No Telephone to Heaven Spring2008
The novel, "No Telephone to Heaven," by Michelle Cliff depicts life from her vantage point, as she alludes to her political purpose in the form of a story about a Jamaican native, Clare Savage. The novel parallels the lives of the author and the main character in many ways. Numerous characters throughout the novel provide complex insight into their gender, class and race struggles. Cliff focuses on their journey to discover their identities through the chaos of racism, class conflict, immigration discrimination and sexism. As Clare struggles to determine her own identity, these factors cause her a great deal of consternation. Clare Savage represents the incarnation of a black and white world, much like the author’s, and one in which her passion and education lead her to an epiphany that allows for choice, critical thought, and an expansion of her horizons. The era and society impact characters such as Christopher, an underprivileged Jamaican laborer who has lost his grasp on reality, and Harry/Harriet, a transsexual who selflessly supports Clare’s dreams. They are both excellent representations of class and gender issues, and they contribute to the growth and transformation of Clare. Cliff also creates an underlying tone indicative of the colonization and slavery struggles from which Clare's determination for change stems. The contrasting images of Jamaica and America draw the reader in to Clare's conflicting thoughts on passing as white or defending a helpless nation that she eventually calls home. Uniquely, Cliff tells the story of an immigrant family whose physical differences are too distinct to keep them together in the United States, and those who cannot pass as white are forced to return to the hardships they thought they had escaped in Jamaica. The novel weaves in and out of each character to create a quintessential piece that illustrates the affliction of racism and discrimination, and the valiant efforts of a few characters that strived and died for progress towards equality.
The History of Jamaica is much like that of any other place that was discovered by colonists. It was first discovered by Christopher Columbus, the native population was wiped out, England than claimed the island in a raid and Spain conceded in 1670. The Atlantic Slave Trade brought African slaves to Jamaica at the same time that they were brought to North America. Sugar cane was the main crop that was grown and cultivated by slaves. After the British crown abolished slavery in 1834 Jamaican slaves began to revolt to help assert their independence. In 1938 during the great depression many revolts helped lead to democratic parties in Jamaica.
No Telephone to Heaven is set in this point in history when blacks are being freed on an island with no other vocation and no respect; except for that of being a slave. So, although they are free, we see the oppression of their status highlighted in the novel. Black people in the novel are housekeepers and yard boys and are depicted as living in squalor type conditions. These conditions are entirely the fault of the white slave traders. Now what are the displaced slaves, children and grandchildren of slaves supposed to do in a world that hates them, yet they know no other. Jamaica is as much their home as it is the whites. This concept is highlighted on page 137 in bold where it reads “we are here because you were there” inferring the capture of slaves from Africa, showing whose fault it really is. This quote happens during a scene in the book where a protest march is fighting to keep blacks out of Britain.
Jamaica is also unique historically when it comes to change. Partly due to its geography, and the fact that it is an island, it has trouble being influenced by outside pressures. This is why it took and arguably is still taking time in accepting blacks as full citizens and equals. Harriet on page 127 asks Clare to come back when she is done studying in order to help “Bring [Jamaica] into the present.”
In contrast to outside pressures bringing peace to Jamaica is Clare’s study of Jamaican history from its beginning on pages 193-195. Clare digs until she is at the beginning with the natives of Jamaica and their artifacts. She is able to see and teach about when Jamaica was a pure and wild place without any outside influence. Then the land and people were destroyed. While speaking with the guerrilla leader, Clare is asked if she does not realize that the progress being made is backward, and not back towards the history before colonization, but backward towards slavery. Even though Blacks are free, they are not free. Nothing is being done about the poverty the sickness and the death. Clare is convinced that teaching history is not useful until these things can be remedied and she joins the revolution.
Language and Narrative
Michelle Cliff emphasizes the use of different languages and narrative forms to express Clare’s struggle to find herself in a society where acceptance is based solely upon the color of one’s skin. Within the novel's dialogue between character and the narrative, there is a continual switch up between English and Creole/Pidgin. These specific changes in speech are significant to Clare’s discovery of herself because being a ’mulatta,’ someone who is part white and part black in America (although she passes as being white), she feels as if she still has ties to her home country of Jamaica.
Language plays a role in Clare’s discovery as it guides her to finding her true identity. With constant Creole/Pidgin dialogue, Clare is constantly reminded of her origin and of her mother, Kitty; of whom she left the states to return to a place where she felt a sense of belonging. The glossary of Jamaican terms at the end of the novel, acts as a bridge for readers to be familiarized with the dialogue. Perhaps Cliff is intentional in placing a glossary in the back for the readers to get a sense of how Clare feels about knowing and yet not knowing a language. From the novel it can be seen that some Jamaican terms are similar in English, such as ‘brotha‘ which simply means 'brother.' However, language is not the sole indicator of her struggle. It can also be seen through Harry/Harriet's struggle to find gender, as he/she is someone that falls out of the gender norms of the society, yet has no problem finding a comfortable place within the society. Harry/Harriet’s usage of languages falls out of the norms because he/she uses language and ideology from Plato, but he/she is viewed as someone that is quite optimistic about life. Harry/Harriet's final decision to transition to Harriet is around the same time as Clare decides to go back to Jamaica.
Throughout the novel, many significant signs and phrases are presented in “ALL CAPS”. It becomes an important part of the novel as Clare awakens. For instance, the title of the novel, No Telephone to Heaven appears numerous times, signifying importance. Clare being of part white and part African, she struggles to find herself not only through language difference but also through religion. In America, having ‘no telephone to heaven’ would mean that Clare is not connected to God himself. It's almost to say that no prayer would ever reach the white God of America, not the one that she would have worshiped in Jamaica, and thus finds it difficult for her to find a place where she can connect with her county spiritually.
The issues of race, class, and sexuality surface almost, if not, entirely throughout the novel. But to discuss these topics in detail alone in relation to the novel would not grant any of them justice without having to relate each subject to the theme of identity. As Clare steps unto the spotlight of the novel, it becomes apparent that her main struggle is one of finding her sense of place and belonging. She searches for these answers in different places such as her race, class, and sexuality, but yet, does not realize how closely linked these aspects coexist with each other. As her life unfolds, she begins to receive a deeper understanding of her surroundings, and perceive things from more of a political standpoint as well as with a sense of nationalism. Ultimately, Clare's race, class, and sexuality provide her answers; answers that will later serve to bring awareness and final decisions to her life.
- Race -
Continually throughout the novel, Clare faces the question of how she will address her own race. Although Clare comes from two distinct backgrounds, (one "white" and the other, "black") the dilemma is not so much of whether or not she will dismiss her roots in her black ancestry and culture; but instead, it is how "race" affects classes and what privileges are obtained. Entering into the U.S., the Savage family regarded themselves as "white" into order to avoid racial aggressions. By passing this arbitrary "color line," they allowed themselves to indulge in the advantages of being "white." Although Boy ended up choosing to assimilate into this newly found culture, Kitty could not stand to bear witness the unfairness and the racial violence used against people with darker skin. It is interesting to note, however, that Kitty had the ability to "pass" as being white. But she eventually chose to ignore racism and all it's unjust causes by moving back to Jamaica. She sees how because some people are of different physical color, they are automatically categorized as an inferior class. Furthermore, Clare is very similar to her mother in that she also becomes aware of racial class differences; while thus, taking action against it. When Clare experienced the racial oppression set forth by a National Front March in England, she finally understood that her place resided back in Jamaica to fight for decolonization. Simply put, Clare came back to her homeland to break down the walls of class structures that were set in place by race. She came to identify herself more so with the lower classes of Jamaica, and in so doing, she recognizes the bigger portion of her black heritage and identity.
- Class -
Coming from two completely different parents poses, yet, another conflict within Clare. Clare’s father, Boy Savage, derives from an upper-class ancestry while her mother is just the opposite; a rural, working-class worker. Clare naturally places herself into the upper-class division of society by becoming a well-educated scholar. However, as dramatic shifts begin to occur in her life, Clare later supports and fights for the people not of her own class, but those of the less fortunate. For people such as Christopher, Clare eventually returns to Jamaica to represent those that are deprived, poor, and repressed. It is interesting to note, however, that this turn of events could not have taken place unless Clare had gone through what she experienced as an upper-classmen. With the experience of living a better standard life in Jamaica, America, and finally England, Clare has gained more insight as well as the history and knowledge of her surroundings to finally aid her decision in supporting the guerrilla activities. When being interrogated by the leader of the revolutionists, Clare learns that the leader, too, is also a well-educated person whose experiences have given her a more solidified discernment as well as a vision in which she wishes to accomplish. With this in mind, Clare finds her identity and calling within the same lines of her comrades of bringing power to the underprivileged people in Jamaica.
- Sexuality -
Shortly into the novel, a character known as Harry/Harriet gets introduced as a transvestite. While Harry/Harriet moves across gender differences, he/she can be considered possibly the only complete character without any real sense of self division. Although there exists within this character a conflict in gender and sexuality, this only dwells within Harry/Harriet because of the uneasiness society may have against such change, and not because of any sort of self-doubt. Harry/Harriet parallels Clare in that they both are fragmented characters; but the only difference comes in that Harry/Harriet knows who he/she is and what purpose he/she serves while Clare still resumes the search for herself. Throughout the duration that Clare is away from her true home, Harry/Harriet continually sends letters that describe the turmoil state in which Jamaica is in from racial violence, the allusion to how Clare’s homeland needs leadership, and the implications that hint Clare to return. When Clare finally gives in and decides to join the resistance, both characters come to a resolute self when Harry/Harriet proclaims that he/she is finally just Harriet and not Harry; all the while Clare finally realizes where her allegiances lie. Harriet can then be considered as sort of the backbone for Clare. When Clare became lost and lonely, she found comfort in the words of her friend, Harriet, who always seem to know what she was doing and where she was headed in life. Not only that, but the content in the letters gave Clare encouragement, advice, and support that paved direction for Clare as well as her identity. Furthermore, Clare never once questioned the change in Harriet’s gender; except for at the end when the proclamation was made that Harry became nonexistent. This indicates that Clare felt comfortable with Harriet’s identity and accepted who she was mainly because Harriet never once gave into any conflicting issues about her own identity. Overall, Harriet’s split gender identity throughout the greater part of the novel serves to show how even in the midst of a gender confusion, it is still possible to retain a strong sense of self.
Characters as Devices
Michelle Cliff uses her characters not only as characters in and of themselves but they are also used as literary devices to portray race and gender issues. Each character plays a role in conveying a message across to the reader.
- Clare -
This is clear right at the beginning of the novel where the protagonist, Clare Savage, was not introduced as a person and was not even given a name. Instead, she was introduced as a "light-skinned woman, daughter of landowners, native-born, emigres, Carib, Ashanti, English" with a group of people that could have easily hated her for her skin color. (Cliff 5) It is important to point out however that she is not white but she can easily "pass" as being white. Introducing Clare as a racial label instead of a person is one of the many ways that Michelle Cliff expertly uses her characters to convey the message of race and gender issues. This introduction of Clare in a resistance group also points out the political issues within the novel as well as Jamaica as a whole. She also uses the names of the characters as a description of that character. An example would again be Clare Savage. "Savage" is a word that should be far from being used to describe Clare, she's well-educated and articulate but nevertheless, she is treated as if she's a savage due to her Jamaican background.
- Harry/Harriet -
Harry/Harriet was a character in the novel that was confused with his/her own gender. Michelle Cliff used Harry/Harriet as a device to portray the gender issues that women of color have to face; either being desexualized or hypersexualized. Throughout the novel, Harry/Harriet tries to decide on which gender he/she should stay with. What's interesting to note is that the pace at which he/she decides is almost parallel to the pace of Clare's deciding which race she wants to stay with; whether she wants to "pass" or not. Michelle Cliff does this to point out that race and gender issues come hand-in-hand in that one brings about the other. She also has Clare and Harry/Harriet go through these decisions to show that race and gender are not biological; although they are appointed to us at birth, they are a construct of society.
- Christopher -
Another character whose name was also a play-on-words is Christopher. As a kid who grew up in poverty, a pastor of a black church, who believed Jesus was black, once called Christopher "Christ-like" and that he had "Christ in him heart". (Cliff 38) Unfortunately however, Christopher took his role in retaliation for his race too far; he killed the family that had rescued him from poverty and thus subjected himself to living on the streets once again. By doing this, he ultimately brings harm to himself, almost "Christ-like".
- Boy Savage -
Clare's parents, Boy Savage and Kitty Savage, are also used as literary devices. Boy Savage, Clare's father, is nicely named as a representation of his personality. He is just as his name describes him - a boy. He, as a character, represents that "middle ground" between races. He can also pass a white with a little ease and he has a desire to do so. Immature like a boy, he wants what everyone wants; power and he realizes that the only way to gain power is to be white. "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.'" (Cliff 57)
- Kitty Savage -
Kitty Savage, Clare's mother, is also a literary device. Her name, like Boy's, also gives glimpses into her personality. Kitty, like a cat, who is curious and daring was confronted with the new life in America. Her looks can pass as white, as soon as she talks, she gives away her Jamaican heritage, although she never wanted to pass as white in the first place. But in this new life, she was pitted against racial prejudice and when it got too difficult, she found a way to vent her frustration through her job. Kitty used her company's mascot, an "older woman with gentle gray curls, pink skin, two places on either cheek where the pink deepened slightly, soft rounded bosom, small mouth", all the traits of an ideal white woman manifested in a character named Mrs. White. (Cliff 74) Kitty used Mrs. White as a device by putting her own voice through Mrs. White onto the cards that the company distributed with each piece of laundry. Messages such as "America is cruel. Consider kindness for a change." and "We can clean your clothes but not your heart." were used to describe Kitty's feelings in America. (Cliff 81)
In writing her novel, "No Telephone to Heaven", Michelle Cliff breaks away from the path of linearity in which other novels before its time took. The way in which the novel is written; the characters, the use of language, the poetry of her writing all contributes to a form of experimentation that she uses to resist the effects of colonization. All of these touch base on the politics within the novel and within Jamaica. It exposes the struggle between the "white" Jamaica and the "black" Jamaica as it tries to form a concrete nationality. This deeply enriching novel takes on the themes of race, gender, nationality, politics and identity as it engages the reader in the struggles of a post-colonial world. Clare changes from innocence to experience as she ultimately searches for her sense of identity.
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Anne McClintock. “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Women and Nationalism in South Africa.” Transition 15 (1991): 104-23.
Trinh Minh-ha. “Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box.” Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. 7-28.
Constance Richards. “Nationalism and the Development of Identity in Postcolonial Fiction: Zoë Wicomb and Michelle Cliff.” Research in African Literatures 36.1 (2005): 20-33.
Judith Raiskin. “Inverts and Hybrids: Lesbian Rewritings of Sexual and Racial Identities.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 156-72.