Michelle Cliff: The Historical Re-Visionary

For three decades, professor, activist, and author Michelle Cliff has explored the complexities of modern life in her prose and prose poetry. Her first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, was published by feminist publisher Persephone Press in 1980. Since then she’s published six novels including Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. Into the Interior is Cliff’s first novel in seventeen years.

Michelle Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica; she grew up in Jamaica and in the United States. Educated in New York City and at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, she completed a Ph.D. on the Italian Renaissance. Cliff has lectured at many universities and was the Allan K. Smith Professor of English Language and Literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She now lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Julie R. Enszer interviewed Michelle Cliff for Lambda Literary.

It’s been 17 years since your last novel, Free Enterprise, was published in 1993. Tell the readers of the Lambda Book Report what you have been doing in the intervening years.

In the past 17 years I have been teaching and lecturing and also translating poetry from the Italian and Spanish—primarily Garcia-Lorca and Pasolini and the Argentinian poet Alfonsina Storni.  These translations have been published in the American Poetry Review and the British PN Review.  I have also published a nonfiction collection, If I Could Write This in Fire, and a collected short fiction, Everything is Now (including previously published work as well as new work).  These have been published by the University of Minnesota Press, who is publishing Into the Interior as well.

Getting Into the Interior published took quite some doing.  It’s been out there for at least 10 years, and most rejections—from mainstream as well as small presses—have been unimaginative to say the least.  It has been judged “too challenging for today’s audiences,” and “too experimental,” etc.  In these times of dumbing down perhaps not surprising but depressing nonetheless.  But I have found a wonderful, imaginative, supportive home at the University of Minnesota Press.  I especially have to thank Richard Morrison for this.

I think of your work as straddling traditional genres of poetry, prose, and essays. How do you think about your writing in relationship to the traditional genre categories?

I really don’t think about my writing in relationship to traditional genres.  I have involved myself in finding my voice, unique to me, and that I see as a journey into my imagination without regard to the boundaries of genre.

Into the Interior is, among other things, very funny. There are all kinds of humor in it—moments that are laugh out loud funny, absurd moments, lines with sly wit, sentences that will make readers chuckle, and sentences that make you shake your head and click your lips laughter. What do you find funny? How do you think about humor functioning in your work?

Thank you for seeing the humor in Into the Interior!  When I was in high school in New York City I was able to haunt the theater.  In those days—the 60s—high school students who were interested were given free tickets to plays.  I remember two playwrights who affected me deeply, for their wit especially:  Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett.  I found their sense of absurdity comforting.

It seems there isn’t a place the book doesn’t reference—Jamaica, Haiti, England, Africa, India, New Zealand, New York, Boston. What landscapes are important to you?

The landscapes that are important to me are those that I have internalized. Those I carry within myself. Certainly my homeland of Jamaica, the photographic impressions of childhood, the witnessing of great natural beauty and great human tragedy.  I always wanted to know why these two things coexisted—naive perhaps but then I was a child.

The complexity of women’s sexuality in the novel is striking. The narrator has relationships with men and women and the novel explores how sexuality is deeply connected with racism, sexism, and colonialism. How do you think about sexuality in your writing? What objectives do you have for writing about women’s sexuality?

I don’t consciously think about sexuality in my writing.  I let it happen and follow my imaginative threads.

What are your hopes for Into the Interior?

I only hope that it will find an audience.

I know that Minnesota has advertising planned.  I was thrilled to read in the Guardian this morning Nadine Gordimer’s speech at the Hay Festival in Britain about the importance of the book.  I think readers will find their way back to the printed word, to what is called “literary fiction,” and that may include Into the Interior.

What have you read recently that you found important and meaningful?

Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, a fantastic marriage of romanticism and science.

I am especially inspired by his account of the life of Caroline Herschel, known for her discovery of comets in the 18th century.  I’ve been thinking of writing a play about her life.

What work do you find yourself returning to repeatedly that still has meaning or that the meaning deepens over time

Anything by Virginia Woolf.  But especially Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room.  There’s an allusion to the latter in Into the Interior.


Michelle Cliff Bibliography

The Land of Look Behind, Firebrand Press, 1985.

Abeng, Crossing Press, 1984; reissued by Plume, 1995.

No Telephone to Heaven, Dutton, 1987; reissued by Plume in 1996.

Bodies of Water, Dutton, 1990.

Free Enterprise, Dutton, 1993; reissued by City Lights in 2004.

If I Could Write This in Fire, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Everything Is Now, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Into the Interior, University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Cliff’s work has been widely anthologized including in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table – Women of Color Press, 1983) and Making Face, Making Soul – Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color edited by Gloria Anzaldua (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books, 1990).