Decolonizing Jamaica's Daughter
Learning History in the Novels of Michelle Cliff
“You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse” (The Tempest I.2.363–64). For Jamaica-born novelist Michelle Cliff, the famous retort to Prospero that inspired a host of twentieth-century Caribbean Calibans “immediately brings to… mind the character of Bertha Rochester, wild and raving ragout, as Charlotte Brontë describes her. ” Feminizing the New World rebel savage, Cliff claims mad Bertha as Caliban's missing sister. To complete the mythic family tree, Cliff declares herself “Caliban's Daughter” and “granddaughter of Sycorax. ” As for Clare Savage, semiautobiographical heroine of Cliff's first two novels, “Bertha Rochester is her ancestor. ” And, she adds, “It takes a West Indian writer, Jean Rhys, to describe Bertha from the inside…” (“Clare” 264–65). 1 Consciously deriving from Rhys a tradition of West Indian women's literary resistance, Cliff creates in Abeng (1984) and its sequel No Telephone to Heaven (1987) a heroine whose life story appropriates European “language”—in its genres of historiography, historical fiction, and the bildungsroman—in order to reclaim her maternal history.
Perhaps no contemporary writer has engaged more overtly in the enterprise of rewriting history than Michelle Cliff. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated in England and the United States, resident here for decades, Michelle Cliff is a quintessential New World writer, whose fiction recrosses the Caribbean and the Atlantic to tell the interwoven histories of New World peoples. In Cliff's revisionary project, the problem of colonization is first of all that of the colonization of minds, and liberation first a matter of selfeducation. We might say then that her two-novel bildungsroman traces the decolonization of the heroine's mind as prelude to her self-education in her own story. 2 Learning her history and her own place in it, Clare Savage can develop from “colonized child” (Abeng 77) to revolutionary. Though the novel of her childhood imprisons her in an allegory of colonized consciousness, the novel of her liberation allows Clare to emerge beyond racial division and self-alienation to accept the full complexity of her history, and so to turn a daughterly embrace to the motherland.