Michelle Cliff
Born2 November 1946 Edit this on Wikidata
Kingston, Jamaica
Died12 June 2016 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 69)
Alma mater
WorksAbeng (1985); No Telephone to Heaven (1987); Free Enterprise (2004)

Michelle Carla Cliff (2 November 1946 – 12 June 2016) was a Jamaican-American author whose notable works included Abeng (1985), No Telephone to Heaven (1987), and Free Enterprise (2004).

In addition to novels, Cliff also wrote short stories, prose poems and works of literary criticism. Her works explore the various complex identity problems that stem from the experience of post-colonialism, as well as the difficulty of establishing an authentic individual identity in the face of race and gender constructs. A historical revisionist, many of Cliff's works seek to advance an alternative view of history against established mainstream narratives. She often referenced her writing as an act of defiance—a way to reclaim a voice and build a narrative in order to speak out against the unspeakable by tackling issues of sex and race.[1]

Identifying as biracial and bisexual, Cliff, who had both Jamaican and American citizenship, used her voice to create a body of work filled with prose poetry, novels, and short stories. Her writings were enriched by the power, privilege and pain of her multi-locatedness to creatively reimagine Caribbean identity.[1]


Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1946 and moved with her family to New York City three years later.[2] Her father was Carl Cliff and her mother was Lilla Brennan. Cliff has described her family as "Jamaica white", Jamaicans of mostly European ancestry, but later began to identify as a light-skinned Black woman. Responding to a description of her in the West Indian anthology "Her True True Name" as being light-skinned enough to be functionally white, Cliff rejected the notion that a person has "a white outlook just because you look white."[3] She moved back to Jamaica in 1956 and attended St Andrew High School for Girls, where she kept a diary and began writing, before returning to New York City in 1960.[4] She was educated at Wagner College (New York) where she graduated with a B.A. in European History and the Warburg Institute at the University of London where she did post graduate work in Renaissance studies, focusing specifically on the Italian Renaissance.[1] She has held academic positions at several colleges including Trinity College and Emory University.

From 1999, Cliff lived in Santa Cruz, California,[5] with her partner, the American poet Adrienne Rich. The two had been partners since 1976; Rich died in 2012.[6]

Cliff died of liver failure on 12 June 2016.[7][4]

Career and works

Her first published work came in the form of the book Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, which covered the many ways Cliff herself experienced racism and prejudice.

Having found fellowship and community with African American and Latina feminists, Cliff's work thrived and contributed to enabling other voices to be heard. Cliff was a contributor to the 1983 Black feminist anthology Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology.

In 1984, Cliff published Abeng, a semi autobiographical novel that explores topics of female sexual subjectivity and Jamaican identity. Next came The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (1985), which uses the Jamaican folk world, its landscape and culture to examine identity.

Cliff's second novel, No Telephone to Heaven, was published in 1987. At the heart of this novel, which continues the story of Clare Savage from her first novel, Abeng, she explores the need to reclaim a suppressed African past.

Her works were also anthologized in a collection edited by Barbara Smith and Gloria Anzaldúa for Making Face, Making Soul: Creative and Critical Writing by Feminists of Color (1990).

From 1990 on, Cliff's work is seen as having taken a more global focus, especially with her first collection of short stories, Bodies of Water. In 1993 she published her third novel, Free Enterprise, and in 1998 she published another collection of short stories, The Store of a Million Items. Both works continue her pursuit of readdressing historical injustices.

She continued to work throughout the 2000s, releasing several collections of essays and short stories including If I Could Write This Fire (2008) and Everything Is Now: New and Collected Short Stories (2009). Her final novel, Into The Interior, was published in 2010.

By 2015, Cliff took part in many literary projects, including translating into English the works of several writers, poets and creatives such as Argentinean poet Alfonsina Storni; Spanish poet and dramatist, Federico García Lorca and Italian poet, film director and philosopher Pier Paolo Pasolini.


Prose poetry




In 1981, Cliff became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press.[8]

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American biography. Knight, Franklin W.,, Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. New York. 2016. ISBN 978-0-19-993579-6. OCLC 927363773.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ Agatucci, Cora (1999). "Michelle Cliff (1946- )". In Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed.). Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 95. ISBN 0-313-30501-3. Retrieved 30 May 2010.
  3. ^ "Michelle Cliff, Rejecting Speechlessness, Part 2". Making Queer History. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  4. ^ a b Grimes, William (18 June 2016). "Michelle Cliff, Who Wrote of Colonialism and Racism, Dies at 69", The New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  5. ^ Diedrich, Lisa. "Michelle Cliff". Postcolonial Studies @ Emory University.
  6. ^ "Adrienne Rich, 1929-", a time line, credited as "Page by Chelsea Hoffman, Fall 1999", at the Drew University Women's Studies Program website.
  7. ^ Opal Palmer Adisa (17 June 2016), Tribute to Jamaican-American author, Michelle Cliff (11/2/1946-6/12/2016.
  8. ^ "Associates | The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press". www.wifp.org. Retrieved 21 June 2017.