No Telephone to Heaven
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No Telephone to Heaven, the sequel to Abeng, is the second novel published by Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff. The novel continues the story of Clare Savage, Cliff’s semi-autobiographical character from Abeng, through a set of flashbacks that recount Clare’s adolescence and young adulthood as she moves from Jamaica to the United States, then to England and finally back to Jamaica. First published in 1987, the book has received much attention for its articulation of the paradoxes of history and identity after and counter to colonization.
The novel begins with a small group of guerilla soldiers, a much older Clare Savage among them, traveling through Jamaica’s remote cockpit country. The soldiers have set up on piece of land once owned by Clare’s grandmother Miss Mattie, where they train and grow food as well as ganja.
The second chapter tells the story of Paul H. who is initially at a party with Harry/Harriet—a transgender half-brother/half-sister to one of Paul’s friends. Paul returns home after a late night to find a horrific scene: his family and all of their servants have been murdered with a machete. He stumbles upon Christopher, another servant employed by Paul’s parents, and enlists his help in dealing with the bodies and the burials. But we learn in flashback that Christopher, an orphan whose family including his grandfather has worked for Paul’s parents for a long time, committed the murders when he went to ask a favor from the Paul’s father—to help Christopher find where his grandmother is buried so that he can help her spirit rest—that was denied. In fact, Christopher has been waiting for Paul and kills him before Paul figures out what has happened.
The story then shifts time periods to 1960 when Boy Savage, Clare’s father, is immigrating with his family to the United States. Kitty Savage, Clare’s mother, is not happy about moving away from all she has ever known but she resolves herself to a quiet depression upon departure from Jamaica and arrival in Miami. Boy purchases a used car and the family travels north towards New York City. While traveling through Georgia Boy attempts to get a room in a segregated motel, the innkeeper suspects that he is black but Boy is able to convince the innkeeper that he is white by telling him that his ancestors owned plantations. When the family arrives in New York they go to stay with Winston and Grace, relatives from Kitty’s mother’s side of the family. Boy eventually takes a job driving a laundry truck and Kitty goes to work in the office of his employer. Fed up with the constant racism she encounters, Kitty decides to slip messages into the linens before they are delivered—messages such as “Marcus Garvey was right” and “America is cruel. Consider kindness for a change” aimed at the white customers. Kitty then takes Clare’s younger sister Jennie and returns to Jamaica.
After her mother and sister leave, Clare becomes increasingly lonely since she has not yet started school and is not allowed to leave the house by herself. She stays home and watches movies and remembers the first American she met—a white teacher at her catholic school in Jamaica that taught about the American Civil War, took the girls to see the “documentary” Gone With the Wind, and extolled the benefits of racial hierarchies. When Clare begins school she is told that, despite her intelligence, she will be held back for one year because children from Third World countries develop differently from American children. Boy tries to convince the school that Clare is white, but the school does not believe him and nor do they have a category for “bi-racial” students—a student is either black or white. We learn that after five years Kitty is still living with Clare’s younger sister in Jamaica. Clare, who is now a sophomore in college, comes home one evening to find her father crying. He tells her that her mother has died and later that her sister Jennie will be coming to live with them. After Jennie moves in Clare borrows some money from her uncle Fredrick and leaves home for England.
Upon arriving in London Clare finds a room to rent and spends some time visiting various museums, browsing bookshops and generally getting to know England. She eventually becomes a legal resident of England and enrolls at the University of London to study art history. After some time at the university Clare decides to take her uncle up on his invitation to come back to Jamaica where she attends the same party as Paul H., before he was killed by Christopher, and meets Harry/Harriet. Clare and Harry/Harriet become good friends while Clare is in Kingston, Jamaica, spending time together first in a Spanish Galleon-themed bar and then on a beach discussing the history and current social conditions of Jamaica. The two keep in touch, via letters, after Clare returns to England. Upon her return, Clare witnesses a National Front march and is deeply disturbed by the aggression and racism on display on her college campus. She tries to explain why she is so disturbed to her friend Liz, but gets nowhere and ends up feeling isolated and alone.
In the next chapter Clare meets up with Bobby, a Vietnam War veteran who has a wound on his ankle that, despite Clare’s best efforts, will not heal. The two of them leave London together and travel around Europe. While traveling she receives a letter from Harry/Harriet telling her that her aunt and uncle in Kingston are moving to Miami and leaving her grandmother’s old place in the country to her alone. Clare continues to travel around Europe with Bobby, who is still struggling mentally and physically with the after-effects of the war until one day he disappears without warning.
Clare waits for Bobby but eventually decides it is time for her to return to Jamaica. Clare becomes increasingly ill upon her return and discovers that she has an infection in her womb that will most likely leave her sterile. After she recovers, Harry/Harriet suggests that the two of them travel to Clare’s grandmother’s farm. Once there, Clare finds the river where she used to bathe and with Harry/Harriet takes a bath there for the first time in twenty years.
In chapter nine we learn that Christopher was never arrested for his crime, and so has been left to wander the back alleys of Kingston’s ghettos. He becomes known throughout the city as the watchman of Kingston—a sort of mad prophet or mendicant, and becomes the subject of a reggae song. On the night of a terrible fire where many old women are burned alive, alluded to earlier in the book by a letter from Harry/Harriet, Christopher shows up at the scene shouting prophecies at the top of his lungs.
After visiting the countryside Clare learns of the difficult economic conditions in Jamaica. Then, Harry/Harriet takes her to a small tenement room in Kingston so that she can join a clandestine revolutionary group. She is interrogated as to her motives and convinces them that she is genuine in her desire to make revolution on behalf of the poor and oppressed in Jamaica. In her answers Clare connects the experiences of her life and travels to the oppressed condition of Jamaica—a former colony, part of the Third World. Finally, Clare recalls that in one of her final letters before her death her mother told her to help her people in whatever way that she could, this in the end becomes the ultimate justification for her desire to join the revolutionaries.
In the final chapter of the book a film crew has come to Jamaica to make a movie about the Maroons, and they have hired Christopher, “de Watchman”, to play a small role. Clare and the revolutionaries decide to attack the crew but when they begin their assault it is apparent that someone has sold them out, and tragedy ensues.
- Clare Savage: light-skinned protagonist, member of a revolutionary group
- Kitty Savage: Clare’s mother, slightly darker complexion, has a deep love for Jamaica
- Boy Savage: Clare’s father, has very light skin (can pass as white), proudly proclaims his British heritage
- Jennie Savage: Clare’s younger sister, has a complexion closer to her mother's
- Fredrick: Clare’s uncle, Kitty’s brother, helps Clare travel to London and support herself once at the university
- Harry/Harriet: transgender, Clare’s close friend, encourages her to come to Jamaica and helps her join the revolutionaries
- Christopher, aka “De Watchman”: servant, or “yardboy”, who kills his employers, legendary figure in Kingston folklore, hired by the film crew to play a small role in their movie
- Bobby: black Vietnam veteran, travels around Europe with Clare, has a wound on his ankle that will not heal
Cliff offers a complex rendering of identity in the novel. The character of Clare Savage is in some sense the embodiment of various conflicting identities—race and class in particular. From her father she has inherited a “white” upper-class, distinctly metropolitan identity, while on the other hand her mother and maternal grandmother represent almost the opposite—a rural working-class, Afro-creole identity. Clare is not so much the product of these familial histories as she is the representation of their collision inside one mind and body. She is all of them at once, not a mixture of the various constituent parts as she details during her interrogation by the leader of the revolutionaries (189-196). While Clare does ultimately choose to forge an identity counter to that of her father, by recognizing her African heritage, she does not attempt to exorcise the part of herself that is the result of her father’s family. Many other characters have conflicting or contradictory identities as well: Christopher and his loyalty to and hatred for his employers would be another good example. He is caught between the need to occupy a subservient identity to keep his job and the need to take care of his grandmother, to play the role of grandson—the two identities, which could be read as conflicting class identities, collide and create a disastrous outcome. Harry/Harriet is also another example of a character with multiple identities, again like Clare, Harry/Harriet does not attempt to become a woman or be fully a man. Instead he recognizes the existence of both genders within him and it is this dual existence that he expresses outwardly to the world with his appearance. It seems then that Cliff conceptualizes identity as an innately plural, as opposed to singular, phenomenon.
The history of British colonialism in Jamaica is an important part of the novel, it is sometimes brought to the foreground specifically by Cliff—as in Clare and Harry/Harriet’s discussions—but it is always in the background of the novel, forming in many ways the texture of the ground over which the characters travel. In the end of Abeng, Clare begins to reconsider her place in Jamaican society, the relation between her personal and familial history and the history of colonial class and racial class oppression in Jamaica, then the narrative of No Telephone to Heaven can be seen to carry that process through to a sort of conclusion. Whereas in Abeng, Clare is trying to figure out a way of knowing and understanding history in a way that is not exclusive or oppressive but, in No Telephone to Heaven Clare is trying to figure out a way to act on history—or the result of certain kind of colonial historical progression, which has been slavery, colonization, and subsequent Third World status for Jamaica, as Belinda Edmondson notes (185-186). This is perhaps articulated most powerfully in the revolutionaries doomed attack on the film crew who are making a movie about the Maroons (including Cudjoe and Nanny Granny, two important figures in Afro-creole folklore and Jamaican history). When the revolutionaries attack the crew, they are metaphorically attacking those who would seek to write their history for them and from the outside, the characteristics of the traditions of colonial history and colonial rule. In this final scene, the revolutionaries attack those that control them and their histories from a distant land (America and England) who are challenging their influence. The revolutionaries are trying to free themselves from one version of history, perhaps in order to create another version that meets their needs and the needs of the people of Africa
Clare travels often in the novel, first with her family she immigrates to the United States and then studies in London before returning to Jamaica. As Clare moves between countries she in some sense recreates the movements of colonialism. Just as goods and people moved from the Caribbean to the US and then on to England, Clare travels between the three countries Instead of staying in England and Europe, however, she eventually returns to Jamaica. But no matter where Clare is, when she is not in Jamaica she is never really at “home.” When she is in England she realizes that the version of London that she learned about in school is far from accurate and this only increases her sense of isolation—a fact highlighted by her friendship with Liz in England, who cannot understand why Clare is so angry about a National Front march (138-140). Clare’s movements, and the historical nature of her trajectory have distinct impact on her search for identity for it is only after she realizes that England is not the paradise that it seem when she was in school that she can return to Jamaica—only after the myth of England as the center of the world is shattered can she realize that Jamaica is in fact the center of her world.
While there are certainly other themes that can be explored, it might be useful to consider that Cliff does not seem to approach any of these themes as distinct but instead they are all presented as related—although at times in a contradictory manner (O’Driscoll 57). Even the three major themes discussed above are not as distinct as they may initially appear—after all Cliff goes to great lengths to highlight how history and identity are connected, and how migration is an historical phenomenon and what impact it has on identity. In a sense the various themes in the novel could be read as always related to colonialism and post-colonialism, for both colonization and decolonization have had far-reaching impacts on the history of each theme addressed in the novel. Cliff seems intent on negotiating the relationship between colonial and post-colonial Jamaica through an exploration of the various ways in which colonization and decolonization have affected the themes of identity or history for instance.
- Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1987.
- Edmondson, Belinda. “Race, Privilege, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff.” Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 180-191.
- O’Driscoll, Sally. “Michelle Cliff and the Authority of Identity.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 28.1 (1995): 56-70.