112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Another Triangle Trade:  Michelle Cliff, Female Bodies, and [Post]Colonial Discourse

Robert Kyriakos Smith, University of California, Los Angeles

Through readings of her novels Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987), and essay "Caliban's Daughter" (1991), my presentation finds untenable, and redirects scholarship out of, the unexamined and uncritical preoccupation with mixed-race Jamaican novelist, poet, and essayist Michelle Cliff's body and the fetishization of her light skin.


Though the work of mixed-race Jamaican novelist, poet, and essayist Michelle Cliff does not want for commentators, I would like to redirect scholarship away from what I see as an unexamined and uncritical preoccupation with Cliff's body and the fetishization of her light skin.  A perturbing chagrin is how some respond to Cliff's identification of herself as a woman of color though she shares with the protagonists of her semi-autobiographical novels a phenotypically "white" appearance.  Risking some critics' dubiety, "Jamaican woman of color" is a self-referent that Cliff won't relinquish.  Scholarship that would bleach and Europeanize Cliff read her work unfairly as the author's rhetorical attempts to color and Caribbean-ize herself; but, of course, if Cliff and her principle characters were darker, her work would be received very differently.  Too often Cliff's contributions to literature have received only sotto voce recognition as Caribbean, and there remains a reluctance to accept as sacrosanct Cliff's right to her national and racial self-descriptors.

            In "Caliban's Daughter," a self-reflexive essay published in 1991, Cliff pilfers Shakespeare's The Tempest to claim for her identity Prospero's conscripted minions, Caliban and Ariel.  In Cliff's imagination, Ariel figures her intellect; but her flesh, though fair, is the purview of Caliban, Prospero's slave and son of Sycorax, the North African witch whose "commands," according to Prospero, are more "earthy."  Cliff’s description of her colonial education in terms of intellectual and physical domestication elaborates her metaphor––in Cliff's words, her "wildness had been tamed, what had been defined as wildness:  wildness that embraced imagination, emotion, spontaneity, history, memory, revolution, flights of fancy, the forest.  Flesh was replaced by air, Caliban by Ariel."  When the mixed-race Jamaican-born Cliff calls herself "Caliban's Daughter," an identity that Cliff claims she was "taught to despise," she, with self-conscious irony, effectively de-essentializes race by appropriating for her identification a European (Shakespearean) construction of an islander with African ancestry.  I, like Cliff, want to recuperate the author as a Caribbean writer of color by troubling these oppositions between intellect and flesh, Ariel and Caliban, and what, for Cliff, each trope (tame versus wild, among other dialectics) represents.  My presentation investigates the following undecided contest:  As a [re]writer of history, even if only her own, Cliff performs only what imperialism has taught her.  Cliff is caught between post-colonial critical discourse that foregrounds her mixed-race body and colonialism's practice of "intellectual scarification" that literally would dispense with her body altogether.  For after Cliff's above-mentioned essay cites the kidnapped Pocahontas––monumentalized as the Indian made tame––and Saartjie Baartman––sensationalized as "the Hottentot Venus"––whose dissected genitalia in a glass jar await visitors to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, we see that the colonizer's historical practice is to capture, inscribe upon, dissect, and display colonized female bodies.  Perhaps one tactic of resistance is to insist that one's "flesh" has been "replaced by air," but, I argue, Cliff's reinvention of herself as "Caliban's Daughter" need not put her body at such risk.