Michelle Cliff

No Telephone to Heaven

  • 43-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 11 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing
Access Full Summary

No Telephone to Heaven Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 43-page guide for “No Telephone to Heaven” by Michelle Cliff includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 11 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Colonization and Immigration and Race, Assimilation, and In-Between Identities.

Plot Summary

No Telephone to Heaven is the critically-acclaimed 1987 sequel to Michelle Cliff’s first novel, Abeng. This novel continues the semi-autobiographical story of Cliff’s Jamaican-American heroine, Clare Savage. Clare—just as Cliff—was born in Jamaica, moved to New York, and pursued university studies in London.

The novel opens with Clare traveling across the Jamaican countryside with a revolutionary resistance group. The group members have settled on farmland formerly owned by Clare’s grandmother. They use this land to grow food and drugs, selling the drugs to finance their movement and distributing surplus food among the local impoverished Jamaican villagers.

Chapter 2 focuses on the wealthy Paul H.’s party that both Clare and Harry/Harriet, a thoughtful genderqueer person whom Clare befriends later in the book, attend. Paul returns home from the party and finds that his family has been murdered with a machete. When Paul notices the yard boy, Christopher, the novel transitions into a flashback from Christopher’s perspective. Christopher killed Paul’s family members over a disagreement regarding a burial plot for his long-dead grandmother. When Paul makes this discovery, Christopher kills him with the same machete.

The third chapter transitions backward in time to 1960. This chapter follows the perspectives of Boy Savage and Kitty Savage as they migrate from Jamaica to New York with their two daughters, Clare and Jennie. As they travel through the southern United States in the Jim Crow era, they encounter signs of racial segregation and prejudice. When they stop to spend the night in Georgia motel, the light-skinned Boy decides to “pass” as white to secure a room.

In New York, Boy continues to “pass” while Kitty becomes frustrated by the racism she observes every day. She misses their life in Jamaica and feels disconnected from the African American women who work with her at Mr. B.’s laundry, where she serves as an assistant. She begins to slip anti-racist messages into white customers’ linens, like “Marcus Garvey was right” and “Consider kindness for a change.” Kitty’s boss learns about these messages but suspects two darker-skinned African Americans and fires them. Kitty, ashamed of her lighter-skinned privilege, quits and returns to Jamaica.  She takes Clare’s darker-skinned little sister, Jennie, with her. The lighter-skinned Clare and her father remain in New York.

Clare feels isolated in New York, spending long hours watching television. When it comes time for her to enroll in high school, the principal rejects Boy’s attempt to pass as white, claiming the school has no room “for in-betweens.” Five years later, Clare’s mother dies suddenly in Jamaica, and Jennie returns to New York, where she slips into drug addiction. In search of “the mother-country” and a sense of home, Clare moves to England and enrolls in the University of London to study art history.

Clare’s uncle pays for her to visit Jamaica while she’s attending university. In Jamaica, she goes to Paul H.’s party, where she meets Harry/Harriet. As Harry/Harriet (whose gender-identity pronouns shift throughout the novel) becomes close with Clare, he speaks with her about Jamaica’s troubled social history, expanding her political consciousness. After Clare returns to England, the two consistently exchange letters. Clare now feels alienated from her English colleagues, and the racist National Front march she witnesses near her campus cements her isolation.

Soon after, Clare meets a Vietnam veteran named Bobby and departs from university to travel Europe with him. Bobby suffers mental and physical trauma from his Vietnam War experiences. When Clare reveals that she is pregnant, Bobby advises her to have an abortion. He explains his wartime trauma and how he deserted the army. Bobby then leaves Clare without explanation. Unable to find him, Clare returns to Jamaica.

In Jamaica, Clare suffers from an infection in her uterus, which renders her sterile. After she receives treatment, Clare goes with Harriet (who now claims a solely feminine identity) to visit Clare’s grandmother’s house. In the countryside, Harriet shows Clare the economic hardships Jamaica endures and encourages Clare to join the revolutionary group—the same group she is traveling with in the first chapter. Although the group members initially question Clare’s motives, she assures them of her serious commitment to the cause. Clare remembers one of her mother’s final letters, wherein Kitty urged Clare to help her country in whatever way she could.

The book’s final scene focuses on a foreign film crew making a movie about the Jamaican Maroons, runaway slaves who joined indigenous tribes. The revolutionary group attempts to attack the crew but fails, as someone betrayed them to a counter-terrorism operation. From above, helicopters boasting “MADE IN USA” gun down Clare and the group.

No Telephone to Heaven has received praise from Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times for its nuanced exploration of issues related to class, gender, race, and colonial history. Critics have remarked upon Cliff’s lyrical prose, authentic use of Jamaican dialect, and her development of complex, empathetic characters.

This is just a preview. The entire section has 885 words. Click below to download the full study guide for No Telephone to Heaven.

Chapter 1