No Telephone to Heaven

No Telephone to Heaven is a novel by Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff, published in 1996. Although it is a novel attending to the life of the main character Clare Savage, it is much more as well. By examining Clare's life, it searches back through her history a couple generations, as well as includes rather focused stories of others' lives throughout the book. It is mainly the story of Clare, who is born in Jamaica to a light-skinned father and a darker-skinned mother. However, it is not chronological, but framed in the movement of a guerrilla group taking action to liberate Jamaica. It follows Clare's family's emigration to the United States. Her dark-skinned mother and dark-skinned sister move back to Jamaica, while light-skinned Clare and her light-skinned father remain in the states.

Clare is torn between these different worlds as she searches for an identity. To add impact to this search for an identity, the stories of her mother and grandmother's lives are told. Clare also goes to London to college and, during a break, visits Jamaica, where she meets Harry/Harriet, a transsexual, who encourages her to return to Jamaica and join the resistance movement. Clare then realizes that her roots are not in England, as she previously thought, but in Jamaica, where her mother and grandmother had lived and died. She moves back, immerses herself in Jamaican culture and oral history, and begins teaching reading writing and history to Jamaican schoolchildren. She then joins a guerrilla resistant movement that attempts to sabotage the set of a film crew that is shooting a "documentary" about the Jamaican struggle for independence. However, she and her crew are sold out and destroyed by military helicopters and forces that were informed.

About the author

Michelle Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1946. She and her family moved to New York when she was young, and there she attended public schools. Then she received a BA in European History from Wagner College in 1969, and a Masters degree in philosophy, focusing on languages and comparative historical studies of the Italian Renaissance, from the Warburg Institute in 1974. Cliff has taught at a number of institutions, including the New School for Social Research; the Women Writers Center, Cazenovia College; the University of California, Santa Cruz; and Stanford University. Her writing reflects her interests in history, struggle, revolution, political action, and the ways in which identity is shaped by many influences, such as racism and sexism.


A Matter of Identity

Throughout No Telephone to Heaven, tensions are created elucidating both the struggles of colonial cultures to define their culture, and individuals within these cultures struggling for an identity or sense of belonging. The main character, Clare Savage, struggles with her identity throughout the book (note1). She is continually trying to discover her alliances; she fights to find whether her identity lies in her nationality, her social stratification, her race, her sex, her language, her individual history, or her family history. The truth is that it lies in all of these, and that is why the novel incorporates so many different internal and external struggles of Clare into the book. Cliff is showing the sundry assimilations colonized people have gone through.

The idea that identity lies particularly in nationality is common throughout postcolonial literature. It seems only right that an oppressed and assimilated culture would search for national roots. The Back to Africa movement was, in a way, a search for cultural roots before the oppression of African slaves. In No Telephone to Heaven, Clare looks to England as a motherland, searching for nationalist roots. When she doesn't find what she's looking for there, she looks to Jamaica, and discovers that her identity is intertwined in Jamaica's identity itself. The social stratification of Jamaica reflects the numerous influences that impacted its structuring. This is representative of the class structures of Jamaica, as well as Clare's identity, because her parents were from different classes of the island.

Not only were her parents of different classes, but they were of different complexions as well. Her father was much more light skinned than her mother, and this led to a number of problems. Her father enjoyed the new life he found in the U.S. by acting white and dismissing the black part of his ancestry. He assimilates into American society with hardly any problems, while Clare's mother cannot feel right in America. She leaves her husband and Clare, taking her darker-skinned daughter with her back to Jamaica. Later, Clare faces the decision of whether she will assimilate and dismiss the black part of her ancestry, and decides that she will not. When a classmate is partaking in some racist ramblings and Clare is offended, the girl says Clare "needn't take it personally," because she is "hardly the sort they were ranting on about."1 Clare doesn't want "exclusion."

Clare acknowledges her black roots as much as her white ones. With this decision, Clare becomes identified with "black Jamaica" rather than "white Jamaica." Furthermore, once she is identified with Jamaica, an interesting parallel is drawn between her and the island itself. Clare is motherless, and infertile in the book; in reality, Jamaica is similar. Jamaica does not have a mother; England is too different and parasitic. Jamaica, in turn, cannot act as a mother, because it is so torn within itself, and has so many different influences that create it. Jamaica is not yet nationalized. It doesn't have a concrete identity of its own to lend to its children (note2).

There are also interesting correlations between Clare Savage and Michelle Cliff that implicate Clare Savage as an autobiographical character. Many critics explore this idea; Cliff is light-skinned, Jamaican upper class, an expatriate since 1975, a lesbian, a feminist, and an academic. Many of these traits are visible in Clare Savage, and some are not. Sally O'Driscoll has explored how Cliff's "authorial self" is implicated in evaluations of her work. O'Driscoll notes more interesting factors in Cliff's torn affinities. O'Driscoll notes that Cliff's feminism is not necessarily trustworthy, because, according to many critics, feminism utilizes the Third World as fodder to attain status in elite Western Theoretical discourse.2 She also notes why Cliff's lesbianism might not be directly incorporated into Clare's character; Cliff herself admits that lesbianism in the Caribbean is "seen as Euro centric, eccentric, upper-class behavior…decadent and exploitative of Third World women." Cliff also admits that she doesn't return to Jamaica because it is a "repellently homophobic society," and, as a lesbian, she doesn't feel she has a place there.3 (note3)

Those Who Benefit from Society Helping Those Who Don't

One interesting aspect of No Telephone to Heaven is the fact that the main character, Clare Savage, is obviously not a member of the social class she comes to represent and fight for. Clare was raised as a member of the upper-middle class--the rich class--of Jamaica. She lived in the suburbs, and one of the main reasons her family left Jamaica was because suburban families were being murdered, and this class of people lacked safety in Jamaica. When Paul H. discovers his family brutally slaughtered, he recognizes it as "the thing that happened to other people."4 He knows his father would say that "things were truly getting out of hand," and that his mother would "wonder whether Miami was such a bad place."5 Clare belongs to a similar class as Paul H., and, therefore, her family doesn't feel safe there.

Ironically, Christopher, who murdered Paul's family, is a member of the class that Clare eventually comes to represent in her guerrilla activities--the class that her family originally left Jamaica in fear of. This represents the rifts in Jamaica's class society, thereby showing the reader the differences between the Jamaica tourists know, the Jamaica of the middle and upper class, and the poor Jamaica of the Dungle and Trench Town.

Particularly interesting, is the resemblance this bears to the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture as depicted by C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins. James refers to a book that L'Ouverture was reading prior to becoming a revolutionary leader; he kept going over a passage that read, "A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he?"6 This, initially, reminds us that L'Ouverture can read. Because he can read, this means he lives a privileged life-as far as life in slavery can be privileged. James examines the small privileged class of slaves. The distinction is between the house-servants who "gave themselves airs and despised the slaves in the fields." True, these upper servants were "trained like monkeys…but a few of these used their position to cultivate themselves, to gain a little education, to learn all they could."7 They could see the unfairness and brutality of the social system on certain classes of their people, but they also benefited from the unevenness of the system. Thus, having been brought up with all the advantages of the society, they can later lend their services to the cause of the oppressed people.

Toussaint L'Ouverture benefited from the education afforded him because he was a high-ranking slave. "The leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking, and the San Domingo revolution was no exception to this rule."8 L'Ouverture learned military tactics, "sophisticated" speaking and writing techniques, and leadership dynamics throughout his servitude that later were crucial to his successes in leading the slaves to independence. Similarly, Clare Savage benefited from a good Jamaican education, her and her father's light-skinned benefits in the U.S., and then from a college education in England. The difference is that Clare does not become a leader of the Jamaican troop she joins; she actually seems to have difficulty becoming a part of it because of her educational history.

The soldiers even seem reluctant to trust her, prodding her with questions: "To whom do you owe your alliance?" "What history do you bring to your students?" "Would you kill to eat?" However, the leader interrogating her admits that she "did a tripos in classics at Girton," evincing that she too has been educated in England.9 A trip to the "motherland," or England, in a way separated scholars form the classes they hoped to help, but also gave them a more concrete vision into the center of colonialism itself. They got a worldly view of how the colonial culture was within itself, as well as without. Thus, the guerrilla group is a diverse selection of people, differing in "the shades of their skin, places traveled to and from, events experienced, things understood, food taken into their bodies, acts of violence committed, books read, music heard, languages they recognized, ones they loved, living family," etc.10 This diversity is particularly interesting; they have all these differences, and their only similarity is their cause: bringing the power to the people.

This idea of people who benefit from a society tipped in their class' favor returning to help the downtrodden is reflected in the life of Michelle Cliff. She was a light-skinned, upper class Jamaican, not one of the poor struggling members of the society she focuses on in much of her work. She left Jamaica to go to college in England, and currently lies in the United States. She has benefited from her skin color and economic status, but she has, in a way, returned to the aid of Jamaica's downtrodden by writing about it. (note4)

Language and Duality

The dualities in the book resound through all the directions Clare's struggle to attain identity, as well as through the language used. Both Cliff and the characters switch between Jamaican Creole, and basically Standard English. This movement between languages is representative of dualities that W.E.B. DuBois talked about. Cliff explains this duality in her own words: "I alternate the King's English with patois, not only to show the class background of characters, but to show how Jamaicans operate within a split consciousness. It would be as dishonest to write the novel completely in patois as to write entirely in the King's English (note5)."11

Rewriting History

Michelle Cliff's interest in history can be seen through her education and the subject matter of her literary work. History, to her, is not only national, and not only personal, it is an amalgamation of all. Importantly, though, she often emphasizes the importance of discovering true history, not just accepting the history the colonizers thrust upon the colonized. In No Telephone to Heaven, for example, Clare Savage becomes a teacher of Jamaican history, focusing on the oral history and local history of the island, rather than the European depiction of that history. Clare talks of the history of Cudjoe, and Tom Cringle's silk cotton tree, the new history she speaks of is one she's not outside of. "It's a matter of recognition…memory…emotion."12 (note6)

No Telephone to Heaven as a "been to" a story

Many postcolonial stories follow the main character--the colonized subject--to Europe for their education. Typically, these characters return to their homeland with either more confusion or revolutionary determination. Obviously, in this case, Clare returns to Jamaica with revolutionary intentions. She joins the guerrilla group and attempts to sabotage the film crew, among other things, like donating her grandmother's land to the revolutionary cause. Here's a short list of some other books that examine the "been to" story line: Ambiguous Adventure, by Hamidou Kane; Our Sister Killjoy, by Ama Ata Aidoo; Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih; Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie.

No Telephone to Heaven as Part of the Intillectual Revolution

Being that No Telephone to Heaven is a revolutionary "been to" story, it links to other works engaged in the battle for intellectual revolution. Frantz Fanon is perhaps the most famous postcolonial thinker. His book The Wretched of the Earth examines the mental effects of colonialism on the colonized, and played an important part in the Algerian Revolution. A few other books that examine the intellectual struggle of colonized people are these: Petals of Blood, by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o; God's Bits of Wood, by Sembene Ousmane; The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah.


1. Clare Savage's Identity

Michelle Cliff is also the author of the prose poem, Claiming the Identity They Taught Me to Despise. According to Caren Kaplan, in this work she discusses "finding a social place to inhabit that will not deny any of the complicated parts of her identity and history."13 Cliff is separated from her home and family by physical distance, education, and history, and she has to come to see this history as one of divisions, violence, and suppression. An excerpt from Kaplan's essay on Claiming the Identity They Taught Me to Despise can be found in Caribbean Women Writers, a book by Harold Bloom. A chapter is dedicated to Cliff, and includes eleven critical extracts about her work touching on things such as identity, an adolescent's quest for adulthood, Cliff's vision of a history of bloodlines, England as a motherland, Clare Savage's separation from her mother, and Cliff's being a "Jamaican white." The book also focuses on many other Caribbean women writers, and I would recommend it as an introduction to the authors and their ideals rather than to get deeply into one text.

2. Jamaica's Identity

An essay by Wendy W. Walters called "Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven: Diasporic Displacement and the Feminization of the Landscape," can be found in the book Borders, Exiles, Diasporas, edited by Barkan and Shelton. In this essay, Walters states this: "Jamaica can no longer function for Clare as womb space, secure home, or nurturing mother. She sees that the histories of slavery and colonialism and the present realities of imperialist industrial capitalism are all connected and that they disrupt the narrative of Jamaica as idyllic Eden. Clare's naming herself in national terms now as Jamaican is a political and oppositional definition, aligning herself against a neocolonial elite linked to international capital.14 This article is particularly interesting to relate to the home/not home, and homeland/adopted land, struggle for identity. It relates Clare's struggle to the national struggle for identity, as well as illuminating several connections between Clare and the physical landscape.

3. Authorial Self

An article by Sally O'Driscoll entitled, "Michelle Cliff and the Authority of Identity," explores these similarities, and why Cliff's feminism and lesbianism is not as overtly expressed as her other personal struggles with identity. By examining Cliff's race, class, gender, and sexuality, O'Driscoll compares Cliff to her characters.

4. A Hand from the Wealthy

Andrew Carnegie's essay, "Wealth," in 1889 espouses a similar idea. His supposition is that it is good for those who benefit and have the good fortune to economically succeed in life to do it excessively well. He believes that if the wealthy live modestly, provide modestly for those that depend on him, and then administer the rest of their wealth in a way to best benefit the community, this would be better than the money could do on its own if left to the state, or personal heirs, or such. Since wealth inevitably ends up in the hands of the few, Carnegie believes, "individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself."15 I'm not going to debate this as philosophy--whether all the banks and libraries he funded have helped the community, whether it was worth it considering the way he made the money, or whether or not his elitist attitude is right--I just wanted to call attention to the interesting correlation. After all, there is a definite difference; Carnegie is thinking of charity and the social responsibility of the rich, while revolutionary novels usually want to do away with class differences altogether.

5. Language as Duality

This is taken from a chapter of Nada Elia's Trances, Dances, and Vociferations: Agency and Resistance in Africana Women's Narratives. One chapter, titled "The Memories of Old Women: Alternative History in Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven and Free Enterprise," deals with Clare Savage as a crossroads character, as well as exploring Jamaicans as "a fragmented people," and Michelle Cliff's utilization of history.

6. Claiming History

Again, Nada Elia's book mentioned in note 5 explores this idea quite intriguingly. Also, a sort of introduction to the idea is explored on the Literary Style vs Historical Accuracy theme page of this website.


Cliff and the Book

***A great Michelle Cliff website at the Emory postcolonial studies website. It includes a biography and discussions about all her books-it's like this page, but with different information.

***This is another Michelle Cliff website. It is also very good. It includes similar, but, again, different information. It is also the link on the picture of her without sunglasses.

**A No Telephone To Heaven page. A brief Michelle Cliff biography, essays about the book, links about the book and author. It's under construction, but promising to be great.

Caribbean Information

**All sorts of information about Jamaica and Jamaicans.

***A Caribbean hall of fame. A who's who of Caribbean writers and artists. It categorizes them by profession, name, and Island they are from.

**Top 5 Jamaica has lots of information and links to just about everything Jamaican. It is not terribly scholarly, but it is very inclusive: culture, History, Reggae, Manufacturing, Food culture, etc.

**The official website of the National Democratic Movement of Jamaica has postings and articles that have to do with unifying Jamaica and structuring it as an independent nation. The effects of colonialism are still present in Jamaica, and the information here is quite relevant to the struggle common to de-colonized countries.

***NUS has a great postcolonial site, and this is the Caribbean section of it. Here you can get history of places, information about authors, Caribbean literature chronology, etc.

**The Journal of Caribbean Literature website has an essay that provides a good overview of Caribbean literature.

**Feminist Studies Inc. has an essay about contemporary Caribbean women's writing.

** has a page that reviews several works from the Caribbean written in English.

** has a multitude of links and essays about Caribbean authors. It is a good site for finding an overview of the types of research and arguments there are on a subject-and this is true not only for Caribbean literature, but just about anything. You'll have to do a search for aribbean authors or something, but it will give you lots of links in return.



Some Possible Begining Discussion Questions

1. A connection is drawn between Christopher, who murders Paul's family, and Jesus Christ in the book. What is their connection? How are they different? Also, how is Christopher like and different from Clare?

2. Near the end of the book, Clare is asked repeatedly, "To whom do you owe your allegiance?" Well, to whom do you owe your allegiance? Presently, in the United States, social divisions are much more subtle and unstated than in the Jamaica presented in the book. How has your class affected your upbringing? Your view of the world? What kind of things do you believe in?

3. What does the American and British film crew at the end of the book represent? They are making a documentary. What does that imply? What other ideas come to your mind because of this?

Also, the website Chapter 12 Michelle Cliff gives information about Michelle Cliff and links to other sites, as well as has a comprehension quiz and essay questions.

*The Nebraska Arts Council has a page about art in Jamaica. It's mostly for art teachers, and also has a brief history of Jamaica (that is longer than most the other histories of Jamaica on the web).

And, always be sure to check out Vicki's teaching page.


1. Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996, 139.

2. O'Driscoll, Sally. "Michelle Cliff and the Authority of Identity." Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 28 (Spring 1995): 56-70, 66.

3. Ibid., 67.

4. Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996, 24.

5. Ibid., 23.

6. James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 25.

7. Ibid., 19.

8. Ibid., 19.

9. Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996, 189-193.

10. Ibid., 4.

11. Elia, Nada. Trances, Dances, and Vociferations: Agency and Resistance in Africana Women's Narratives. New York: Garland Publishing, 2001, 49.

12. Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996, 194.

13. Bloom, Harold, ed. Caribbean Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997, 31.

14. Barkan, Elazar, ed. Borders, Exiles, Diasporas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, 230.

15. Levy, Michael B. ed. Political Thought in America: An Anthology. Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 1992, 336 II.

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