If I Could Write This in Fire, Michelle Cliff. University of Minnesota Press. 104pp, $21.95.
Michelle Cliff is an author about whom it is far easier to find academic criticism than criticism of the popular variety. A Jamaican-American, her short novels abound with the nuggets of colonialism and postmodern identity for which academics fervently prospect. For instance, her first two novels encompass, among other things, wars of imperialism, mixed-race families, and transsexualism. A later novel, Free Enterprise, is in part of work of revisionist history, as it recounts the oft-overlooked life of Mary Ellen Pleasant, best known as John Brown’s financier, but as Cliff explains, a notable early feminist and civil rights crusader.
Cliff is an author whose new book, a collection of personal essays, has inspired the following mouth-marbling back copy: “[the book] explores the complexities of identity as they meet with race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and the legacies of the Middle Passage and European imperialism.” In her own preface to this new book, Cliff warns “I wanted to tell exactly how things were . . . without muddying (or whitening) the issue with conventional beauty, avoiding becoming trapped in the seductive grace of language for its own sake.”
This is all to say that for those of us who take great pleasure in language, for those of us who think that how a thing is said is at least as important as the ideas within it, it is difficult to approach If I Could Write This in Fire without some trepidation. And yet, despite the heavy issues that Cliff explores and her own stated intent to avoid language’s seductions, If I Could Write This in Fire is a book of undeniable beauty. It is a collection of nonfiction in which almost every single word has been quite obviously cared for, in which the work’s considerable vitality can be measured in the bounce of the language and the tensile strength of metaphor.
The book begins with a poem, a starburst opening salvo that in many ways primes us for the six essays that follow. From the very opening lines, Cliff strikes in short, tense strokes, constantly mingling the traditional world of her native Jamaica and the mercantile world that has come to dominate it:
then the sweet liquidity of star apple
cut with sharp tamarind
washed down with coconut water
where restless baby-ghosts vent their furies
against trade winds
Will I eternally return to the Trade?
On the face of it Cliff is recalling “the terrain of my girlhood,” but with the slightest bit of prying, multiple meanings begin to jump out. Notice the “sweet liquidity” at the beginning of this litany; given tropical fruit’s role in the Caribbean’s exports, this sweet liquidity can refer not only to the fruits’ juices but also their value as goods; thus Cliff is prefiguring the imperialist concerns she later makes explicit with “trade winds.” Similarly, the “restless baby-ghosts vent their furies” performs double-duty: obviously they’re furious because war and poverty have murdered them, but perhaps their fury is also more personal in nature: folk remedies commonly refer to papayas as contraceptives and means of inducing abortion.
For the full seven pages the poem continues in this vein, at once naïve, pleasing, and penetrating, as it flies over the topics that Cliff will later delve into more explicitly. Certain words and phrases established here will play out as motifs in the ensuing 100 pages. Despite its energy, the poem has an unmistakably elegiac feel: phrases such as “All feels wild from this distance” and “There is no map / only the most ragged path back” connote that Cliff is surveying a life she has gotten enough distance from to analyze coherently. Though the distance frees her analytic mind, one senses that she’s aware of the estrangement such distance necessitates.
Though the essays lack the poem’s packed intensity, they do borrow from its logic; many of them strongly resemble collages, and in their heavy fragmentation meaning is established as a series of inter-referencing elements, not as a linear progression. This is most clearly felt in the piece “Cross-Country: A Documentary in Ten Jump-Cuts.” It begins with Cliff leaving the Tehachapi Loop, a 19th-century engineering marvel outside of Barstow, California, in which a stretch of track brings trains back to the exact point from which they started, only 80 feet higher so they can surmount a hill and continue on their journey. It is a fitting jumping-off point for an essay that rambles around the United States of America and then promptly ends where it began, albeit better for the journey.
The essay recounts anywhere from one to several trips Cliff took through the U.S., and on a second reading, what settles into focus aren’t so much the sinews of Cliff’s geographic journey as the constancy of the things she finds on it: thus the existential prison of Nowhere, America—”YOU ARE HERE A pin is stuck in a blank sheet of paper”—gives way to actual prisoners, “HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES” (a road sign in Oklahoma), and then actual prisons, “I cross the Hudson at Fishkill Correctional Facility.” Another concern here, one that looms large throughout all of If I Could Write This in Fire, is casual racism, especially as perpetuated by those with no intentional bent toward bigotry:
At the University of Virginia I am informed (by the doctoral student who is my escort) that Thomas Jefferson didn’t own slaves, news to me. “Villagers”—as they’re affectionately known—built the 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 were done. She tells me all this with a straight face. I ask her about Sally Hemings, the slave who bore Jefferson several children. I am told she did not exist, if she did, she was white. History as fiction.
I cannot resist. I ask her if she’s ever met a white person named Jefferson, or Washington for that matter.
Part of Cliff’s method, a part she herself explicitly discusses, is to pick up little literary figments from the world around her and collage them together. She is always on the watch, and she brings us many treasures. Under her watchful eye, a series of newspaper headlines in Great Plains Black Museum become a sort of poem/word cloud:
LYNCHING RIOTS RACE
RIOTING RACE LYNCHING ELUDED
RIOTING RACE RACE
RACE WAR HERO
The headlines, as Cliff has presented them here, allow the reader to choose any point on it as the center of attention; this encapsulates the feel of Cliff’s essays. Although they obviously must be read word by word, front to back, they don’t have the pearls-on-a-necklace feel of potent narrative. Rather, their cohesion is more like the unity of a piece of graphic art. As with a good painting, the more these essays are looked at, the more links between segments suggest themselves and lovely details become objects of fixation.
Our Googlized age fits Cliff well, as Internet searching makes it simple to find the source of most of her hints and references. Often this is pleasing in two related ways: 1) the things Cliff drives us toward are in and of themselves remarkable; and 2) the more one looks into the items Cliff presents in her essays, the richer their interaction becomes. Other times, Cliff’s juxtapositions are powerful without any prying whatsoever. In “Cross Country,” a woman in a diner in the Ozarks holds a baby and wears a red beret while “drinking black coffee, chainsmoking . . . talking a mile a minute. Talking now to the waitress who doesn’t pay her a lot of mind.” Later she becomes a woman in a Pittsburgh diner who “sits at a table across from me and removes from the stroller a life-size baby doll, which she feeds, changes, rocks, and sings to sleep.”
Although the writing in If I Could Write This in Fire is wound very tightly, it is never daunting or opaque. Quite the opposite: Cliff’s prose tends to such simplicity that incurious and unperceptive readers will wonder what all the fuss is about. Her two most frequent modes are pensive and playful. The former is typified in “Cross Country,” and the latter is best seen in the essay “In My Heart, a Darkness,” in which Cliff lists “Ten Simple Tests” for detecting latent racism among white people. (This list is subtitled “Early Detection May Save Your Ass”.) Here is number 6:
Image from 1985: Old man in Philadelphia on the 6 o’clock news, his 500-disc jazz collection melted by a percussion grenade employed to destroy MOVE. Does the assembled company know about MOVE? About John Africa? What do they think about it? Have they read the work of John Edgar Wideman? “Oh yes, Brothers and Keepers. The one about his brother in prison for murder.” Right.
Though the list is touched with comedy, it is comedy rooted in defensive irony, the very stuff one might imagine Cliff employing to distance herself from well-meaning people who didn’t pass her test. If the test itself seems a bit harsh as excerpted above, it seems less so in the context of the essay, where Cliff details the many ways that white peers (both academic and literary) subtly insult her, without appearing to notice. By the end of the essay, Cliff comes to feel less angry than lonely; she wishes for more interracial friendships but is cowered behind years of condescension. Perhaps you will find that Cliff is being too sensitive; perhaps you will say she’s demanding a bit too much. But in order to do that you will have had to try and see things from her perspective, and this, I would say, is what the essay’s really about.
As with “In My Heart, a Darkness,” the pieces in this book can be personal and honest to the point of abrasiveness. Often the prose shines through this intensity, but at times Cliff reduces herself with her curtness. The essay “Sites of Memory” includes a paragraph-long vignette about a German secretary who was brought to Spain as a child after World War II. Cliff’s dismissal of this woman (and her Chilean husband, who apparently holds a moderate view of Pinochet) comes off as summary judgment, lacking the empathy she would require from a white person coming to terms with a black secretary.
But this occasional overreach isn’t so much a fault with the book as a sign that Cliff is being bracingly honest with us. It’s a trait that serves her well. If I Could Write This in Fire is foremost a collection of the things Cliff has encountered and felt. She has portrayed them here with great skill and has assembled them in such a way as to give readers much to think about. Those willing to take the necessary time and explore along with her will be greatly rewarded.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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