43 pages • 1 hour readMichelle Cliff
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Abeng (1984) is a fictionalized semi-autobiographical novel by Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff (1946-2016). Born in Kingston, Cliff spent most of her life in the US where she taught at several prestigious colleges and universities. Abeng, the first of Cliff’s three novels, is a subversive history of Jamaica, as well as a coming-of-age story of bi-racial girl Clare Savage. Through her efforts to understand her surroundings and her own place in the world, Clare gradually uncovers the terrible experiences, past and present, shaping the lives of those around her. Portraying life on the island in the 1950s and incorporating flashbacks, vignettes and historical facts, the book weaves a complex, alternative account of Jamaica’s violent past and gives voice to the historically marginalized and silenced groups inhabiting the island.
The book is often taken as a prequel to Cliff’s most acclaimed novel, No Telephone to Heaven (1987), which retells Clare’s life after her family leaves Jamaica. The title refers to a conch shell, used both to call slaves to the fields and to pass messages between the Maroons. The abeng’s contradictory uses encapsulate the purpose of the narrative to re-claim and re-frame Jamaican history. This guide refers to the 1995 Plume edition of the book.
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The novel opens in the summer of 1958 in Jamaica when the island is rife with mangoes. The central character, Clare Savage, is a 12-year-old bi-racial girl who needs to learn how to navigate both sides of her inheritance. Her father, Boy, is a descendent of an English Earl, while her mother, Kitty, is an emotionally distant woman from a mixed, or “red,” family. By tracing her maternal and paternal family histories, the book gradually reveals the terrible fate of the native Indians and the imported Black slaves under British colonial rule. The story fills in the spaces left purposefully blank in the official British narrative taught in Jamaican schools at the time by referencing the great African kingdoms, which were in no way inferior to the European ones, and the Maroons, the escaped slaves who fought against the white people and tried to preserve their customs and beliefs.
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A number of vignettes reveal brief glimpses into the lives of various people Clare is acquainted with. Despite the official emancipation of slaves in the 19th century, Black and colored people on the island continue to be treated as inferior by white and dark-skinned inhabitants, alike.
Clare, as the light-skinned daughter of a bi-racial mother and a white father, is stuck between these two groups: the former colonizers and their former slaves. She becomes aware of her precarious position and of the fraught relationship between various groups on the island through her friendship with a country girl, Zoe, and through school, where skin color determines the teachers’ behavior towards their pupils.
The year she turns 12, Clare reads The Diary of Anne Frank and questions both the Holocaust and the social structures shaping her experiences. During her time at her grandmother’s farm in the countryside, Clare is also exposed to many unspoken divisions and petty injustices, such as their neighbors’ rejection of Mad Hannah after her son’s death because of his perceived homosexuality, or the tacit acceptance of incest when committed by an important local man.
Clare’s father, Boy, is the descendent of an English aristocrat’s youngest son who came to Jamaica as a justice and became a plantation owner. The Englishman is best known for personally punishing and killing his runaway slaves, as well as for burning most of them alive on the eve of their emancipation. Boy is an immature spendthrift who is convinced that the Savage family is one of the Presbyterian Elect names and will achieve salvation in the afterlife no matter what. Kitty, Clare’s mother, by contrast, comes from a poor mixed-race family. She, like her own mother, is emotionally reserved and distant with her children, focused, instead, on helping poor strangers.
At the end of the summer, Clare’s desire for adventure leads her to accidentally kill her grandmother’s prized bull, resulting in her parents sending her away to live with an old white woman who hates Jamaica and is casually cruel to her servants and other Black people. In her new home, Clare learns how to be “ladylike:” to remain silent and accept narrow-mindedness so as to pass as a white woman and succeed in the wider world.
By Michelle Cliff