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A Furious Voice, Forged In The 'Fire' Of Prejudice

Michelle Cliff is the author of <em>Abeng</em> and <em>No Telephone to Heaven</em>.
Michelle Cliff is the author of Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven.

While on a tour of the University of Virginia, Jamaican-American novelist and short-story writer Michelle Cliff is informed by a doctoral student that Thomas Jefferson never owned slaves. "'Villagers,' as they're affectionately known," says the student, "built [this] university, Monticello, every rotunda, column and finial the great man dreamed of. They liked him so much they just pitched in, after their own chores are done."

It's one of many unsettling moments in If I Could Write This in Fire, a collection of essays that is Cliff's first nonfiction book. Everywhere Cliff goes, she sees people treating history as if it were a story they could rewrite at will: women at cocktail parties uttering, "Pinochet was not so bad"; guests at a dinner party disbelieving that the blacks in Birth of a Nation were white actors in blackface.

Cliff, 61, has always been an outsider — a lesbian born on a homophobic Caribbean island, an immigrant in the U.K. (where she studied) and the U.S. (where she settled), a mixed-race intellectual trying to make sense of a black and white world.

Readers who enjoyed her masterful novels Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven — both thorny portrayals of growing up in colonial Jamaica — will be glad to see her opening this book in familiar territory. Cliff's essay about her childhood love Zoe is heartbreaking. Returning from London after 10 years away, she finds Zoe impoverished, her teeth knocked out by her husband and battling blackouts. Cliff gives Zoe the $1.50 she asks for and goes on her way.

In another piece, more disorientation awaits. While sitting with a visiting cousin in a London bar, Cliff watches as the waitstaff pointedly ignores them. After they retreat to an Italian restaurant owned by a same-sex couple, her cousin — unaware of Cliff's sexual orientation — asks, in a Jamaican patois, "Why you want to bring us to a battyman den, lady?" Cliff may have been able to escape her unwelcoming home as a teen, but a new sense of home still eludes her.

"Revolutionaries are made, not born," she tells us at one point. These furious essays — tightly wound, stripped of lyrical excess, often discomfiting, but emotionally urgent and illuminating, too — bear that out. Cliff's journey so far may have been a rough one, but along the way it produced a radical, powerful, and essential artist.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessa Crispin