fact, in an interview Cliff indicates that the lesbian subtext in
Abengis “unconscious” (Schwartz 601). This Freudian reference reveals how the lesbian plot is treated suggestively and ambiguously in the novel. I argue that by relegating it to the narrative unconscious, Michelle Cliff acknowledges simultaneously the importance of lesbian desire in her writing project and the fact that she is practicing a kind of gender passing to cover/protect such a desire at the formal level.
There are two episodes with strong lesbian implications in
Abeng: one is the love story between the “one-breasted warrior woman” Mma Ali ( Abeng34) and her master’s mistress Inez, who is a descendent of a Maroon father and a “half-blood Miskito Indian” mother (33); the other is the scene when twelve-year-old Clare swims naked with her friend Zoe and wants to kiss the latter, “Just to say she was sorry. To thank Zoe for stopping her from being fool-fool” (124).
Cliff deploys extremely sensual language to describe the love or budding desire of the two relationships. The aged Mma Ali is described as a warrior, a teacher and maternal figure who sleeps only with women and teaches her lovers “the magic of passion” (35). It is a teaching of pleasure and autonomy, as well as resistance: “She taught many of the women on the plantation about this passion and how to take strength from it. To keep their bodies as their own, even while they were made subject to the whimsical violence of the justice and his slavedrivers, who were for the most part creole or
quashee” (35). Inez seeks help from Mma Ali to abort a baby conceived in rape and becomes her passionate lover. The scene in which Inez embroiders a piece of cloth with her own hair to make a keepsake for Mma Ali is heavily loaded with sexual connotations. Inez is working on a picture of an orchid that is secretly coded with the magic of passion and desire: “She thickened her stitches to reveal where the orifice hid beneath the ridges of the orchid’s tongue. Storing its honeyed juice for the night-flying moths that sought the flower during the full moon” (35). The moonlit encounter between the orchid and the moth figuratively embodies their nightly sexual acts and pleasure while the master is away.
The coded description of the lesbian passion between Inez and Mma Ali is presented in an illustration of the bodily details of Clare and Zoe in a nude scene later on in the novel. In her study of the mixed identities in the Americas, Suzanne Bost reads the friendship between Clare and Zoe as a revisionist practice that “challenges previous visions of the tragic mulatta” (124).6 Bost’s reading nevertheless overlooks the fact that there is a class imbalance between the two girls. Whenever Clare leaves Kingston to spend her summer with her maternal grandmother, Miss Mattie, in the countryside of St. Elizabeth, Zoe, the daughter of a squatter on Miss Mattie’s land, is called upon to be her playmate. Although together they roam the countryside and have even made “secret totems, in a language only the two of them could decipher ― a pictographic system like the Mayans had invented” (94) ― their friendship is “kept only on school vacations” (95). Rather than a revision of the tragic mulatta, Zoe is a raw reminder of the racial past ― the
Presence Africaine― and the Jamaican landscape is figured as a maternal heritage that Clare is forced to give up should she go along with Boy’s racial passing.
However, the class barrier between the two girls is seemingly temporarily lifted with the physical nudity. The scene takes place after Zoe has confronted Clare with the latter’s class privileges and then the two girls take a bath in a secret water hole to take off the steam of the argument. Right after this scene, the girls break up, and Clare is reminiscing about her “funny” uncle Robert who made a mistake by taking home an “American Negro” boyfriend (125). While the racial element is obviously at work throughout the novel, the nude scene in
Abenghas nevertheless taken an oblique route to reveal another case of unfulfilled lesbian desire.
In this nude scene, Cliff writes about the two young bodies with loving caress and then goes on to provide the anatomical details of the female body:
The brown and the gold embody the color system that the two girls have been born and locked into. The female genitals are imagined in the heterosexual mode and complete with their reproductive function. The gendered contrast between “would” and “could” in the last two sentences indicates sexual uncertainty and different possibilities of sexuality. Hidden beneath the socially indoctrinated heterosexuality there is nevertheless a potential for auto- and homoeroticism. The bodily description again turns metaphorical with the suggested phrases such as “touched hands” and “salty-damp.” The two girls are virtually on the threshold of discovering an alternative model of sexual pleasure and intimacy. Their budding sexuality enables Cliff to expose a structure of desire that is tabooed and forbidden.
In both cases, however, the lesbian desire is violently interrupted by male figures: Mma Ali is burned to death by her master, Clare’s ancestor Judge Savage, who has raped and kept Inez as his sex slave; Clare is interrupted in achieving any further intimacy with Zoe by a cane-cutter and then accidently shoots her grandmother’s bull, Old Joe, when she is trying to scare the intruder away with a rifle, which is symbolically a phallic weapon. These narrative interruptions, I would argue, embody a kind of self-censorship that is part of narratives of passing and reveal a desire to acknowledge and represent lesbianism and an unwillingness to carry out the potential homoeroticism to the full. This coy act of self-censorship and discursive camouflage in the novel reflects the state of Jamaica’s homophobia and the dire consequences once such sexual transgression is known. In
Abeng, Cliff uses two male characters to illustrate homosexuality as a serious social offense in the island society. Both Clinton from Clare grandmother’s village and Uncle Robert from Kingston drown themselves after they have been alienated and taunted as being “battymen.” The young Clare does not yet have the language to name the aura of taboo surrounding these transgressive figures. Still she could sense that “there was no room for such people in Jamaica” (126). As Dorsia Smith observes, “Generally the Afro-Caribbean community is perceived as being extremely homophobic and rejecting of gays and lesbians” (156). Through Clare’s unspoken and unspeakable lesbian desire, Cliff seems to suggest that lesbians suffer greater danger than gays once their sexual orientation has been exposed. Now residing in the United States, Cliff is rather outspoken in her essays about her own lesbian identity; however, in her two novels about coming of age in Jamaica, Cliff has to make her lesbian subtext “unconscious” and interrupted and then deploy male characters to depict queer sexuality indirectly, and these oblique contrivances offer implicit comment on the tremendous pressure faced by lesbians in Afro-Jamaican society.
The lesbian subtext in
No Telephoneis even more “in the closet” than that in Abeng. The coded homoerotic relationship between Clare and her white English classmate Liz is again interrupted when Clare sees the statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend. This interracial lesbian plot that could have taken place in the colonial “mother country” is displaced by Clare’s heterosexual relationship with an Afro-American Vietnam veteran, Tommy. According to Cliff, Clare can never enjoy a lesbian relationship because of class and racial factors. She loses Zoe because of their class difference; her possible “fling” with Liz fails because, through Clare, Cliff wants to show “homosexuality or lesbianism or gayness . . . as a whole identity, not just a sexual preference” (“The Art of History” 69). For Cliff, one’s racial identity is inseparable from gender identity. I submit that Cliff interrupts Clare’s relationship with Liz because it is too dangerously close to Eurocentricism and a repetition of a colonial scenario of exploitation. The memory of Pocahontas indeed reminds Clare and the reader of the history of imperialist exploitation and oppression of “the New World.” In choosing to abort the intimacy between Clare and Liz, Cliff has succeeded in drawing our attention to the inevitable entanglement of race, class, and colonial memory in the sexual discourse of a Jamaican creole woman. However, suppressing the lesbian plot in the name of nationalist and anti-colonial ideologies becomes somewhat problematic: there seems to be a taboo against interracial homoerotic relationships, just as there is a taboo against “miscegenation” in the logic of racist ideology.
The most “eye-catching” queer figure in
No Telephone to Heavenis the transvestite Harry/Harriet. We first see Harry/Harriet dancing beside a swimming pool in a bikini outfit ― “bra stretched across his hairy, delicately mounded chest, panties cradling his cocks and balls” (21). As a “boy-girl, Buster’s brother-sister, half brother-sister actually,” Harry/Harriet is tolerated only because people around him can measure “their normalness against his strangeness” and because he is the bastard son of a rich family (21). Yet, Cliff claims in an interview that this socially marginalized figure, who is also “the text’s lesbian in a sense” because he wants to be a woman and loves women, is the “most complete character” (Schwartz 601). In her interview with Jim Clawson about how this novel can be autobiographical, Cliff even mentions that Harry/Harriet is her true alter ego: “his work on himself to be a complete human being, taking in everything of who he is, reflects much more my own struggle than Clare’s who is a fragmented person, or Christopher who is also fragmented.” The way Harry/Harriet transgresses gender boundaries reflects the conflict of Clare’s gender identity. He/she also enables Cliff to discuss the queer subject more openly. Furthermore, Harry/Harriet’s birth as the child of a black maid who was raped and impregnated by her master enables us to catch a glimpse of class and social injustice in Jamaica as well. For Cliff, this marginalized figure in fact represents all the central issues of identity ― class, race, gender, sexuality.
In endowing this “complete character” with a doubled name, Cliff deliberately plays on Harry/Harriet’s ambiguous gender identity to interrogate gender essentialism. The use of hyphenation in “boy-girl” stresses his/her androgynous status and equally recognizes his/her doubled identities. The two-in-one name, at once separated and connected by the slash, materializes Harry/Harriet’s multiple gender identities and highlights Cliff’s refusal to follow the rules of gendered naming. This name, straddling the solidus like a pair of double signifiers, also embodies a slippage and indeterminacy of queer identity. Gayle Wald notes that racial passing can work “only because race is more liquid and dynamic, more variable and random, than it is conventionally represented to be within hegemonic discourse” (6). Gender identity, therefore, and the gender indeterminacy of Harry/Harriet at the beginning of
No Telephone to Heaven, exemplifies this type of liquid dynamics. In fact, the Harry/Harriet doubled name carries with it an excessive and scandalous desire that presents an alternative way of being and becoming Afro-Jamaican.
Cliff also underlines the nature of “performance” in Harry/Harriet’s appearance and behavior. He/she deploys the visual code of drag as a resistance to heterosexual hegemony in Jamaica. Moreover, his outrageous dress code also provides the means for him to undermine racism. In one scene, Harry/Harriet and Clare trick some American tourists by assuming the roles of visiting African royalties ― “Prince Badnigga” and “Princess Cunnilinga” (125). As Cliff points out, in this “double-voiced discourse” which makes fun of American tourists seeking exoticism, Harry/Harriet performs an act of resistance against American neocolonialism by acting in the trope of Brer Anansi, a popular trickster figure in various folktales throughout African diaspora (“The Art of History” 58). His/her performance as heterosexual royalty, using his physical differences, shows another subversive possibility of passing other than that suggested by Goellnicht. As Nada Elia comments, there are “two different types of passing” in
No Telephone to Heaven: “the strategic ruse employed by Harry/Harriet, who stops ‘performing’ once in a safe place and with friends ‘in the know,’ and the ‘permanent passing’ which does not allow for a reprieve, for a casting off of the mask at the end of the performance,” as in the case of Boy Savage (358). In fact, in Harry/Harriet we see a constant play of hybridity and an embodiment of what Homi Bhabha terms “the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge” (211).7 Thus Harry/Harriet’s performative practice of gender passing opens up a potential queer space of belonging.
However, Cliff does not simply indulge in the play of signifiers or hybridity but also presents us, through the character Harry/Harriet, with the shared experience of physical oppression for Afro-American women and homosexual people. Harry/Harriet has a painful memory of being raped by a white officer when he was ten. What makes it worse is that he has to keep it a secret so that his master/father will not drive him away for getting himself “ruined.” Harry/Harriet sees his experience in a realistic light:
The horror of an adult white man raping a young black child can easily be read in the symbolic mode of colonialism. Yet Harry/Harriet chooses to interpret his experience as a part of the common racial/class/gender oppression suffered by women like his/her mother. More than his/her practice of transvestitism, this empathetic “mimicry” certifies Harry/Harriet’s membership in the sisterhood.
Moreover, Harry/Harriet articulates the voice of the true revolutionary and nationalist. His/her letters describing the corruption and dire need for change in Jamaica summon Clare back from her self-imposed European exile. He/she also initiates the latter into the revolutionary group and teaches Clare the necessity of choosing her identity. Just as Harry/Harriet finally has to give up the fluidity of his/her identity and chooses to be a woman, Clare has to decide on her national identity and to battle against the island’s colonial mentality, political corruption, and neocolonial invasion. Jennifer Smith rightly identifies Harry/Harriet as an alternative maternal figure in the novel who has no biological reproductive power and can “mother” the people around her/him nonetheless. As Smith contends:
Thus Harry/Harriet’s advice and example are of utmost importance to the
Cliff projects all the positive qualities onto this “heroine,” even to the extent of apotheosis: one old woman calls Harriet “Muwa-Lisa, moon and sun, female-male deity of some their ancestors” (171). However, Cliff also shows how this deified epithet provides little defense against the threat of homophobic persecution. The narrator points out that had those people tenderly and patiently nursed by Harriet known about the male organ under her skirt “they would have indulged in elaborate name-calling, possibly stoning, in the end harrying her to the harbor ― perhaps” (171). The sense of uncertainty is added at the very end to show a certain kind of wishful thinking rather than an illustration of reality. “As a non-operative, transgendered biologically male queer,” Nadia Elia observes, “her/his very life depends on camouflage, and the silence of people in the know” (360). And yet, Harriet can still love these people with a full knowledge that they might turn into her persecutors at any moment. The narrator expresses a sense of uncertainty about this selfless love: “And still
shewas able to love them. How was that?” (171, emphasis original). In a way, Clare’s uncertainty also speaks for Cliff’s sense of ambivalence. This ambivalence between a strong need for a sense of belonging and a resentment against and distrust of Jamaica’s homophobia perhaps explains why Cliff cannot allow her fictional alter ego Clare Savage the fulfillment of her lesbian desire and has to keep Clare’s desire in the closet.
Clare finally dies in Jamaica. Cliff contends that Clare has completed the triangle of her life by having her body “burned into the landscape of Jamaica” (“Clare Savage as a Crossroads Character” 265). Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel notes that with this ending, Cliff seems to imagine “a homecoming not as a harmonious recovery of origins but as a displaced rearticulation of one’s sense of belonging” (829). Here Cliff is in fact playing on the dialectic of disappearance and affirmation: Clare and her fellow revolutionaries end up dying for a political cause but in an attack upon an undeserving target and are more than likely to be erased from the national imagination; through Cliff’s act of writing, however, this anonymous death nonetheless affirms that Clare belongs to Jamaica.
Cliff herself, however, remains an expatriate in the United States. Rhonda Cobaham argues that exile writers from the West Indies exchange their alienation for the realization of the highest ambitions of their societies (22). Cliff also needs the distance away from home to look back and find a way to write about it. For Cliff, self-exile or sexile is a necessary position for her to speak: her Jamaican upbringing denounces the act of writing as self-exposure; her lesbian identity treads upon an even more dangerous minefield. At the same time, this exilic act also reveals her uncertainty about her geography of identity: she struggles to resolve the conflicted sense that, on the one hand, Jamaica poses a threat to queer identity and, on the other, the island is also the final home for a creole woman’s search for cultural and racial identity. In spite of this sense of ambivalence and conflict, Cliff has successfully overcome the speechlessness of her youth through her writing and created the transgender character Harry/Harriet as the embodiment of an alternative way of belonging and a role model for the sexually suppressed Clare Savage. Thus, in
Abengand No Telephone to Heaven, Cliff offers us a critical conversation on postcolonial, diaspora, and queer studies through her representations of the multiple layers of racial and gender identities in Jamaica. The contribution of this paper, finally, lies in the juxtaposition of racial passing and gender passing to shed light on the nature of passing in Jamaican creole society.
6According to Bost, in “the nineteen-century tragic mulatta narratives . . . . women are portrayed as the sexually magnetic vessels through which mixture is produced” (2). The name of the socially disadvantaged Zoe is “the name often given to stereotypical tragic mulatta in the nineteenth century” (Bost 119). However, interestingly in Abeng, the name Zoe is given to the dark girl and not to the mulatta protagonist. 7According to Bhabha in his interview with Jonathan Rutherford, “This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom” (Rutherford 211).