Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Life of the Landscape: Non-traditional Characters in Michelle Cliff’s "No Telephone to Heaven"

ENG 258 Essay 3
Dr. Rahman - WIU
April 25 2006

Life of the Landscape:
Non-traditional Characters in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven

In No Telephone to Heaven, Michelle Cliff challenges the European American literary tradition on multiple levels—not only by incorporating the Jamaican dialect into dialogue and alternating between English and Jamaican manners of speech, but also by constructing non-traditional (and often non-human) characters. While Cliff includes traditional characters, such as Clare, she also includes characters that are not traditional, creating a striking flow of communication between the two types of characters. There are three prominent types of non-traditional characters that Cliff constructs in the novel: elements of the Jamaican landscape (Ruinate), supernatural forces (encompassed in Sasabonsam), and the ancestors (Clare’s grandmother), but for the sake of time, I will examine Ruinate and Sasabonsam. As characters, these non-human yet living presences evoke in readers the idea that life is not a narrow concept, but instead a complex one that cannot be labeled or understood in a single way.

Just as life itself is multifaceted, so too is the experience of the citizens of Jamaica. More specifically, this connection can be seen in the interaction between each type of non-traditional character. The Jamaican landscape and Sasabonsam interact both directly and indirectly. These interactions emphasize and symbolize the importance of landscape, spirituality and family in achieving a sense of belonging, as well as in the human experience. It is in these interactions that Cliff comments on the complicated nature of the journey to find and create an identity while suffering from the oppressive power of colonization. In a broader sense, she comments on the obstacles that colonization creates for any mass of people.

Cliff introduces her readers to the concept of ruination at the beginning of the novel. It is, in fact, the first concept that she introduces, which serves to strengthen its role in the narrative, as well as to set up its role as an actual living presence in the story. Ruinate is not always directly labeled as such; sometimes its presence is evident in individual objects and descriptions of the Jamaican landscape. Cliff sets up a working definition of ruinate as a term “used to describe lands which were once cleared for agricultural purposes and have now lapsed back into…‘bush’ (1). Its presence is not only a background for the human characters, but also an entity with which they interact and identify in their daily lives. During the first scene, Cliff’s narrator describes the khaki uniforms worn by the group of people in the back of the truck as “practical matter…a matter of survival. They were dressed to blend with the country around them—this dripping brown and green terrain” (5). In this way, ruinate is personified in both the landscape and the clothing worn by those people who were on a journey of survival. Cliff’s description of the terrain is both an element of the setting, as well as a character itself, and this is evident in the intimate relationship that Cliff constructs between human characters and the ruinate that surrounds them. She describes the country as “dripping,” which implies that it possesses a life-like quality. The landscape, then, lives as a human character might live. The human characters dress to blend themselves into their environment, and this interaction is both present explicitly and implicitly. It is explicit in the sense that they are externally and physically becoming part of the landscape through their dress, and implicit in the sense that their dress implies that they identify with the landscape as though it is a living entity.

Cliff describes the landscape as frequently as she does the human characters—
details describing the landscape are interwoven into every scene and often, it is in her descriptions of the landscape that the life of Jamaica is most conspicuous. This is most evident in Cliff’s description of Clare’s grandmother’s farm, which had been “left by the family to the forest…to ruination” (8). The forest itself is a character, a character that beholds the life of Clare’s ancestors and the spirit of a pre-colonized Jamaica, as well as evidence of the devastation of colonization on its spirit. Cliff’s description of the landscape in this scene is the foundation for the stories that follow. The scene encompasses all three of the non-human yet living presences in the narrative, introducing readers to Clare’s grandmother, the landscape of ruination, and the mythological name, Sasabonsam, that is given to the spirit of the forest. The forest represents both death and life as factors involved in evolution. It also represents wilderness that cannot be suppressed, and therefore acts as a metaphor for the human spirit. Even if the landscape is burned and destroyed, it possesses a life-force that is powerful enough to return again and again. From an evolutionary perspective, the landscape is stronger than humans in that it possesses the power to be re-born almost immediately after it has been destroyed. The forest carries the spirit of the Jamaican people because it carries a spirit of survival against the destructiveness of domination and colonization.

The landscape is the voice of the people who have no voice—Clare’s ancestors no longer have a voice to protest, but the landscape and its ruination speak and protest for them. Cliff describes one dimension of the landscape and its role in the narrative, saying, “the grandmother and her husband, and their son who died before them…were wrapped by wild vines which tangled the mango trees shading their plots, linking them further to the wild trees, anchoring their duppies to the ground” (8). This description elicits an image of the forest as an all-consuming or devouring force and implies that in death the three have become part of the landscape. Although the ruination was caused by destructive forces (colonization, struggle, death), it also physically and symbolically protects the people who suffered. The forest takes in the bodies, and so the bodies become part of the landscape and the spirits of the bodies live on in the forest. The relationship between the landscape that became the forest and the people who once struggled to survive on the land is evidence of Cliff’s construction of elements of the landscape as characters in the novel. Through this image of the Clare’s ancestors’ bodies blending into the landscape, Cliff gives the forest a voice that is not human yet is very much a living presence in the narrative. Even though “the place had a different patter of sounds altogether,” it still has a voice and it speaks of what it once was, what it now has become, and what it might be—of peacefulness, ruination, and hope (9).

Like the landscape, the presence of Sasabonsam is particularly notable in the opening and final chapters, but through those explicit depictions is also implicitly conveyed throughout the narrative. Cliff introduces Sasabonsam, the “fire-eyed forest monster,” as a figure that is part of the landscape yet distinctive from the landscape itself because it represents a mythological and spiritual figure at the heart of the forest and its ruination (9). Sasabonsam is present in the character, Christopher, who through that monstrous urge that overtakes him causes destruction and then eventually leads him to assume the position of the Watchman. Christopher, as a human character, speaks throughout “Chapter II: No Telephone to Heaven,” while Sasabonsam speaks at the end of the chapter. Although Cliff does not identify a speaker, the voice in the final paragraphs of the chapter may be understood to be the voice of Sasabonsam. The voice says, “ NO TELEPHONE TO HEAVEN. No miracles. None of them knew miracles. They must turn the damn thing upside down. Fight fire with fire. Burn…Catch a fire…Do this or give up the ghost” (50). By including a voice throughout the story without identifying a speaker, Cliff challenges the traditional European American literary tradition. Her organization of ideas forces readers to consider not only what she is trying to do with Sasabonsam, but also with character construction as part of the narrative form. It makes sense that the speaker may be understood as Sasabonsam because of the themes of fire and burning that are evident throughout the narrative. The figure of Sasabonsam provides readers with an opportunity to connect the landscape with an ancestral and spiritual presence, all the while remaining within the context of a history of colonization.

If readers understand the passage as being spoken by the voice of Sasabonsam, they will also be able to accept Sasabonsam as a non-traditional, non-human yet living character that has a voice. The voice of the landscape and the voice of Sasabonsam are two of the strongest voices in the narrative, and they both carry the same message about the struggle for survival amidst oppressive conditions. The voice of Sasabonsam is expressed on its own, as well as through Christopher/Watchman. Cliff transforms Christopher into Sasabonsam when she describes Christopher’s state of mind just as he is about to brutally kill the family for whom he worked. “He asked his grandmother’s forgiveness…A force passed through him. He had no past. He had no future. He was phosphorus. Light-bearing…He was the carrier of fire” (47). This moment bears similarity to passages throughout the narrative that are about Sasabonsam, as well as to those passages that are spoken without an easily identifiable narrator. Cliff mentions each separately, but they are all connected by the theme of fire. The fire-carrying nature of Sasabonsam is both literal and metaphorical. Christopher carries a fire in his mind and body that he unleashes in the form of physical violence against his oppressors. The fire in his mind is also a literal fire that is created by the colonial people at the end of the novel, as well as a fire in the spirit of all of the people of Jamaica (ancestral and living) who have suffered and continue to suffer from the oppression caused by colonization.

Ruinate and Sasabonsam are concepts that are, in most instances, foreign to European American readers. Michelle Cliff introduces both concepts to her readers in order to critique colonization, exposing it as the source of destruction from which fire and ruinate result. By including each type of non-traditional character, Cliff challenges the domineering nature of the European American literary tradition, creates a context and family with which other characters interact, and critiques the long-lasting consequences of colonization.

Works Cited

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York, NY: Penguin, 198

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