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Jamaica, Jamaica 2017 > Michelle Cliff: "Abeng", "No Telephone To Heaven"

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message 1: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Michelle Cliff authored "Abeng" as a coming-of-age story about a girl on the cusp of adolescence. Set in the Jamaica of the 1950s, but freely addressing that country's settlement, history, and mores, Clare Savage's history begins generations ago and combines, like many Jamaicans, a mixture of peoples. It was something of a lottery that she resembles more the light-skinned slave owners than others of darker skin tones, especially as her parents echo that dichotomy as well.

Clare's mother comes from the Maroons, the first freed people, and the Savage family lives in the Maroon Cockpit country of St. Elisabeth parish, the term 'cockpit country' descriptive of deep recesses for hiding in the rockface. Cliff explains that and more of Jamaica's colonial history. Her main focus is Clare's (sometimes noted as parallel with Cliff's) learning about the social rules by which Jamaican society runs. Those requirements affect gender and sexual identity as well as skin tone.

For readers who want to go further in Clare Savage's life, Cliff also authored a book about Clare's adulthood, called "No Telephone to Heaven".


message 2: by Betty (last edited Jan 01, 2018 03:30PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments There's so much in this short novel "Abeng," one wonders where to begin connecting its subjects. And, are there instances of interpretation needed?

I'd considered "Abeng" as a supplement to inform a reader about Michelle Cliff's earlier novel, "No Telephone to Heaven." But, the former, which is supposed to be a prequel though written later, can stand alone. Knowing that doesn't make interpreting it any easier. And might "Abeng', coming afterward in Cliff's published works, show more skill?

Where to start but a search for some in-depth talk about "Abeng," and at least one of those appeared in the google results. It brings to the conversation several themes. One of those mentions ways in which oppressive rules become points of resistance based on the sense of freedom or justice. Another of those explores how some history, on a grand scale or a parent-to-child transmission, is allowed to fall into dust, making connections to the past opaque. Last but still important is young Clare Savage's experience with those themes as she enters young womanhood.

The essays about "Abeng," from which the preceding draws, are titled Caribbean Aesthetics "The Politics of Self-Definition in Michelle Cliff’s ‘Abeng’" Posted on November 22, 2014 by afm103". They are set out as a starting essay followed by reply essays.


message 3: by James (new)

James F | 119 comments As usual I'll start off with a slightly expanded version of my Goodreads review:

Michelle Cliff is best known for her first novel, No Telephone to Heaven, which is one of the next books on my reading list, for the Goodreads group which is reading Jamaican literature this year. Abeng is a prequel to that novel, taking the protagonist, Clare Savage, a light-skinned, "middle-class" Jamaican girl (I dislike that elastic phrase but it's how she's described), back to her adolescence at twelve years old. I will admit that it is an easy and enjoyable read, with mostly good likeable characters and good themes, as Clare discovers the discrimination against darker-skinned Jamaicans, women, Jews (in Europe) and gays. Unfortunately, those themes are very explicitly presented, and rather than the themes seeming to come naturally from the story, the story seems obviously written to illustrate the themes -- the author usually begins by describing the problem, then shows Clare discovering it, then tells us how she felt about it, and there are essentially no episodes which are not directly related to one or more of these themes. (There is also some material about the colonial history of Jamaica, presented in historical vignettes about her ancestors in the same way as in Margaret Cezaire-Thompson's A True History of Paradise, which the modern characters are explicitly described as not knowing about. Cliff's novel is the earlier of the two.)

Together with the age of the main character and the simplicity of the writing style (largely in fragmentary sentences), that didacticism gives the novel the feeling essentially of a book at the border of Middle Grade to early Young Adult fiction. There is some frank discussion of sexual topics, but that only reinforces the impression -- mainly, these are straightforward explanations of the physical changes of puberty and what to expect when you start having periods, which would be of interest mainly to girls at the age of the protagonist, who are at the beginning of puberty and curious about these questions. I would have given this a better rating if it had been marketed for this age group, but neither the book itself, the description on Amazon, or the library catalog record gives any indication of this -- it seems to be presented as a literary novel for adults, and as such it simply does not have sufficient complexity or subtlety. Perhaps because it is a prequel, the real ending is followed with a somewhat disconnected new beginning with a new character, Miss Beatrice -- I got the feeling this was supposed to suggest Pip and Miss Haversham (Great Expectations is referred to earlier in the book) -- and the novel just sort of comes to an end with Clare in a new situation which is not really developed, probably to meet up with the beginning of the earlier book.


message 4: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James wrote: "As usual I'll start off with a slightly expanded version of my Goodreads review..."

I've plunged into No Telephone to Heaven because of the ending of Abeng. The connection between the two novels doesn't initially leap into view. The prequel ends with a conversation on a Kingston house verandah between Clare and Miss Winifred about the elder lady's life experience with a biracial child, and the conclusion she draws from that. No Telephone to Heaven begins with an armed resistance movement, involving Clare, reclaiming Miss Matti's (Clare's maternal grandmother's) 'ruinate' house and property abandoned years earlier.

You wrote,
"There is also some material about the colonial history of Jamaica, presented in historical vignettes about her ancestors in the same way as in Margaret Cezaire-Thompson's A True History of Paradise, which the modern characters are explicitly described as not knowing about.
Your post affirms what I've read. Clare resists her father's slanted family history and her place in it, as she is in part Maroon from her mother. Clare's personal history parallels Jamaica's greater history in which colonial stories silence Jamaicans' stories. This novel just might be read at different levels. For example, Marissa Petta in "Dismembering the Master Narrative: Michelle Cliff ’s Attempt to Rewrite Jamaican History in Abeng" examines the metaphor between the diverse, hidden mango and the Jamaicans (pp 11-14). Your connection of literary texts--Clare and Miss Beatrice in Abeng to Pip and Miss Haversham in Great Expectations--also points to a literary insight.


message 5: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments A paper by Stephanie F. Brown "The search for identity in Michelle Cliff's Abeng" (1995) helps clear up questions about Clare's search for an identity, as its title states. Clare tries to do that through talks with others, such as her mother Kitty, through interactions with adults at St. Catherine's school, and through the autobiography and film of Anne Frank's life, and through other literature and inquiries. I found this examination of the characters Clare encounters and of how each affects her understanding to bring together the various bits of this story.


message 6: by Betty (last edited Jan 06, 2018 11:46AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Chapter 12 of Abeng examines Clare's schooling led by the beliefs of the 'schoolmaster' Lewis Powell. He believes in the culture of West Indians, and its difference from African America and England. He includes Jamaican poems as well as English ones in his instruction. A visit to America during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance led him to meet Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and more literary people and to affiliate with Marcus Garvey's Africa nationalist movement. In 1930s Jamaica, he accompanies Hurston to the Cockpit Country of the Maroons during research for her book, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, though he assigned the proper place of superstition to fantasy and other tales. To the assembly at graduation, Clare's friend Zoe recites "Maroon Girl," the narrative through which the schoolchildren can visualize their history and environment.


message 7: by James (new)

James F | 119 comments Asma wrote: "A visit to America during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance led him to meet Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and more literary people and to affiliate with Marcus Garvey's Africa nationalist movement.

If you haven't already I would highly recommend reading the poetry of Claude McKay, and even more his autobiography, although it doesn't begin until after he left Jamaica.


message 8: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James, I may reread Selected Poems of Claude McKay


message 9: by Betty (last edited Jan 07, 2018 07:09AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Assuming that 12-year-old Clare, the main character in Abeng, searches for an identity, she imbibes the influences of her father's value of English culture, her mother's comfortability among Jamaicans, and her particular characteristics as Clare. Her father's view dominates her life on account of her light skin and proper speech, and she's headed to a university in England. What happens overseas becomes the subject of the sequel No Telephone to Heaven.

Her aligning with her father's way does or will concern her on account of her questioning the lack of closeness with her mother just as she'd been perplexed by her friend Zoe's depiction of Jamaican society. Traditional female roles, including wedding customs, which Zora Neale Hurston describes firsthand in chapter 2 "Curry Goat" of Tell My Horse, would seem outside the scope of Clare's English lifestyle.


message 10: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments The Wikipedia page of the novel "Abeng" (1984) links the reader to the first issue of "The Abeng National Weekly" newspaper of 1969 http://dloc.com/UF00100338/00001/1x with its article "Why Abeng." Some of Cliff's themes--the unique history of Jamaica, the rewriting of it from a fresh perspective, and the symbol of communication with the Maroon conch shell--echo out of it.


message 11: by James (new)

James F | 119 comments Asma wrote "I've plunged into No Telephone to Heaven because of the ending of Abeng. The connection between the two novels doesn't initially leap into view. The prequel ends with a conversation on a Kingston house verandah between Clare and Miss Winifred about the elder lady's life experience with a biracial child, and the conclusion she draws from that. No Telephone to Heaven begins with an armed resistance movement, involving Clare, reclaiming Miss Matti's (Clare's maternal grandmother's) 'ruinate' house and property abandoned years earlier. "

I was surprised by the lack of connection. I'm just waiting for the discussion on No Telephone to Heaven to open (tomorrow?) to comment on that; after reading it it's hard to discuss Abeng without talking about both.


message 12: by James (last edited Jan 07, 2018 04:01PM) (new)

James F | 119 comments James wrote: "If you haven't already I would highly recommend reading the poetry of Claude McKay, and even more his autobiography, although it doesn't begin until after he left Jamaica. ."
I was going to post links to my reviews of the collected poetry, the autobiography and one of his novels, but I can't figure out how. I started with McKay when I heard we were going to do Jamaica because he was earlier than the writers we are reading. Although only his first two poetry collections are written in/about Jamaica, he was one of the first writers to use Jamaican dialect in a serious work as opposed to making fun of it in a humorous one.

I'll try to link to the book pages (I'm one of only two or three reviewers on each):
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6...
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3...


message 13: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments I enjoyed reading your reviews of Claude McKay's poems, novel, and autobiography, James.


message 14: by Betty (last edited Jan 08, 2018 12:00PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments In Abeng, middle of chapter 15, Clare and Zoe go on an expedition to hunt the fierce boar Massa Cudjoe, presumably named after the Maroon leader who made a pact with the British, which the author narrated at the end of chapter 3. The females' adventure requires chopping a path through dense growth as well as trespassing social norms in confronting the dangerous, venerable animal which frightened seasoned hunters. Zoe persuades Clare of the fruitlessness of ascending the mountaintop to its home as well as of the longterm negative repercussions from the Maroon community.

Both Michelle Cliff's novel and Zora Neale Hurston's nonfiction Tell My Horse, chapter 3 "Hunting the Wild Hog," differently approach the pursuit of the boar. Clare evokes a time long past when Maroons used spears and often ate its meat until the British introduced its predator the mongoose. Hurston writes from first-hand experience her running for safety behind a boulder and the animal charging along the path, hunters with guns killing, cleaning, and cooking the wild creature.

Cockpit Country By Fabian Tompsett.


message 15: by Betty (last edited Jan 08, 2018 10:04PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Today starts No Telephone to Heaven. Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Tele... describes its plot and themes.

I found it difficult to link the prequel Abeng with Telephone. In the former, the twelve-year-old girl displays innocence about Jamaican society. She questions the argument for her father's adamancy that she is white, her mother being Maroon, but ultimately accepts the arrogance and opportunities which accompany that belief.

In Telephone, her sense of being part of the white community in America works for her, even while she doesn't observe the carefulness in which her father drives the car from Miami through Washington, D.C. to New York City. Neither does she know of the treatment employers give her mother as coming from Jamaica.

Clare grows more aware of the discrepancy between how her untested beliefs and her experience conflict when she attends college in England. She seems conflicted by an extreme right-wing demonstration in London and by a desire for more closeness with her dark-skinned mother, who died in Jamaica.

The preceding amounts to just the beginning of Telephone. I found the story interesting but not a blockbuster. This novel, along with Abeng, represents Michelle Cliff's early but important writing.


message 16: by James (new)

James F | 119 comments My review:

Cliff's first novel, this is much better than the later prequel, Abeng, which I reviewed last week. It's a much more adult, more sophisticated and better written novel. The main character is again Clare Savage. The book begins and ends with her as part of a small armed group -- the politics is not particularly good, or even clear, and seems to be mostly a product of despair on the part of people who feel oppressed but have no understanding of political theory or effective action. I was reminded at the end of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, although Cliff is more sympathetic and the characters are not the spoiled children of that novel. The majority of the book however, told in flashbacks which are not strictly chronological, is about Clare's psychological development, the experiences she goes through in Jamaica, New York, and London with racism and the guilt she feels as a lighter-skinned Black who, while not actually trying to "pass", is generally considered "white", and her ambivalent feelings toward her lighter father and darker mother. These themes arise much more naturally out of the situations than in the prequel, and have a less artificial feel of illustrating a point. There are also some feminist themes and a major "trans" character. One episode concerns a disturbed Black Vietnam veteran named Bobby whom she falls in love with and who just disappears one afternoon. Meee and Bobbeee McGeeeeeeeeee sorry. After reading this, I understand the decisions Cliff made in writing the prequel even less -- the strange ending of that book with Miss Beatrice and her sister is never alluded to, and the childhood friend who plays such a key role in the later book is not mentioned even in the listing of people she remembers from her time at Miss Mattie's. While Cliff is not my favorite of the Jamaican writers I have been reading for the Goodreads group, the novel is worth reading and does give another perspective on the situation there.


message 17: by James (last edited Jan 08, 2018 10:18PM) (new)

James F | 119 comments Asma wrote: "The Wikipedia page of the novel "Abeng" (1984) links the reader to the first issue of "The Abeng National Weekly" newspaper of 1969 http://dloc.com/UF00100338/00001/1x with its article "Why Abeng."..."

It was interesting. The idea of a newspaper unconnected with the two main parties was good, and the articles all seemed to be on the correct path. However, at least from this first issue, I couldn't really tell what the real political orientation of the paper was, what they saw as the road forward. This was also the problem I had with No Telephone; the idea that a small group unconnected with any larger movement by carrying out an armed attack on a film company was somehow contributing to a solution just didn't make any sense to me. That's why I compared it to the Lessing book where a small group also carries out a meaningless act of violence. I would like to read a novel which actually has some politics rather than just describing the problems in individual terms.


message 18: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James wrote: "...Cliff's first novel, this is much better than the later prequel, Abeng,...It's a much more adult, more sophisticated and better written novel..."

No Telephone to Heaven felt very choppy in its form as she moves through life stages. I couldn't fathom the reason for Clare's not getting along in life as she'd done so far. She realizes at a pivotal adult moment in her life that what she's doing in England doesn't impassion her, her intellectual and emotional link to the motherland of the Queen fragile. Perhaps, Clare learns of Jamaica's role as an exploited colony to England and sees bias against people of color in a direct way. She returns to Jamaica teaching the true Jamaican history and culture to students. Her decision to return home redeems her changed course in life. Later, she goes too far with her patriotism, maybe friendship egging her on to participate in the 'guerrilla' group. The resistance's reaction to the filmmakers telling a false story about Jamaican emancipation history, while exploitative and incentivized by the political leaders, seems a dangerous patriotism. Similar to Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven abruptly breaks off, leaving many unknowables.


message 19: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James wrote: "...I would like to read a novel which actually has some politics rather than just describing the problems in individual terms."

Goodreads has a list of writings Popular Resistance Movement Books. The nonfiction Ill Met by Moonlight might portray the inside of a resistance movement--Wikipedia's description. The title stood out in AskMetaFilter "Books and movies about resistance movements. A umich webpage, updated 2001, on the subject of No Telephone to Heaven notes the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. There's a nonfiction title related to him called The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.


message 20: by James (new)

James F | 119 comments Asma wrote: "James wrote: "...I would like to read a novel which actually has some politics rather than just describing the problems in individual terms."

Goodreads has a list of writings Popular Resistance Mo..."


I was referring more specifically to Jamaica. I have read many novels and of course much nonfiction about resistance/revolutionary movements in general, which is one of my main interests. The Black Jacobins is one I've intended to read for a long time and somehow never seem to get to. The Goodreads list you linked to seems to be mostly fantasy/speculative fiction novels; I've noticed that most people (and especially teens) tend to read a lot about resistance to fictional dystopias but shy away from books about the often dystopian real world we live in today, perhaps because it's easier to imagine a small group accomplishing something in a fictional black and white situation than in the complex world of real countries (one of the few science fiction works that approaches the real complexity of revolutions is Kim Robinson's Mars trilogy). This brings me back to No Telephone -- it's easier to imagine carrying out a guerilla action than building a political movement independent of the JLP/PNP factionalism. (In real life, this explains the fascination with focoism in the sixties, which is probably part of the inspiration for the novel.) And as I alluded to in my reviews of McKay's works, the left from the twenties to the end of the twentieth century was pretty much entirely derailed by Stalinism in its Russian and Chinese forms, or else became so sectarian it couldn't accomplish anything. It's hard not to be pessimistic.


message 21: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James wrote: "...most people [...] tend to read a lot about resistance to fictional dystopias but shy away from books about the often dystopian real world we live in today..."

Just considering my reading in general, it's mostly fictional literature. While, IMO, fiction portrays the psychology of humanlike characters in imagining a lifelike story and approaching the subjective truths about life, nonfiction literature tries to close the gap between speculation and verifiable facts. Each kind of writing proves valuable in its way.


message 22: by Betty (last edited Jan 11, 2018 07:26AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments "[T]he Christopher narrative, which in turn is an exploration of each of the book's three themes, exploring the issue of racism, the nature and function of motherhood, and the values (positive and negative) of home and place."--BookRags, "No Telephone to Heaven - Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis".

The character Christopher, you recall, grows to maturity in Kingston's Dungle. During a forced separation from his mother and home during his youth, she dies. Thirteen years later, still without knowing her burial place, he receives visions of her which inspire his seeking her. His frustration in enlisting the cooperation in the deep of night of the man who employs him as yard boy triggers his worst instinct. Using the machete he typically carries, he murders the employer, family, household, and his friend their adult son Paul. Christopher reappears on the film set at the end, assuming the role of a hairy, howling Jamaican god in the treetops.

The character Clare also depicts the themes of race, motherhood, and home in spite of her growing up in as a child of privilege. The different genetic history of her parents, her having a light color like her father, and his pressure to live that lifestyle of plantation owners instead of the Jamaican rural one of her mother's family and its cultural heritage. She reverses her values in the book's finale, teaching Jamaica's stories and songs to students, being closer to her deceased mother. Motherhood denied directly applies to Clare with her miscarriage. Upon her return to Jamaica from England and Europe, she also returns to the place of her maternal grandmother Miss Mattie, the abandoned house and property where her mother Kitty had grown up and where Clare had often spent vacation time from urban Kingston.

Christopher and Clare mirror a divide in Jamaica, but neither his cooperation with foreign exploiters nor her resistance against them changes anything except leading to their apparent deaths.


message 23: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments James wrote: "...at least from this first issue, I couldn't really tell what the real political orientation of the paper was, what they saw as the road forward..."

In my view, the first issue (February 1969) of the Jamaican newspaper "Abeng" http://dloc.com/UF00100338/00001/1x attempted to report and analyze fairly and honestly news coverage about many topics which affected Jamaicans and their interests. I enjoyed several articles in its four pages and surprisingly found connections to present day issues in America and other places. What's that said about 'The more things change...? or about 'Learn from history...?


message 24: by Betty (last edited Jan 14, 2018 10:50AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments Chapter VII of No Telephone to Heaven comprises a prose poem "Magnanimous Warrior!" Its flashy heroine depicts a concept of motherhood unified with "Nanny of the Maroons" (Wikipedia article about her). The anthology Postcolonialism & Autobiography: Michelle Cliff, David Dabydeen, Opal Palmer , Google ebook pp96-7, indicates that the end of NTH amalgamates the character Clare and the poem's historical woman, Nanny.


message 25: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3593 comments There's a lot to No Telephone to Heaven, but is the story believable? At first glance, the metaphorical nature of Christopher, Harry/Harriet, and Clare don't stand out. One needs the benefit of interpretative guidance to see how violence (male) versus nurturing (female) feature in those three characters. And, the final tragedy at the film shoot (ironic naming) may affiliate with Jamaica's historical heroine Nanny the Warrior, but the optimism which follows as 'Day broke' seems too much a sacrifice for Clare to make for her ancestry, something her boyfriend Bobby in his wartime situation in southeast Asia saw as a fruitless one.


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