Memoir is a fickle beast—sometimes it takes the form of nonfiction, sometimes it dabbles so much in fiction that it becomes a novel with keen inspiration from the author’s life. First published in 1984, Abeng is the work of Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff. Cliff is an under-appreciated author in many respects, her fame never quite reaching the heights of her partner Adrienne Rich. Abeng is not a straight memoir despite the fact that Cliff borrows heavily from her own life, childhood, and lineage. The story tracks Clare Savage, who is growing up in Jamaica torn between the black and white parts of her lineage. She is not only coming of age in a haze of racial confusion, identifying with the different parts of herself at different times, but she is potentially dealing with her emerging lesbianism. The idea of the lesbian emergence is definitely a topic for debate—there is nothing confirmed or apparent, but the tension of feeling different simmers on the surface of this novel like a soup on the stove.
The child of colonized natives and colonial family, Clare “code switches” depending on where she is—practically passing during school rituals or when around “town folk” and going native when around her friend Zoe. As a Jamaican bildungsroman, Cliff artfully weaves in several plot points: class, race, gender, sexuality and colonialism.
Clare’s race comes and goes as an issue, asserting itself to her at inconvenient times—for example, when her friend accuses her of being white when Clare self-identifies as black. These epiphanies never bring her comfort, only remind her of confusion and her in-betweenness. Clare is twelve and her dawning adolescence comes with its own sense of being between—between childhood and adulthood—and this betweenness carries over to almost all areas of Clare’s life.
Clare is middle-class and caught between Zoe, her lower class friend, and her wealthy patroness—appreciating the aspects of both lifestyles and slowly realizing that both cannot be had at the same time. When Clare is with Zoe she has a sense of freedom, but it’s contaminated with the knowledge that the lower classes, the formerly colonized, are not actually free. Whether we are seeing the moments of flashback, colonization, and control, or whether we are seeing merely their remains in Clare’s present time, there is no doubt that Cliff is insinuating that there is a cage around Jamaica and only certain people hold the key. The novel’s title Abeng is a reference to the Maroon guerrillas that fought against the British—the “abeng” is the action of using a conch shell as a trumpet, a war-cry. This is Clare’s war-cry and like its predecessor, it’s raw and powerful… and oddly beautiful.
One of the most talked about scenes of the novel is the pig-hunting scene. This scene beautifully demonstrates both the gendered and sexuality developmental storylines because Clare decides that she wants to hunt a famed wild pig, takes her grandmother’s gun to shoot it, and winds up killing a prized bull instead. Clare’s command of her life—taking the gun, leading the hunt—gets undermined by circumstance—she never gets to kill the pig. The death of the prize bull represents something else: a disconnect with family that Clare struggles with; the interior blood feud raging between the colonized and colonizing ancestors that seemingly wages on eternally within her. There is no way to separate the colonial aspect of the novel from any of the other parts—as Jamaica has been irreversibly changed by the British, so are its people. Clare is a walking embodiment of the change—she simply would not exist if not for the presence of colonials. As this is semi-autobiographical, we also understand that Clare will come to leave Jamaica, something we gather is a privilege of the oppressors—the white man’s privilege. Zoe seems to understand that she is stuck, this is a world that is bound to be hers forever, but Clare never seems to have the same idea. This world already was hers, she has trespassed over all its boundaries and crossed its borders and she is only twelve. We understand that the island is too small for a spirit like hers.
Abeng is a prequel to No Telephone To Heaven which was published earlier and received very well. No Telephone tracks Clare’s later teenager years and adulthood as she leaves Jamaica for America, travels from Miami through the South to New York, and eventually leaves for England and wanders through Europe. The novels concludes with her returning to Jamaica, disenchanted with the world and longing for change—this leads her to a revolutionary group in Jamaica.
Cliff has a grasp on the residue left over from company that persists no matter how hard you clean—the stain of colonialism that lingers no matter what you try to do to return to a pre-colonial state. Something gets lost—ruined—because it was shared. Jamaica can never go back to being “just Jamaica” anymore; no colonized place can. The idea of history staining the present and coloring the future seems to serendipitously bleed into all the categories that Cliff writes about: race, feminism, lesbianism. There is such history that informs all of those categories, history that—for better or worse—continues to haunt the present and future of them. This is something we experience in practice but find difficult to locate so expertly articulated and Cliff never dwindles in her excellence. Abeng is less well known than No Telephone but certainly deserves all the acclaim it can manage.
Michelle Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1946 and moved to New York as a child, jointly educated in the US and England. She has five novels, The Store of a Million Items, Free Enterprise, Bodies of Water, Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. She has also contributed to anthologies, notably Home Girls. She lived in California with her partner, Adrienne Rich, until Rich’s death in 2012.