5.Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven: the Paradoxes of History
German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf once stated that six months are enough for a constitutional reform, six years for an economic reform but at least sixty years is a necessary time period for laying foundations of a civil society. The social turmoil of the 60s and 70s challenged the social structures on many different levels and the changes that took place have a lasting impact. Most importantly, the society´s recognition of minorities´ presence and the minorities´ pride in their cultural heritage are relevant here.
Michelle Cliff's novel No Telephone to Heaven (1987) is a sequel to a successful novel Abeng (1985). Paradoxes and ironies of history and identity are predominant themes in the story of Clare Savage, a young Jamaican woman who was brought up in Jamaica, high schooled in the US and attended university in the UK. She seems to belong everywhere and nowhere. Her quest for belonging and roots brings her to many diverse parts of the world where she encounters diverse characters and all these experiences add colour and insight to her wandering journey and, more importantly, help her define her identity as she chooses to be black-identified in the end.
Michelle Cliff's novel brings the reader to multiple places in the world, as it has become typical of postmodern writing, and the places are invisibly interwoven by hundreds of years of history. Jamaica, the US and Britain are the main locations where Clare Savage, the main protagonist, lives. Her story starts in Jamaica where she was born, then she follows her parents who wish to settle down in the US, however, she abruptly leaves one day for the UK to study and get to know the 'mother land' - only to come back again to the place that she left first, Jamaica.
Clare is sojourning in the UK and Europe during the 70s and experiences all the nationalist discourse the British public had put on display in order to comprehend and solve the confusion resulting from, among other factors, significant immigration to the UK. Her experience in the UK will bring her back to Jamaica, a place that she identifies with most. Such situation shows that attachment is just a matter of degree, not of exclusive belonging.
As such, the themes of national consciousness, political awakening, colonial narrative, racism with regards to colour (privilege, racialised societies), imposed identity (belonging, self-naming) and the myth of England will be discussed in this chapter.
Fostering the feeling of national awakening is especially challenging in the culturally, linguistically and politically diverse area of the Caribbean since all the indigenous population had been wiped out during the colonization process and new inhabitants had been forced to settle down there, whether they were slaves from Africa, indentured labourers from other parts of the British Empire (such as South Asians who had to move predominantly to Trinidad or Guyana) or persecuted Portuguese Jews. The white creole presence had sprung from the Spanish, the French and the Dutch and as Stuart Hall puts it, any Caribbean narrative carries a stamp of "historical violence and rupture" (qtd. in C. Hall 68). Consequently, the postcolonial literature has an uneasy task of challenging the previously binary oppositions of race (black and white) and hierarchy (the coloniser and the colonised) with concepts such as mixed race, gender, sexuality and privilege (Richards).
Clare Savage realizes the power of social change and adds to her list of regrets her absence in the demonstrations decrying the murder of Martin Luther King in the US (Cliff 113). When she lives in Britain in the 70s, she remembers St. Joan's words that mean a "clear-cut cause": "I will dare, and dare and dare, until I die" and "Résistez" which she found on a brooch with the Cross of Lorraine on it (Cliff 112). The 70s' Britain saw its share of antagonism towards immigrants and Clare witnesses this hostility herself when a march of the National Front makes it onto a university campus, chanting and shouting: "KAFFIRS! NIGGERS! WOGS! PAKIS! GET OUT! A banner - white bedsheet with black paint - went past. KEEP BRITAIN WHITE" (Cliff 137). A reaction to the march appears soon and the words on a poster on the campus read "WE ARE HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE" (Cliff 137). Such chronotope, in Bakhtin's terminology, suggests "specific invocations of truth and causality" (Gilroy, There Ain´t No Black in the Union Jack 286) as spatio-temporal relations are determined by history.
The indifference of others is puzzling Clare since the demonstration seemed "dangerous" to her and, after all, she was studying in the country praising itself for its values of tolerance and openness. What disconcerted her friend Liz was the fact that she had to move her desk in the library (139) and as such Liz, like the rest of the society, seems blasé about the whole issue and such indifference seems rather dangerous to Clare.
5.2Colonial Narrative and Neocolonialism
The colonization happened on the cultural level as well even though this is often downplayed. Stuart Hall explains this tendency to naturalize difference:
Blackness has functioned as a sign that people of African descent are closer to Nature, and therefore more likely to be lazy, indolent, lacking the higher intellectual faculties . . . Those, who are stigmatized . . . as 'culturally different' and therefore inferior, are often also characterized as physically different in significant ways. (qtd. in Pilkington 180)
Interestingly, even Tony Blair maintained that overall, colonialism was a good thing even though his statements were void of Thatcherite's views of civilizing the inferior races of Asia and Africa and saving the rest of Europe from internal barbarians (Parekh 68).
Parekh further calls the British debate on national identity "disappointing" since, among other things, "there is little attempt to engage critically with its imperial history and to form a just view of what it did to its colonies and to Britain itself" (69).
When Clare in Cliff's novel remembers the institution for light-skinned foundlings in Jamaica, she remembers it as "colonial contrivance" (92). The blurriness in the historical discourse is bothersome because: “There are no facts in Jamaica . . . [and there is] nothing to join you to the real. Facts move around you. Magic moves through you. This we have been taught" (92). Clare sees Jamaica as a place of distorted history which functions "in a system consisting of almost nothing but taboos" (153) where "everyone is Black; it's just that some are blacker than others" (153). However, this was the situation in Jamaica after the Emancipation since, except European colonialism, "the modern West Indian had no history" - the extinction of Indian tribes, African slaves and their suppression of cultural expression made British culture the dominant one (Hiro 18).
A clear analysis of the colonization and post-colonization period has the potential to offer some reconciliation. A recent example may be the PM Gordon Brown who apologized in November 2009 in Australia to British children that were sent to Australia or Canada and many of them faced abuse or unpaid child labour.1 The acknowledgement of the wrongdoing did not change the facts, yet it was an important step to reconciliation.
When Clare notes that the children from an Institution seem as if they belonged to the past, Harry, her Jamaican friend, replies that "we are of the past here . . . We expect people to live on cornmeal and dried fish, which was the diet of the slaves. We name hotels Plantation Inn and Sans Souci . . . A peculiar past" (127). Harry thinks it is dangerous to take the master's past as the past of the people who were once ruled by the British. Still, the West Indians were used to attach unequivocally to the British - Trafalgar Square and the Nelson's column in Bridgetown, Barbados, were built before their counterparts in London (Hiro 19).
Wounds of the colonization get less painful with time but they survive in stories and myths. Harry's recollection of a British officer raping him when he was a little boy reminds him of the "forgotten" past. The past which was violent, cruel and not accounted for. The past that would greatly benefit from a formal reconciliation. Harry compares the violent act to "a symbol for what they did to all of us" (Cliff 129).