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Cliff, Michelle (b. 1946)  
 
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Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff explores issues of race, class, and sexuality in her prose and poetry. At once a child of privilege as a light-skinned woman and an outsider because of her embrace of her African heritage and her lesbianism, she brings a unique perspective to her commentary on post-colonial society in the Caribbean.

The daughter of an American father and a Jamaican mother, Michelle Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica on November 2, 1946. When she was three years old her family moved to New York City in hopes of finding greater economic opportunity. Some seven years later they returned to Jamaica, where her father was going to start his own business.

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In a 1981 interview Cliff described the move as "disastrous." Her father, she said, "started living the high life: drinking a lot, going to the race track, and gambling." After a few years the family returned to the United States.

After graduating from high school Cliff enrolled in Wagner College on Staten Island. She began to take an interest in politics and became active in the movement against the war in Vietnam.

When Cliff was twenty-two, her mother "officially" informed her that she was a person of color, something that the light-skinned Cliff had already discerned from indirect messages as she was growing up. The heritage that her family attempted to conceal was one that Cliff chose to embrace.

Following her graduation from Wagner, Cliff went to England, where she studied at the University of London, earning a master's degree in philosophy in 1974. In the course of her studies she read the works of the neo-platonists on platonic--that is, same-sex--love, which, she stated, gained an "elite place" in her thinking.

It also took on importance in her life and identity as she became romantically involved with another woman for the first time and began the process of coming out as a lesbian. At the same time she was exploring what it meant to be a person of color.

Cliff did not enjoy support from her family when she acknowledged her sexual orientation. She was already estranged from her father, who had left her mother. Cliff's mother was not accepting of her lesbianism. "She thinks I've made the worst mistake I could ever have possibly made," said Cliff in 1981.

After earning her degree in London in 1974, Cliff returned to the United States and worked as an editor at W. W. Norton. She also began writing poetry, and in 1976 she became the life partner of poet Adrienne Rich, whose own explorations into the significance of her Jewish heritage undoubtedly influenced Cliff's investigations into her own complex racial and social background.

Her first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980), was a collection of poems reflecting her thoughts on racial prejudice and on the cultural pressures on light-skinned people like her to deny their heritage and pass for white. She also addressed the widespread in Jamaica that leads many people to hide their sexual orientation. By writing about these issues, Cliff said, she was "claiming--in a way, demanding--to be a whole person."

Cliff published more poems in The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (1985), but her focus was increasingly on writing fiction.

In her first novel, Abeng (1984), she introduced Clare Savage, a thirteen-year-old light-skinned Jamaican who, like Cliff herself, identifies as black in defiance of social expectations.

The Savage family represents a microcosm of Jamaican society: Clare's father denies any African ancestry and attempts to inculcate his racism in his daughter, while Clare's "red" (i.e., mixed race) mother typically bows to her husband's expectations that their light-skinned child should accept a privileged social position, eschewing the richness of the culture of her mother's family.

It is, however, to the feminine side that Clare is most drawn. She sees her Afro-Jamaican grandmother as a woman of knowledge, healing, magic, and connections with family tradition, and she longs for acceptance by her matrilineage.

Clare moves between two distinctly different social worlds--an elite urban school and her grandmother's farm, where she befriends a dark-skinned girl. Even her language changes: she speaks "proper English" among the privileged, and Jamaican patois with her friend in the country.

The young Clare is most struck by oppression based on race (or the perception of it) in post-colonial Jamaican culture, but she also becomes aware of the power of other privileged groups, as evidenced in institutionalized sexism and .

In Cliff's second novel, No Telephone to Heaven (1987), Clare goes to England, hoping that in the supposedly more benevolent "mother country" she will find a refuge from the racism of the colonies; however, a violent demonstration by white supremacists that disrupts the tranquility of her university seminar sends her back to Jamaica, resolved to work against social injustice and to claim her own identity as a person of color.

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