No Telephone to Heaven Fall 2008

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Introduction to No Telephone to Heaven

thumbnail Jamaica

When one hears the word Jamaica, images of Bob Marley, palm trees, beaches, resorts, and frosty drinks with bright umbrellas come to mind. To the rest of the world Jamaica is a stage, a sandbox, a vacation spot more than a country. It is ironic that while the rest of the world sees Jamaica as a paradise, natives see Jamaica as a place of turmoil and tragedy.

In No Telephone to Heaven, written by a Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff in 1996, the main character Clare Savage, sees Jamaica as a story parallel to her own life. Cliff wrote this book primarily in English but incorporated some Jamaican within its texts to help signify the bridge between both the American and Jamaican culture. Just as we see the constant identity struggle Clare goes throughout the book, Cliff uses language to remind readers of the impact that Jamaica has on Clare's life.

This book takes on history as a continuous connective process. There never was a natural progression or flow for the history of Jamaica, except one punctuated with slavery, oppression, poverty and a rigid class system. Contained in this book is the story of those who are being affected by this shifting history and identity and the violence that comes out of it. We follow Clare and her family, who are part of upper class Jamaica, as they flee to America for fear that their status has made them targets of violence. Clare's story is written like a memoir, but is also unconventional. As she continues her education in America and later in Europe, she never has a sense of belonging no matter where she goes. This is her struggle to choose two identities. She can either choose to take on her white side by forsaking her black side or choose to identify with the black side and all the struggles that come with it. After her journey, she goes back to Jamaica and finds out who she really is and in doing so, decides to help her country do the same.


Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven first introduces the novel with a group of guerilla soldiers who are moving through Jamaica in the back of a truck labeled with the words “No Telephone to Heaven”. Among these soldiers is Clare Savage, a light-skinned Jamaican woman, who has recently joined the band of revolutionary soldiers.

In the following chapter, we find that another character, Paul H., comes home after a party to discover that his family and servants have been slaughtered. Initially, he is too shocked to do anything, but eventually finds Christopher, who is actually a servant in their household, to help him move and bury the corpses. We later learn that it was indeed Christopher who was behind these brutal murders. Christopher originally asked Paul’s father’s assistance in finding his grandmother’s burial site so that he could finally put her spirit to rest. Christopher’s request is turned down, which angers him to the point of murdering the family. He also murders Paul H. shortly after.

The story then shifts to Boy Savage, Clare’s father, who decides to move his family out of Jamaica to immigrate to America. Sometime during their trip, they pull over and hope to seek shelter in a motel. However, this motel is segregated, meaning that Boy had to convince the innkeeper that he is actually white, not black. Upon their arrival in New York, Boy finds a job driving a laundry truck and Kitty finds a job in the same laundry factory. During this job, Kitty slyly slips in messages into the linens which convey her feelings towards the obvious racism that exists. Eventually, Kitty cannot take it anymore and leaves for Jamaica with Clare’s younger sister.

After Kitty’s departure, Boy and Clare find it hard to live out their lives like they used to. There is a constant void that cannot be filled mainly due to the departure and then the death of Kitty. After this tragic event, Clare leaves America fpr England, where she absorbs herself in her studies. Eventually, Clare decides to go back to Jamaica for a visit where she meets Harry/Harriet. The two bond and become close friends as the letters between the two friends show a lot of deep thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Clare then meets with Bobby, a war veteran whom she ends up traveling Europe with. But one day he disappears without warning, and Clare goes back to Jamaica after receiving a letter from her uncle saying that her grandmother’s old plantation was going to be left alone, meaning that Clare can do whatever she would want with it. She goes back to Jamaica and meets with Harry/Harriet. Clare eventually meets with a revolutionary group in hopes of joining them, for she wanted to help her own people in anyway she could. She offers her grandmother’s plantation to do so.

Michelle Cliff takes us back to Christopher, who has turned into a mad man that wanders the streets. An American film crew then wants to produce a movie with Christopher in it. The revolutionary group plots to attack during the showing of this film, but unexpected chaos fills the room instead.


History as the Master's Past

As Clare journeys through her life, she returns to Jamaica and meets a transsexual named Harry/Harriet who helps guide Clare in discovering her identity while at the same time constantly encouraging her to return to Jamaica and join a resistance movement. Harry/Harriet states that Jamaica has “a peculiar past," for we have taken the "master’s past as our own" (Cliff 127). By only showing one past, the pain of the other can never heal. "It is like a festering wound, torn open again and again by social injustice. That is the danger” (127).

This is demonstrated by the character Boy who pays the "price of the ticket" (Baldwin 178) in making the moral choice of becoming "white." By following the foreigners before him who also opted to become "white", he identified himself with "whiteness" and denied "blackness" by discarding his Jamaican ancestry. In "Black on White," by James Baldwin, he argues that there is in fact no white community because whiteness is a false identity. He states that the price for becoming white and defining power is to deny blackness, most notably we see this in history through genocide and slavery. Within the first days of arriving to America Boy realized it was different and made a choice to either succumb to this "whiteness" or to struggle and to hold onto his Jamaican identity. Ultimately, he opted for "whiteness." "Boy had no visible problem with declaring himself white. It was a practical matter, he told his wife. There was no one to say different...With each fiction his new self become more complete" (Cliff 62).

Although Boy bought into whiteness, Clare, his daughter, had a different response to their history. When Clare finally decides to identify herself with Jamaica, she in a sense took on a responsibility to break Jamaica free from its "master's history." This is shown in the text when Clare and her revolutionary group attack the film crew who were making a film about Jamaica. Their attack symbolized how Jamaicans would being to account for their own history rather than take it from their masters. Both Clare and her father compromise part of their heritage in the book for self gain. They deliberately discard a part of themselves in order to fit into the ideals that they believe in. Boy Savage does this when he tries to purchase a room in the hotel and casually tells the clerk what he wants to hear. He uses whiteness to convince the clerk that he is worthy of being treated equally as any white man that had been living there for years. Boy Savage realizes that in order to better his life, he has to fit in to the white ideals. "The memory retreated as fast as it had come and Boy took the plunge, making himself at home in this new country. 'I am a white man. My ancestors owned sugar plantations'. There it was. Discrete but firm." By taking on his "master's past," Boy was able to connect to the other white men and make his home in America.

Clare Savage on the other hand, lets go of her heritage which concerns her father. The revolutionaries don’t believe that anyone who projects the image of whiteness or backra truly believes in their cause. In order for Clare to convince them that she is in full support of the revolution, she has to let go of her whiteness and embrace her Jamaican roots. As she becomes the embodiment of blackness, Clare starts to seem more and more black, leading the revolutionaries to be more open in letting her join the cause. Although she still has to prove that she is ready to completely give herself to the cause, by letting go of her fathers past, she has a much easier time.


Jamaica's Identity

Much like Clare, Jamaica is torn between two separate identities: its staged identity which fails to recognize its past, and its other identity that contains the dark past which it cannot break free from. The outside world sees Jamaica as a paradise; it's almost an idealistic place where tourists go on vacations and put on the backs of postcards and pictures. But underneath the sandy beaches and blue skies is a past replete with colonization, slavery, violence, and struggle. The outside world is ignorant to Jamaica's history, which explains how such a difference can exist. Harry/Harriet further asserts that this is the case by saying, "if they had any sense in irony, or history, they would call this place Triangle Trade and be done with it. The tourists them would never get the joke...(120). At some point, Jamaica must pick a path to follow that will help make it whole since according to Harry/Harriet, you "cyaan live split. Not in this world" (Cliff 131). Although Jamaica can choose to cover up its past and accept the staged identity, Jamaica's true identity cannot exist without first recognizing its past. "We do not speak of past here, but present, future. These things are connected" (Cliff 195).

History of the Maroons.

An example of the staged view of Jamaica.

Claire's Identity

Michelle Cliff uses the theme of identity throughout No Telephone to Heaven in order to give readers a more in depth understanding of the characters. Clare Savage was born as the daughter of Boy and Kitty Savage. Boy Savage, although physically someone a "black man" came from an upper class, sophisticated lifestyle that was associated with an identity of whiteness. Kitty Savage provided Clare with her Afro-Creole roots due to her traditional Jamaican, working class lifestyle. Clare’s heritage was a huge part of her identity and her long quest for it. In the book we found out that Clare was a showcase of two identities that were considered complete opposites. Although Clare could both identify with her whiteness and her blackness, she chose not to identify with her father's identity and embrace her mother's in order to help the revolution. Clare’s choice was due to the widely accepted fact that the people of the revolution did not believe it was possible for those who were backra to believe in and support their cause.

Harry/ Harriet is another character who is made up of multiple identities. Harry/Harriet's case isn't about an identity struggle regarding race or ethnicity but rather of what sex he/she is. Harry/ Harriet is a man who recognizes that although he is physically a man, his way of thinking and his personality traits allow him to make the decision of identifying himself as a woman. He knows that both identities are within him and yet does not try to become completely one or the other even though his outward appearance is notably feminine. He says to Clare that “The time will come for both of us to choose. For we will have to make the choice. Cast our lot Cyann live split. Not in this world” (Cliff 131). Both race and sex are not biological, but our determined through development of ones life. Harry/ Harriet is sure in his sense of self and is the one who convinces Clare to come back to Jamaica and join the revolutionaries. The sense of questioning one's own identity is conveyed throughout the book in almost all the characters as they fight to define themselves as something clear. Cliff uses identity to exhibit the fact that people are made up of multiple identities as opposed to one single identity.

Early in Cliff's novel, the contrast between whiteness and blackness is evident. Color is used in various ways to illuminate differences that Toni Morrison discusses. "The people on the truck wore khaki-and they wore discarded American army fatigues, stolen from white kids high on dope..." (Cliff 6). The contrast of color continues with the description of "the black tarpaulin at the center of the back of the truck concealed stacks of guns, automatic rifles..." (Cliff 7). Morrison delves into the perception of color in literature in many ways, but makes a very poignant statement when she says, "the subjective nature of ascribing value and meaning to color cannot be questioned this late in the twentieth century. The point for this discussion is the alliance between visually rendered ideas and linguistic utterances." The entire story of Clare details a passionate struggle to find an identity. At one point, Clare chooses not to purchase a brooch because "she had to conserve her money, she told herself-and couldn't bring herself to bargain with the seller, knowing that her half-American, half-Jamaican intonation would draw comments and make her conspicuous, the last thing she wanted" (Cliff 112). Clare is struggling with a problem of color identity that Morrison touches on; "images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable-all of the self-contradictory features of self."


The major theme of Clare struggling to define her own identity is one that is also paralleled by Jamaica's struggle in finding its own identity. Identity, a true sense of self and identity can only really be formed through a process of self-discovery and development achieved through gaining knowledge and acceptance of the truth. Both the struggles of Clare's identity and that of Jamaica become resolved when Clare finally decides to identify herself with Jamaica and takes on Jamaica's history as her own. The drastic actions Clare later takes as part of the revolutionary group was in a sense giving Jamaica a step in defining its own identity as well. Yet as Clare breaks from this "white" identity, she in no way denounces her past or history. This brings up a significant point of how history and identity cannot be separated. Clare seems to acknowledge this because her study of history not only shaped her identity, it brought her to side with Jamaica. Her step towards taking a different past in history rather than repeating history was to attack the film crew that was shooting a "documentary" on the liberation of Jamaica. In attacking this film crew, her actions anounced a break from following her countries past and a step towards the future in liberating Jamaica.

Additional Resources

A Biography on Michelle Cliff

A Brief History of Jamaica

A Timeline/History of Jamaica

Another Wikipedia Entry on Jamaica

Fast Facts about Jamaica's History