Abeng Summary

Michelle Cliff


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Abeng Summary

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Abeng is a novel by Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff, first published in 1984. Semi-autobiographical but heavily fictionalized, the book focuses on a mixed-race Jamaican girl named Clare Savage growing up on the island in the 1950s, and explores social and racial issues on the island under British occupation. Revealing facts about slavery and imperialism during the British rule, it also portrays a world where many of the black residents of the island were unaware of their own true history. Considered a piece of anti-colonialist, revisionist literature in its aims to challenge the mainstream narrative of Jamaican history, its title derives from a Ghanian word for animal horn or musical instrument. Abeng explores themes of racism, colonialism, Jamaican mythology, and is considered a coming-of-age story as well as social commentary. The character of Clare Savage returned in Cliff’s next novel, No Telephone to Heaven.

Abeng begins as twelve-year-old Clare Savage is sent to Jamaica to stay with her grandmother for the holidays in 1958. Clare is the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white father, and is currently undergoing an identity crisis due to her mixed heritage and the conflicting stories of her country’s history she’s learning from various adults in her life. At school, she’s taught that the British colonial era in the Caribbean was a boon to the locals, but her grandmother tells her a very different story, as do the locals she meets while staying in Jamaica. Her mother has never been very vocal on topics of race or colonialism, and her father is a conservative man who supports the British narrative and white interests in the United States. Clare is confused about where she fits in terms of Jamaica’s historical narrative of Jamaica and wonders who is telling her the truth. She begins asking more questions and decides to make her trip to Jamaica an opportunity to find out the truth and figure out her identity.

Clare develops an interest in groups that have been historically oppressed, seeking out their stories wherever she can. She listens to her grandmother’s tales of slavery on the islands, and on a whim decides to read Anne Frank’s famous diary. She’s fascinated and horrified by the tale of the young Holocaust victim, and becomes even more fascinated by the stories of people who have faced oppression or bondage due to their ethnic identity. She researches the internment of Japanese-Americans in prison camps during World War II, and that leads her to the history of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While her school lessons only taught about the bombs in terms of the US victory, she now learns about the brutal impact they had on Japanese civilians. She talks to her father and her teachers about the things she’s learned, but they respond by telling her that the victims were to blame for the atrocities they experienced. She rejects this reasoning, deepening her sympathy for the oppressed groups.

Clare develops a close friendship with a fellow classmate, Zoe. Zoe is a black girl from a poor family whose mother has a job in the market owned by Clare’s grandmother. Zoe has had a hard life, and it has given Zoe a much different, more cynical outlook on life. Clare is confused by Zoe’s skepticism and her bitterness towards white people and the wealthy, who are generally one and the same to Zoe. Because Zoe has experienced direct discrimination and hatred her whole life, and holds no goodwill towards her oppressors. Thus, in this relationship the dynamic is reversed, as it is Claire who is the naive and entitled party. It’s clear that despite her experiences as a biracial girl, Clare still doesn’t fully understand what it’s like to be an oppressed minority in a society designed to harm her.

Clare is determined to answer her questions about these conflicting ideas, and she continues to read. She reads up on homophobia and discrimination against the LGBTQ community through history. She realizes that these people have been singled out for being different and forced to pay the price for ignorant and single-minded views. Her defining moment is when she realizes why her mother never speaks out on topics of race. It’s because her mother, a schoolteacher who teaches black poetry, was shielded from the history of her own people. She never learned the inspiring stories of resistance against slavery that her grandmother now teaches Clare. Thus, her mother avoids talking to Clare about race because she only knows the narrative she was taught from a young age. Clare realizes that she has the answers she wants, and she isn’t a victim. She knows she comes from a history of strong people who resisted oppression and were unwilling to compromise.

Michelle Cliff was a Jamaican-American novelist, poet, and critic known for her post-colonial works looking at questions of race, gender, and identity in the aftermath of British colonialism. The author of six novels, two collections of short stories, and two poetry collections, she was an acclaimed academic who taught at Trinity College and Emory University.