Saturday, July 04, 2009

CRC 4: "Abeng" -- Michelle Cliff

This is my fourth entry for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

Abeng by Michelle Cliff, originally published in 1984.

This novel is, on the surface, a coming-of-age novel which focuses on a twelve-year-old Jamaican girl during the late 1950s. That framework, however, simply serves to provide the narrative thread for what is actually a detailed examination of the complex multiracial history and sociology of Jamaican society, a subject that Cliff herself repeatedly assets through the novel that few Jamaicans really understand. In the character of Clare Savage, Cliff juxtaposes a series of dichotomies that she believes have fragmented Jamaican society.

Clare, for instance, is a light-skinned daughter of a light father and a dark mother; although Jamaica was praised at the time as a society with little or no color prejudices, we are shown throughout that few Jamaicans really understand. Clare's father constantly emphasizes to her the importance of her white British heritage and downplays the role of Africans in their family's past (skimming over the fact, for instance, that Clare's great-great-grandfather burned over 100 of his slaves to death rather than free them when Britain imposed emancipation on Jamaica in 1834); her mother, although not stating her views to her daughter out of respect for her husband, clearly values the black African heritage far more than he does. (Cliff makes clear that neither fully understands the complex heritage of the family). Clare herself at times encounters differing views both from and towards those of differing skin colors and is puzzled by them. When an unfortunate series of events leads Clare to accidently kill her grandmother's prize bull, her father blames the inherited influence of the black forebears on her mother's side while her mother equally blames the effects of Clare's white ancestry through her father.

Other dichotomies as they arefound specifically in Jamaican culture that Cliff explores and that puzzle Clare throughout the novel include those of male/female roles (it is partially Clare's desire to have some of the independence and respect young males receive that leads her into the events that causes the bull's death), citydwellers/countrypeople differences, young/old differences, and a whole range of religious differences (with five different religious viewpoints being explored to some extent).

At the climax of the novel, none of these issues are really resolved for Clare (she is, still only twelve), but she clearly wants to go beyond her parents and acquaintances in terms of understanding. The sequel, No Telephone To Heaven (which I have yet to read), apparently carries Clare into early adulthood and perhaps provides her with answers of some sort.

As an exploration of the cultural and historical legacies of colonialism in Jamaica (and I would suspect throughout the entire Caribbean to a great extent), Abeng is a fascinating book that I found rewarding.


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