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The memoir Abeng is a fickle beast— it pretty much takes the form of nonfiction but sometimes it dabbles so much in fiction that it becomes a creatively written novel with keen inspiration from the author’s life. Abeng cannot be said to be a straight memoir in spite of the fact that Cliff borrows heavily from her own life, childhood, and lineage. Personally, I think ‘Abeng’ is more of an accurate and interesting sociology or anthropological text than a ‘story-telling’ novel.
Set in Jamaica in 1958, Abeng features a 12 year old girl called Clare as the central character. Clare is the daughter of an English-Jamaican father, and a Hispanic mother, a woman of color. Clare is a perceptibly perfect little girl growing up in a big rotten world where everyone is in a conspiracy to oppress the Jamaican people. Only Clare has good intentions for her country. She has sophisticated, philosophical and political realization of her home. Clare undoubtedly, is the paragon of the author’s ideal feminist consciousness and her version of political progressiveness transcends normal understanding. She is not only coming of age in a haze of racial confusion, identifying with the different parts of herself, but she is also potentially dealing with her emerging lesbianism. The child of colonized natives and colonial family, Clare “code switches” depending on where she is—practically passing during school rituals or when around “town folk” and going native when around her friend Zoe. As a Jamaican
The child of colonized natives and colonial family, Clare “code switches” depending on where she is—practically passing during school rituals or when around “town folk” and going native when around her friend Zoe. As a Jamaican bildungsroman, Cliff artfully weaves in several plot points: class, race, gender, sexuality and colonialism. Clare’s race comes and goes as an issue, asserting itself to her at inconvenient times—for example, when her friend accuses her of being white when Clare self-identifies as black. These epiphanies never bring her comfort. They only remind her of confusion and her ‘in-betweenness’. Clare is twelve and her dawning adolescence comes with its own sense of being between—between childhood and adulthood—and this betweenness carries over to almost all areas of Clare’s life. Clare is middle-class and caught between Zoe, her lower class friend, and her wealthy patroness—appreciating the aspects of both lifestyles and slowly realizing that both cannot be had at the same time. When Clare is with Zoe she has a sense of freedom, but it’s contaminated with the knowledge that the lower classes, the formerly colonized, are not actually free. Whether we are seeing the moments of flashback, colonization, and control, or whether we are seeing merely their remains in Clare’s present time, there is no doubt that Cliff is insinuating that there is a cage around Jamaica and only certain people hold the key. The novel’s title
The title Abeng is a reference to the Maroon guerrillas that fought against the British—the “abeng” is the action of using a conch shell as a trumpet, a war-cry. This is Clare’s war-cry and like its predecessor, it’s raw and powerful, and oddly beautiful. One of the most talked about scenes of the novel is the pig-hunting scene. This scene beautifully demonstrates both the gendered and sexuality developmental storylines because Clare decides that she wants to hunt a famed wild pig, takes her grandmother’s gun to shoot it, and winds up killing a prized bull instead. Clare’s command of her life—taking the gun, leading the hunt—gets undermined by circumstance—she never gets to kill the pig. The death of the prize bull represents something else: a disconnect with family that Clare struggles with; the interior blood feud raging between the colonized and colonizing ancestors that seemingly wages on eternally within her. There is no way to separate the colonial aspect of the novel from any of the other parts—as Jamaica has been irreversibly changed by the British, so are its people. Clare is a walking embodiment of the change—she simply would not exist if not for the presence of colonials. As this is semi-autobiographical, we also understand that Clare will come to leave Jamaica, something we gather is a privilege of the oppressors—the white man’s privilege. Zoe seems to understand that she is stuck, this is a world that is bound to belong to her forever, but Clare never seems to have the same idea. This world already belonged to her, she has trespassed over all its boundaries and crossed its borders and she is only twelve. We understand that the island is too small for a spirit like hers. Abeng is a prequel to No Telephone To Heaven which was published earlier. Cliff has a grasp on the residue left over from company that persists no matter how hard you clean—it all counts for naught since the stain of colonialism that lingers returns to a pre-colonial state. Something gets ruined because it was shared. Jamaica can never go back to being “just Jamaica” anymore; no colonized place can. The idea of history staining the present and coloring the future seems to serendipitously bleed into all the categories that Cliff writes about: race, feminism, lesbianism. There is such history that informs all of those categories, history that—for better or worse—continues to haunt the present and future of them. This is something we experience in practice but find difficult to locate so expertly articulated and Cliff never dwindles in her excellence.
Cliff has a grasp on the residue left over from company that persists no matter how hard you clean—it all counts for naught since the stain of colonialism that lingers returns to a pre-colonial state. Something gets ruined because it was shared. Jamaica can never go back to being “just Jamaica” anymore; no colonized place can. The idea of history staining the present and coloring the future seems to serendipitously bleed into all the categories that Cliff writes about: race, feminism, lesbianism. There is such history that informs all of those categories, history that—for better or worse—continues to haunt the present and future of them. This is something we experience in practice but find difficult to locate so expertly articulated and Cliff never dwindles in her excellence.
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Michelle Cliff writes about Jamaica and the tightly structured society of the island. She addresses problems inherent to a postcolonial culture, including prejudice, oppression, class structure, the devaluing of women, and the lost history—especially oral history—of the oppressed. Although her novels are not truly autobiographical, much of what the character Clare confronts in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven is a reflection of her own experiences growing up in Jamaica and the United States and in living in England as a university student. Her novels display an ever-present consciousness of skin color, which is closely connected to identity, but for Cliff, the color of one’s skin is both a means of identity and a means of losing identity.
Cliff’s stories depict a society in which each person’s place is determined by his or her skin color. This caste system is accepted simply as “the way it is.” In the prejudicial thinking of her characters, skin color not only indicates certain flaws but also virtues. In Abeng, the character Mattie Freeman, Clare’s grandmother, knows who she is. She is a Maroon, a red-skinned woman with a history that traces to Nanny, the Maroon resistor to slavery. Nanny had magical powers and spiritual insights no colonial would ever enjoy. Boy Savage, in contrast, has lost a part of his identity through his rejection of his color ancestry and his insistence on passing for white.
Language plays an important role in Cliff’s novels as well. The language spoken by a character is an identifier of that character. In Abeng, when Clare is at her grandmother’s farm with Zoe, her dark-skinned “friend,” she speaks patois, which is forbidden in her middle-class existence in Kingston. For Cliff, Jamaican patois is just as viable a language as Standard English, and it is critical for readers without knowledge of patois to understand the meanings of the words. No Telephone to Heaven includes a glossary of patois words used in the novel.
Oral history and ethnic-specific stories, which rarely are included in the “official” accounts of the past, are integral to Cliff’s novels. The novels are multilayered and create a sort of international tapestry of the history of oppressed and marginalized individuals and ethnic groups. The story of Nanny, the Maroon woman who refused to accept slavery and led her people in rebellion, is recounted or referred to in Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, and Free Enterprise. In Free Enterprise, additional oral histories are told by minor characters.
Cliff extends this multilayering into the names she gives to her characters and to her novels. Abeng is an African word for conch shell. The conch shell served two purposes during the colonial period: It called slaves to the cane fields and was used by the Maroons to pass messages to one another. Free Enterprise refers both to the free enterprise of dealing in slaves in a capitalist market and to the enterprise of the main characters of the novel, resisters of slavery, and their freely entering into the fight.
Cliff writes her novels in a rich lyrical style reminiscent of her prose poems. Her descriptions of the Jamaican countryside are colorful and reflect the bond between the Maroons and nature. Jamaica becomes real for the reader with its mangoes, its tropical foliage, cane fields, and sun-drenched red earth.
Abeng is the story of Clare Savage, a young girl growing up in a complex multicultural world. It is a world fraught with oppression, rejection, and denial. Her family belongs to the Jamaican middle class. Her father, James Arthur “Boy” Savage, is a light-skinned man of white-black ancestry who rejects his black heritage and insists upon passing for white. He takes pride in his white colonial ancestry, which traces back to Judge Savage, one of the most of brutal slave owners. Her mother, Kitty Savage, is a Maroon, or red-skinned, woman who is deeply attached to her color ancestry. Clare has one sister; she is younger than...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)