The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Michelle Cliff and Audre Lordes’ Mythopoetics in the Carribbean-American Diaspora

Jewel Pereyra


My research project examines European exploration and travel narratives on the Americas as documents of colonial conquest, violence against women, and heteronormative constructions of sexuality, while simultaneously providing counter-narratives and mythopoetics derived from Caribbean women’s literature. I am particularly interested in Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” for its reclaiming of erotic as a source of female power. In this regard, my research paper will examine the depiction of eroticism between Caribbean women in the literature and writer’ use of the senses (vision, touch, taste, auditory, smell) and mythic deities to reclaim the land and provide feminist mythopoetics to colonial and heteronormative narratives of the erotic.


My research project examines European exploration and travel narratives on the Americas as documents of colonial conquest, violence against women, and heteronormative constructions of sexuality, while simultaneously providing counter-narratives and mythopoetics derived from Caribbean women’s literature.  I am particularly interested in Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” for its reclaiming of erotic as a source of female power.  In this regard, my research paper will examine the depiction of eroticism between Caribbean women in the literature and writers’ use of the senses (vision, touch, taste, auditory, smell) and mythic deities to reclaim the land and provide feminist mythopoetics to colonial and heteronormative narratives of the erotic.

The first chapter discusses colonial and black nationalist constructions of women’s bodies that mythologize African and Amerindian as a nature or inhabited land in order to serve as allegories of empire and nation.  Using Mary Louise Pratt’s book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, I will review European travel narratives to demonstrate how women are constructed as a feminized land to be possessed through the “imperial eye” that seeks to name through a heterosexual white male gaze.  This section will focus on the “imperial eyes” in ethnographic writings and journals of early explorers such as Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus.  This critique will also include depictions of Shakespeare’s characters, Sycorax and Caliban, in his Renaissance play, The Tempest, and how Shakespeare appropriates Columbus and Vespucci’s idea of the “New World” as an uninhabited Paradise.  Lastly, I will analyze how Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest grants greater presence to black women, than does Shakespeare’s play, but only by representing them as part of the land and Nature.  As a result, I maintain that these black nationalist myths downplay black women’s agency.

Chapter two focuses on Michelle Cliff’s mythopoetics against the colonial and black nationalist representations of women.  In response, Cliff refigures the edenic garden as wild, which I argue allows for representations of powerful female figures to emerge in her novels Abeng (1983) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987). One such figure is Nanny who is a national war strategist and powerful Maroon leader.  However, although Cliff counters colonial reductions and hypersexualization of women’s bodies, she continues to conflate femininity with the land in her mythopoetics.  This is especially prominent in her representations of Nanny as the “Jamaican Sycorax.”[1]  In addition, Cliff’s mythopoetics respond to this silencing by colonialism and Black National myths with her ideas of “Ruination” of the land as a feminized and savage rebellion against colonial myths and hetereonormativity.

In chapter three, I examine the Caribbean-American diaspora and how “queerness,” lesbianism, and sexuality is problematized and complicated  Due to Jamaican nationalism and the country’s long history of homophobia, gay and lesbian Caribbean authors such as Michelle Cliff, Thomas Glave, Staceyann Chin, and Dionne Brand can only write and openly talk about their sexual identities in North America. I demonstrate how any Caribbean culture theorists construct sexuality as fluid and opaque in order to resist Western “queer” colonial naming and homogenization.  Moreover, I review how same-sex identities are portrayed through the figure of Mma Ali in Abeng Harry/Harriet in No Telephone to Heaven.  I assert that Cliff creates these characters as part of her new lesbian mythopoetics.  Mma Ali becomes the homoerotic African slave healer in her community.  She empowers women and her practices thwart patriarchal violence against women’s bodies and homonormative constructions of sexuality. Harry/Harriet on the other hand is a transgendered woman character who establishes a romantic lesbian relationship with Clare.  I argue that both characters are liminal figures who dismantle the binaries of male/femaleeterosexual/homosexual, and spiritual/sexual. Michelle Cliff’s attempts to produce a lesbian subjectivity in her work that becomes challenged and contested within the Caribbean-American queer diaspora.

Lastly, chapter four reviews Caribbean-American writer and poet Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which challenges genres of colonial narratives and ethnographies by serving as its own “Biomythography.”  I will consider her work as a lesbian feminist intervention into colonial travel narratives examined in chapter one by looking at Lorde’s travels and her uses of the erotic senses other than the visual.  I claim that this, along with her meetings with “Afrekete,” subvert the colonial white male gaze, and imagines futures for black diasporic lesbians  By drawing on her influential and powerful essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde erases the colonial and black nationalist gaze by cultivating an “inner knowledge” of women that is simultaneously spiritual, sensual and sexual.  Through her journey as Afrekete, she begins to take the pieces of herself and all her identities in order to gain wholeness, to become, and to imagine new futures for others to follow.


Chapter 1: The Race-Gendering of Colonial and Black Nationalist Myths


European traveler and voyager Christopher Columbus wrote the oldest myths of the Americas, and his journal writings and letters illustrate the “New World” as a Paradise. Regarded as one of the “early discoverers” of the New World, Christopher Columbus’s ethnographic diaries became legendary; they have significantly shaped our historical conceptions of the Americas and early encounters between Caribs and Europeans between 1492 and 1607.2 In his letter to Luis de Santángel, clerk to the Catholic Kings, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus frequently details the land as an earthly Paradise.  In his introduction to Wild Majesty, Peter Hulme writes that Columbus was “keenly interested in finding the lost Garden of Eden[2] and, in the opening pages of his diary, Columbus is particularly intrigued with the flora and fauna of the land.  He describes his first sight of Guanahaní as “very fertile to an excessive degree… there are many harbours on the coast of the sea, beyond comparison with others I know in Christendom, and many rivers, good and large, which is marvelous.”[3] Throughout his letter, Columbus repetitively describes the land as a “marvel”: it is a decadent, untampered land that is filled with riches and pleasures that are to be had.[4] This idea and fascination with the unknown and seeing becomes a sighting of an “othered” Paradise; along with Columbus’s Christian beliefs, the “New World” is described as an uninhabited prelapsarian island filled with a variety of natural resources, trees, plants, spices and metals that Columbus is awestruck and astonished by.  Columbus continues to detail the Paradise as,

….of a thousand shapes, and all accessible and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, seeming to touch the sky; and I am told that they never seem to lose their foliage… some of them were flowering, some bearing fruit, and some at another stage, according to their quality…The nightingale was singing…[5]

Along with Columbus’s fascination with the land’s rich resources and wealth, Columbus’s note of the “nightingale” signals what Mary Louise Pratt describes as the “imperial eye” and language of conquest.[6]  The imperial eye is the idea that one claims ownership over all one sees and believes in a God-given right to take possession of these lands. At the time this letter was written, Nightingales were not commonly populated in the Americas.  Rather, they were heavily populated and predominantly written about in Europe.  With this naming, Columbus begins to describe the island in European terms, thus imposing European terms, thus imposing European reality onto the Guanahaní’s distinct flora and fauna, language, culture, etc. Through Columbus’s limited ethnographic lens, Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “transculturation” occurs alongside his “imperial eye”; during “transculturation,” the dominant metropolis (Europe) imposes its influence, culture and superiority over the periphery and marginalized territory (Guanahaní).[7] Columbus’s language of conquest onto the plants and wildlife, his views of the island as the “Garden of Eden” and subsequent naming of the islands (La Spañola) are examples of discursive violences that begin to overrule the native Guanahaní people, which entually leads to the rationalization of European imperial conquest of the early Americas.

Amerigo Vespucci is another early explorer of the “New World” who writes with an “imperial” eye and who creates gendered myths of the “New World” in his ethnographic letters.  Published in 1502 or 1503 in Italy, Vespucci’s “The New World” and its origins are not certain.  Scholars posit that his letter is written to Lorenzo de Pier Francesco; however, the question of legitimacy and forgery is currently debatable. Moreover, Vespucci’s work is cited as one of the most sensationalized colonial and gendered myths of the Americas.  Reminiscent of adventure tales, his exaggerated work offers the darker side to Columbus’s visions of the “New World” as Paradise.  In his writings, Vespucci graphically sexualizes women’s bodies as “very lustful, [making] their husbands’ members swell to such thickness that they look ugly and mishappen.”[8] Jenny Sharpe terms this hypersexualization as “pornography of representation,” a sexualization of women meant to eroticize readers.[9] Vespucci fetishizes women’s bodies with his lurid and lascivious observations. In his descriptions, women are displayed and talked about only in terms of carnal knowledge, sexuality, and as human-eating cannibals:

They live according to nature, and might be called Epicureans rather than Stoics…they take captives and keep them, not to spare them, but to kill them for food: for they eat each other, the victors eat the vanquished, and together with all kinds of meat, human flesh is common fare among them…Their women, as I said, although they are naked and exceedingly lustful, still have rather shapely and clean bodies, and are not as revolting as one might think, because, being fleshy, their shameful parts are less visible, covered for the most part by the good quality of their bodily composition.  It seemed remarkable to us that none of them appeared to have sagging breasts, and also, those who had borne children could not be distinguished from the virgins by the shape or tautness of their wombs, and this was true too for other parts of their bodies, which decency passes me over.[10]


Through this explicit and graphic hypersexualization of these women, Vespucci’s sensationalized representations enact a carnal knowledge and discursive violence on these women.  Concerned with the “meat, human flesh…fare among them” and the women’s  “good quality of their bodily composition,” Vespucci conflates women’s tempting and youthful bodies with cannibalism and an overt sexuality. This hypersexuality as “Epicurean” and hedonistic attest to Christian mores of the uncivilized female body as a site of temptation for they are “exceedingly lustful.”  Vespucci pejoratively describes women’s bodies as “fleshy” and “shameful,” which attribute to their “otherness,” savagery, carnality, and proposed lack of civilization. As a result, the “othered” flesh of their bodies is compared to the human flesh-eating cannibals. They are both depicted as barbarous, sinful and wholly uncivilized.

Vespucci also focuses on the women’s attractive appearances and childbearing roles.  The young women do not have “sagging breasts” and their bodies are described as “taut.” By cultivating a pornographic, fetishing image of young native women, Vespucci homogenizes all woman as youthful, hypersexual, and tempting virgins, narrative that excludes older native womenWithin these infantilizing descriptors, the women are also hypersexualized: “when [the women] were able to copulate with Christians, they were driven by excessive lust to corrupt and prostitute all their modesty.”[11] Thus, with the Christians bearing the active “imperial eye” they are not responsible for the violence and sin because the women are seen solely as erotic and savage.  The idea of these women as “prostitutes,” another European word that has been named onto their bodies, shows that they are sinful, tempting and sexual exploiters that “corrupt” men in need of Christian values and mores.  Through this language of conquest and colonial naming, women’s bodies become a means of corrupting good Christian values. Given its corrupting nature, the female body requires male domination and control, a narrative that rationalizes both imperial conquest and heteronormativity.

With Vespucci’s sexual representations of the land related to the “uninhabited” native lands, he also imbues allegories of conquest that are also gendered.  His descriptions of the land are similar to Columbus’s depictions of the land as an “Earthly Paradise” and the Garden of Eden; the land is “very fertile and pleasant, abundant in hills and mountains, countless valleys and huge rivers, watered by healthful springs, filled with broad, dense, barely penetrable forests and all sorts of wild beasts.”[12] I argue that these descriptions are gendered and that the marveling, lustful qualities of the land overlap with his fascination with the women’s virgin, young and feminine bodies.  The land is described as rich in resources; it is tempting and seductive, contributing to the “pornography of representation” of the women’s bodies.  With the eroticization of the bodies, Vespucci also lusts over the land’s beauty and natural resources that would bring business and profit.  This forms a close connection to the discursive erotic depictions of native women and the land as both tempting and in need of civilizing and conquest.  Just as America is the “marvel” beckoning to be seized, the women are represented as “beckoning to be discovered” and taken over by colonial settlers.

William Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, written in 1610/1611, also reveals myths of women’s bodies seen through the colonial male eye.  By Caliban’s account, Sycorax was the first owner of the lands. Sycorax, impregnated by the devil, was banished from Algiers, in northern Africa. She and her son, Caliban, end up on an island inhabited by spirits, but Prospero eventually usurps the land.  Sycorax is a tyrant ruler whose “earthy and abhorred commands” and “unmitigable rage” eventually imprisons and enslaves Ariel.[13]  She is not native to the land, but she is the first ruler who oversees the spirits. Sycorax represents a powerful feminine figure in the play, whose “charms” are able to cast spells using the land’s natural elements: “toads, beetles, bats.”14 After she dies, Caliban strives to keep her image alive by retaining her as a magical and mythic extension of the island.

Caliban retains the image of his mother and the maternal by feminizing the land.  After Sycorax’s death, Caliban celebrates the fertile island as a Paradise that bears life.  When Prospero first meets Caliban, Caliban introduces to him the fecund “qualities of the island”: “fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place, and fertile.”[14]  These natural elements connote feminine descriptions.  For example, the “fresh springs” imagine a pool of vitality that is streaming with water, life and growth.  “Brine” involves swelling or being “impregnated with salt water,” which is alludes to maternity.  The description “barren” not only refers to empty landscapes, but in a maternal sense it is someone who is “childless.”[15] This maternal and feminized diction embodies feminine symbols of earth and water.  Caliban illustrates an untainted, perfect, whole paradise that resembles a Utopia, or idyllic safe haven. However, because Prospero has usurped the lands, he has tainted and spoiled the islands resources.

The courtly men, Antonio, Adrian, Gonzalo and Sebastian, also feminize the land and mirror Vespucci’s “pornography of representation.” In this scene the courtly royals are observing the islands landscapes.  Anthropomorphizing the land, Adrian describes the land as “subtle, tender, and delicate temperance” to which Antonio replies, “Temperance was a delicate wench.”[16] “Temperance” is footed-noted as a “woman’s name” who is also “voluptuous” and therefore “uninhabitable and almost inaccessible.”[17] Thus, in this reference, I argue that the men’s language sexualizes and feminizes the island.  The description of the land counters the settlers’ colonization and assimilation tactics and shows the hypocrisy of their rule with their Christian beliefs. Although they believe in the sanctity of the virgin body and land, they speak about it in a lascivious manner and the lusting over a woman’s virgin body is equated with the colonial ruling over the island.

In efforts to thwart this hypersexualization and language of conquest, the air spirit Ariel transforms into a harpy, “a mythical creature with the face and the breasts of a woman” and seeks vengeance on the men.[18] Ariel is a de-sexed androgynous spirit and Prospero’s servant. First, Prospero commands Ariel to transform into a “water-nymph o’ th’ sea” for his own vengeful purposes.[19]  Through this transformation, Ariel embodies a feminine voice against men “of sin” who threaten the Native and female bodies.[20] Mimicking Sycorax as a powerful feminine force, the androgynous Ariel scorns the men who “instrument the lower world” where “men doth not inhabit.”[21] Ariel reveals that men inhabit the virgin land and control the indigenous people for their own opportunistic purposes.  They are sinful and over-indulgent in their avarice, marking them as power-hungry lords.  Through his standpoint of a harpy and servant, Ariel uses a womanhood female power to counter European violence and usurpation over women’s bodies.
Black Nationalist Myths of the Female Body in Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest
In response to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Aimé Césaire, dispels colonial representations of Caliban’s body, and black men, as barbaric, animalistic and savage in his play A Tempest.  Césaire is a black French writer and prominent anti-colonial and Pan-African activist. He is also the founder of the Négritude movement, which was a community of black intelligentisia, writers, poets, and artists who fought against colonial racism in France. Aimé Césaire’s rewrites The Tempest through black nationalist and decolonializing perspectives by granting agency to Caliban and displacing negative racial stereotypes of black men. As a post-colonial discourse written in 1969, the stage is set within the Black Power and third-world movements. Caliban is regarded as Malcolm X who says: “Call me X. That would be best. Like a man whose name has been stolen.”[22] Caliban is appropriated as a black figure who is militant, resilient, and not afraid to stand up to Prospero: “You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so I could understand your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes, fish for food, plant vegetables, all because you’re too lazy to do it yourself.”[23] Ariel, on the other hand is depicted as a pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. figure: “I’ve often had this inspiring, uplifting dream that one day Prospero, you, me, we would all three set out, like brothers, to build a wonderful world.”[24] By changing Caliban and Ariel into prominent black civil rights activists, Césaire produces an authentic black male voice that is politically powerful.

In addition, Césaire implements Eshu as the trickster phallic figure in A Tempest in order to assert a dominant black male voice and power. Eshu is the black devil god and he resembles a Puck-like, humorous trickster figure in the play.  Eshu originates from Nigerian Yoruba culture and he can transform between the sexes.  The trickster Eshu is similar to Henry Louise Gate’s idea of a “signifyin’ monkey,” and he is often associated with symbols of “indeterminancy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, [and] chance.”[25]  Throughout the play, Eshu performs an anti-colonial signifying that is also displayed as a phallic symbol,

Eschu is not the man to carry a heavy load.
His head comes to a point. When he dances
he doesn’t move his shoulders…
Oh, Eshu is a merry elf!

Eshu is a merry elf,
and he can whip you with his dick,
he can whip you,
he can whip you…[26]

Through Césaire implementation of the phallic Eshu trickster figure, he fashions his own mythopoetic revisions of The Tempest.  In this scene, Eshu enacts an anti-colonial signifying against the master’s gaze. Eshu subverts the “happy slave” stereotype by ironically calling himself the “merry slave” who can “whip you with his dick.”[27] Through this humor and irony, Eshu proposes a threatening and defiant black power that is also overtly hypermasculine and sexual.  Thus, although black nationalists claim agency for black male characters, such as Caliban and the phallic Eshu, black female agency and voice are not present.  For example, similar to Vespucci’s renderings of the femininized land, Sycorax is also conflated with Nature and the land,
I respect the earth, because I know that

Sycorax is alive.

Sycorax. Mother.

Serpent, rain, lightning.

And I see thee everywhere!

In the eye of the stagnant pool which

stares back at me,

through the rushes,

in the gesture made by twisted root and

its awaiting thrust.

In the night, the all-seeing blinded


the nostril-less all-smelling night! [28]

These descriptions of Sycorax as part of the Earth evoke narratives of femininity and womanhood, yet there is no sign of female agency in the play. This is crucial in understanding how the Black Power and Negritude movements in the 1970s and 1980s were segregated by gender and inequalities.  In anti-racist protests, black women were often Left out, silenced, and seen as dependent on and inferior to their male counterparts. For instance, in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” she reveals paradoxical ways in which anti-racist movements still subjugated black women. Through black women’s intersectional experiences of racism and sexism, a “political intersectionality” shows how “feminist and antiracist politics have, paradoxically, often helped to marginalize the issue of violence against women of color.”[29]  In order to retain the black nationalist model of respectability, a black male subjectivity was often voiced.  By examining Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest, we find that although black nationalists claimed agency for a black male character like Caliban, signs of black female agency are absent.



Chapter 2: Michelle Cliff’s Black Lesbian Feminist Rewriting of Colonial and Black National Myths


This chapter examines Michelle Cliff’s novel Abeng, as a postcolonial response to colonial myths of origins and black nationalist myth-making of claiming women’s bodies as part of the land.  In her novels, Michelle Cliff creates powerful Jamaican female characters, Such as Nanny, in order to introduce black female agency to pre-existing mythologies.  Although Cliff reconstructs counter myths that grant agency to these female figures, she still equates them with a feminized land because she is unable to escape black nationalist constructions of the land as female.  In this chapter, I argue that due to her lesbian identity, Cliff cannot claim a Blackness that is critical of black nationalism, especially in the tumultuous 1980s when her novels Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven were written and published. Thus, Nanny becomes powerful force in Jamaican, yet Cliff’s ideas still render her as only part of the land.

Michelle Cliff
and Her Mythopoetics
Michelle Cliff is a Jamaican-American writer who was born in Kingston, Jamaica.  She is a mixed-raced creole woman who spent most of her life in Jamaica before studying abroad at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York and the University of London.  At the University of London, she studied Italian Renaissance Literature and her scholarship critiques Anglo-British colonial power over Jamaica and other minority cultures and identities.  Cliff’s work is highly influenced by Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston and many Third-wave feminist women of color that were emerging in the 1970s and 1980s.  In the United States, Cliff met famous poet and feminist Adrienne Rich, which turned into a loving relationship that ended in Rich’s passing in 2012.

Highly influenced by Toni Morrison’s idea of a “literary archaeology,” Michelle Cliff strives to fill in the literary silences of underrepresented minority writers.  In her writings, Cliff finds similarly sees herself at the periphery of the dominant colonial subjectivities (Western and Anglo, heterosexuality, male) due to her multi-ethnic, feminist and lesbian identities.  According to Meryl F. Schwartz, “[Cliff’s] career…” began as a process of trying to reclaim the self through memory, dreams, and history.”[30] Her collection of essays and poetry in The Land of the Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (1985) demonstrates her “Journey into Speech,” where she critically examines the “origins of oneself” into order to fully understand her complex identities within post-colonial Jamaica, which she describes as a “halfway place between Africa and England.”[31] As a former British colony whose population originated in Africa, Jamaica occupies a liminal space, much like Cliff’s mixed-racial identity where in her self-making she “received the message of anglocentrism, of white supremacy, and [she] internalized it.”[32]  In response to this internalized repression and silencing, part of her journey into speech focuses on examining these colonial origins and rewriting these dominant colonial myths that silence Caribbean voices,

One of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, passing into the anglocentrism of British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art.[33]

Jamaica’s education system has been highly Angelicanized. Jamaica did not completely retain independence from the Federation of the West Indies until 1962. As a once colonized nation, Jamaica’s educational system was heavily influenced by Anglo-culture and poets such a Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Keats were taught in the schools. In response to this homogenization of the “Mother County” onto Jamaica’s educational system, many Caribbean poets such as Lorna Goodison and Louise Bennett have openly critiqued the Eurocentric literary canon, which negates authentic and subjective Caribbean experiences.[34]  Likewise, during the time Cliff was writing, she argues that Caribbean or African folklore or ethnic literature is not seen as something reputable, high-art, or considered universal within a canon of literature.  Thus, authentic Caribbean voices are devalued and/or silenced.

In order to re-imagine a Caribbean female national identity, Michelle Cliff formulates her own mythopoetics in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven to contest the “colonial eye” and Eurocentric markers of high art and literature.  She does so by (re)introducing Jamaican origins, myths, and histories into her work. Mythopoetics are defined as “the making of myth or myths; relating to or denoting a movement for men that uses activities such as storytelling and poetry reading as a means of self-understanding.”[35] Through her own journey of “self-understanding,” by using mythopoetics, Cliff corresponds with Maylei Blackwell’s concept of “Retrofitted Memories” from her book ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (2011).  Retrofitted memories are forms of “countermemories” that have been erased and silenced in many people of color histories.  In filling these gaps and silences, women writers can impede colonial erasure by forming new interpretations of story telling and oral histories that have been lost, forgotten, devalued or even rewritten. Thus, these forms of “[reimaginations of] a historical subjectivity…provide an analytic framework for understanding the production of new political subjectivities within narratives of the past.” [36]  Caribbean and Jamaican myths and stories are largely imprinted with stories, legends and tales that have been passed down through family ties, traditions and oral histories.  The term “Orature,” as coined by Pio Zirimu, is a way of revitalizing and valuing oral stories which may include “ritual texts, curative chants, epic poems, musical genres, folk tales…etc.”[37]  Mythopoetics becomes a resistant and political tool for displaced and marginalized communities to retain a literature and orature by recording and collective listening.  Through her mythopoetics, Cliff imbues a strong female voice by writing about powerful female figures, like Nanny, who defy female gender and sexual roles, and grant a new political subjectivity and possibility for Caribbean women.
The Legacy of Nanny in Michelle Cliff’s Abeng
Abeng tells the coming-of-age story of Clare Savage, a twelve-year-old mixed-raced creole girl living in rural Jamaica in the 1950s.  The novel is a post-colonial bildungsroman where sections of the book are fragmented and written out of chronological order.  The novel lacks a linear temporality and, within these gaps and fragments, Cliff imbues a hybrid of Jamaican folktales, proverbs, myths, and oral legends that are interspersed with a fictional telling of the Clara’s “Savage” family lineage. The disjointed structure of the novel parallels Clare’s broken and mismatched identity as she psychologically struggles and grapples with her complicated gender, racial and sexual identities amidst Jamaica’s post-colonial landscapes that are ridden with haunting histories and traumatic memories of plantation slavery and war.  Throughout the story, these landscapes seethe, displaying the aftermath effects of British colonialism, slavery and empire.  Cliff’s fragment structure provides counter memories that fill in these gaps, or silences, that have been erased due to colonialism and white supremacist discourses.

Nanny is the “Jamaican Sycorax,” a counterpart to Prospero, whose manifold powers are “literally examples of her Africanness and strength.”[38] In the beginning of the novel, Cliff describes Nanny as “the sorceress, the obeah-woman.”[39] In Jamaican folklore, Nanny is of “Asante origin” and she is the “Maroon military tactician and chieftainess, National Heroine of Jamaica.”[40]   The Maroons were runaway slaves during the British colonial uptake of Jamaica during the black transatlantic slave trades in the early 18th century. Cliff describes Nanny’s prominence as a national figure in Jamaica in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven.  In an attempt to contest England as the “mother country,” Cliff assigns Nanny as the “grandmother country.”[41] In Abeng, Nanny is the cunning and magical Maroon leader who strategizes war tactics and heals fallen soldiers with her supernatural powers,

She teaches her troops to be sure-footed and to guard the points of access.  They hunt with bow and arrow. Spears.  Warclubs. They fill the muskets stolen from plantations with pebbles, buttons, coins. She teaches them to become bulletproof. To catch a bullet in their left hand and fire it back at their attackers.  Only she can catch a bullet between her buttocks—that is a secret she keeps for herself. [42]

In the 1700s, the Maroons created a “Nanny Town” in Blue Mountains where Nanny and Maroon soldiers camped and hid against British soldiers: “Her Nanny Town, hidden in crevices of the Blue Mountains, was the headquarters of the Windward Maroons – who held out against the forces of the white men longer than rebel troops.”[43]  Throughout Abeng, a mythical re-telling of Nanny forms its own narrative within the gaps.

As a result, Nanny as a mythical figure resides in the liminal space of genders, occupying and destabilizing masculinity and femininity.  Jenny Sharpe articulates that “both the historical and legendary aspects of the stories reveal the existence of a heterogeneous female-gendered authority: Nanny is responsible for planning and implementing guerilla tactics and feeding her people; she is remembered as a symbolic fighter as well as a symbolic mother.”[44] Nanny disrupts heteronormative codes of masculinity and femininity; she has attributes of both. She becomes the powerful grandmother nation that simultaneously disrupts male/female binaries through relocation and self-reclamation,

…liberated from the feminine role, whether as everyone’s wet nurse or everyman’s ornament, the old woman may turn from imposed definitions of her place in this world, and re-locate herself.  She may claim masculinity as hers, may swear as she regards her century.  To be masculine in this context, in the context of the Caribbean, is not to be “mannish” but to have access to self-definition, and the freedom to move that men have as their birthright.[45]

In Abeng, Cliff paints Nanny as an old and wise figure who has enough agency to locate and move herself throughout the story and geographic boundaries.  In doing so, Nanny colors Cliff’s mythopoetics with enough strength and agency to break out of the gender roles that have been appropriated onto her.  In contrast to Vespucci’s infantilizing descriptions of the colonial women in his travel diaries, Nanny is an older, de-sexed, and spiritual soldier and healer.  She represents a female presence that is strong and not culpable to colonial violence, slavery and sexual violence.  In many ways, the powerful figure of Nanny counters the hypersexuality of the black Caribbean woman: she is a desexed warrior, grandmother, and spiritual leader in the community.

Contending Discourses: Ruination and the Land as Feminine
Although Cliff introduces Nanny as a powerful figure, the land as a feminine terrain is still prominent in her work. While writing Abeng, Cliff was heavily influenced by the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta.[46]  Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948.  During the onset of Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1960s, she, along with her sister, were sent to the United States by their parents through Operation Pedro Pan with the assurances that they would be protected by Catholic organizations. She eventually settled in Iowa where she was educated in painting and performance art.  Mendieta’s famous collection, the “Silueta Series” (1973-1980) focuses on the intersections between feminism, sexuality, life, death and their spiritual connections to the Earth where she “[evokes] primordial images of womanly power, the supernatural heft of indigenous Latin American religious rituals and the pain of exile”.[47]  Mendieta uses the “Earth as a site to address issues of displacement by recording the presence of her body—or the imprint left behind—within different natural environments.”[48] In these images, Mendieta fills in the silhouettes with flowers, stones, branches, mud, etc.  Her images are sexual and erotic, often portraying a naked body or silhouette. Her images are also very haunting: the indented silhouettes in the ground portray a vagina, some bloody, muddy and even filled with gunpowder.  These vaginal imprints become part of the earth and appear brutalized and worn out by violence (from rape, war, or exile) or even menstruation, sexuality, etc.  Her photos display a resistant landscape to phallocentric and colonial conquests that claim a feminine apparatus of the land.

Influenced by Ana Mendieta’s paintings and performance art, Cliff’s Abeng locates a Jamaican national identity with Jamaica’s fecund rural imagery.  In the beginning of her novel, she describes a plethora of wild fruit ranging in shapes, colors, sizes textures: “In the yards around the town and on the hills in the country, spots of yellow, pink, red, orange, black, and green appeared between the almost-blue elongated leaves of the fat and laden trees—and created a confused underneath.”[49] The abundance of these plants, with their assortments of colors and descriptions, reveals a garden of wild plants that have once been cultivated and destroyed by slave cane fields and eventually forgotten.  The pathetic fallacy of Cliff’s landscapes begins to take on their own motives of resistance and wildness. Michelle Cliff has always been fascinated with wild and savage characters.  For example, Cliff personally connects to silenced and marginal character such as Bertha Mason from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the Victor, the “wild child of Averyon.”[50] Cliff notes that Bertha Mason becomes a wild, masculine, and monstrous character who “[mocks] the master’s meaning ecolonial values, which are empowering.”[51] Thus, these figures, although appearing as savage, are trickster figures.

With her use of the wild fruit and her connection to wild characters, Cliff blends mimicry and resistance by mythologizing a “Ruination” of the land, which a feminine resistance against colonial violence and oppression.  Cliff coins “Ruination” as,

…the reclamation of land, the disruption of cultivation, civilization, by the uncontrolled, uncontrollable forest.  When a landscape becomes ruinate, carefully designed aisles of cane are envined, strangled, the order of empire is replaced by the chaotic forest. The word ruination (especially) signifies this immediately; it contains both the word ruin, and nation.  A landscape in ruination means one in which the imposed nation is overcome by the naturalness of ruin.”[52]

Ruination does not reproduce colonial representations of the island as a Garden of Eden; rather, it is a form of rebellion against the imperial and colonial gaze and violence that has disrupted the natural aspects of the land.  It takes back what was stolen and responds by growing and entangling the finely cultivated rows of sugar cane that was once used to enslave Caribbeans and Africans. The words “ruined” or “ruint” often implies a rape or sexually dishonored/dishonorable women who are considered unfit for polite society because they were raped, pregnant out of wedlock, an adulterer or a prostitute.  Thus, ruination becomes central to Cliff’s mythopoetics and the land becomes a trickster figure that is also feminine.  For example, in Abeng, Cockpit Country and Trelawney Town, chief residences of the Maroons, are filled with “Swallow-holes.  Cockpits.  Places to hide.  Difficult to reach.  Not barren but deep and magnificent indentations populated by bush and growth and wild orchids-collectors of water-natural goblets.”[53] In this description, similar to Mendieta’s photographs, entangled and outgrown bush and cockpits become vaginal imprints in the land.   As a result, traces of “Ruination” weave throughout the novel not only to counter colonial myths about the Americas and the “New World,” but to also introduce a feminine identity and subjectivity that exists as part of the rebellious terrain.

By illustrating women and the land as wild and savage, Cliff strives to reclaim female agency, however, within this reclamation, the female body is still identified with the land. This is apparent in his initial descriptions of the island filled with “wild fruit…the bush of Jamaica had long been written about as one of the naturally fruitful places on earth—but the mango was superior among all other growing things—the paragon ‘Mother sugar herself,”[54] who stands in as a powerful, older, and maternal figure during slavery in Jamaica.  As a result, Cliff’s descriptions of the land wild, ruined and feminine fail to break with the black nationalist associations of black women as Mother Earth. This demonstrates the ways in which black nationalist critiques still weave in Cliff’s writings because, simultaneously she cannot be open about Clare’s same-sex desires and feelings for her childhood friend Zoe.  Cliff retains the qualities of the liminal character – in between races, feminist and lesbian – and she has to teeter on a thin line between black nationalist politics and self-becoming. However, her characters Mma Ali, Harry/Harriet open up the possibility of a lesbian subjectivity, especially in her novel No Telephone to Heaven, where a queer mythopoetics is introduced through the diaspora.

Chapter 3: A Diasporic Queer Mythopoetics

As part of her mythopoetics, Michelle Cliff imagines a Caribbean lesbian diaspora in No Telephone to Heaven (NTTH) that intertwines with her fragmented identities and torn affiliations with Jamaica. Gayatri Gopinath describes the diaspora as “the dispersal and movement of populations from one particular national or geographical location to other disparate sites – [which] lies in the critique of the nation form on the one hand, and its contestation of the hegemonic forces of globalization on the other.”[55] Etymologically, “spora” translates to seeds and diaspora means “scattering or spreading of seeds.” For example, as an African diasporic subject, scholars speculate that the trauma of the African slave trade forced blacks out of their homelands to germinate and relocate to new areas in the United States in search of new communities, families and homes.  In a queer diasporic critique, queer individuals face this trauma of the “coming out” process: once they “come out” into the heteronormative world, they later return without a family and must create new families and find new homes. National ideas of the “home,” as represented by the nation, are predominantly heteronormative, white, heterosexual, reproductive, and middle class. Thus, in the queer diaspora, the “wandering queer” or flâneur, must often find and explore alternate homes where he or she will be accepted.

It is important to contextualize Jamaica anti-gay and homophobic politics and how some Caribbean cultural theorists view “lesbian” and “queer” identities as problematic and/or limiting terms.  According to Micah Fink, “Jamaica’s Article 76 of the Offences Against the Person Act, dating back to 1876 when Jamaica was a British Colony, makes ‘the abominable crime of buggery’ punishable by ‘imprisonment and hard labor for a maximum of ten tears.’”[56]  According to this note, Jamaica has had a long history of homophobic violence and imprisonment that silences and even imprisons lesbian and gay voices.  Jenny Sharpe and Samantha Pinto state that, “Part of the forbidden nature of the subject has to do with a fear of reproducing the negative stereotyping of black hypersexuality that emerged from a history of slavery and colonialism”.[57]  In order not to tarnish Jamaica’s black nationalist image, same-sex desire is not explicitly talked about because it is explicitly condemned and punished.

Moreover, in contemporary Caribbean culture, under this silencing, many theorists view same-sex desires as “opaque”[58] in order to subvert Western histories of colonial naming and European and American queer theorists (i.e. Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, etc.). For example, Shana L. Calixte states that in the diaspora andaribbean, “those who have a history of colonialism begin to formulate their subjectivities in ways that hinder a direct colonial ‘naming.’ An ‘opaque’ identity construction, therefore, becomes effectively a tool of resistance.”[59] Moreover, many Caribbean scholars view sexuality on a “praxis”; rather than a clear form of “identity,” sexuality is understood as an “activity,” with a “great heterogeneity in the practices, desires, self-identifications and external views of people who have sexual intercourse with, or who sexually desire, persons of the same sex or gender.”[60] This ambiguity of sexual identity is present in Abeng.  For example, the queer actions are very implicit, silenced, and hidden and not seen as an identity marker, but rather as suppressed and intimate exchanges been Zoe and Clare.  In addition, because lesbianism is “seen as Eurocentric, eccentric, upper-class behavior”[61] Clare and the homoerotic healer Mma Ali do not openly claim asbian identity.[62]  Instead, they find other codes and ways to express their same-sex desires.

Paralleling Michelle Cliff’s personal Caribbean-American diaspora, in NTTH, Clare grapples with displaced identities in her own black Atlantic diaspora. After growing up in Jamaica, Clare and her family relocate to the United States.  She then moves to England to receive her education and back to Kingston where she is reunited with her childhood friend Harry/Harriet, who eventually becomes her lesbian partner. Clare constantly jumps between the black Atlantic, Europe and the U.S., a traumatic journey that alludes to black Atlantic slave routes that were part of the African diaspora. As a mix-raced creole and liminal figure, whose same-sex desires are repressed in Jamaica, Clare’s diasporic journeys are unsettling and unstable. She becomes the flâneur character who travels across the black Atlantic in search of this home and becoming, but she is also haunted with this slave and colonial past. According to scholar Evelyn O’Callagan,

The disjointed narrative, following the quest of the fragmented peripatetic Clare for          wholeness and belonging, begins and ends with evocations of Jamaica as a fecund garden gone to bush, but still a nurturing and elemental space, a homeland imbued with the potential for renewal, and a terrain of nightmare – urban deprivation and debauchery, poverty and dehumanization, bloodshed and madness, a Babylon (in Rastafarian usage of the term) which, in the logic of an apocalyptic vision, must be destroyed.[63]

This chapter aims to trace the shift in Cliff’s portrayal of lesbian erotics that is problematized by Clare’s diasporic journey.  I argue that Michelle Cliff’s mythopoetic character, Mma Alli, represents a homoerotic healer in Abeng that who does explicitly come “out,” but rather asserts her own erotic subjectivity and female agency by healing and providing erotic empowerment to women.  In contrast, Harry/Harriet, a transgendered woman, represents a liminal and whole character in No Telephone to Heaven who is able to come out explicitly as a lesbian figure. Through my analysis of these characters, I show that both characters illuminate unique lesbian subjectivities that deconstructs the binaries between male/female, erotic/spiritual, black/white, etc.

Mma Ali Folk/Lesbian Legacy: Contentions of Claiming a Lesbian Identity in Jamaica

In Abeng, Cliff creates a new character, Mma Alli, who is an African slave and obeah woman.  Obeah refers to the West African folk, magic, sorcery and religious practices that were used against slave holders in West Africa.  Mma Ali is based off of Nanny and she uses spells, incantations, and special medicines in her healing practice.  However, Mma Ali also imbues erotic and sexual techniques into her practice,

Mma Alli had never lain with a man.  The other slaves said she loved only women in that way, but that she was a true sister to the men—the Black men: her brothers.  They said that by being with her in bed, women learned all manner of the magic of passion.  How to become wet again and again all through the night.  How to soothe and excite at the same time.  How to touch a woman in her deep-inside and make her womb move within her. She taught many of the women on the plantation about this passion and how to take strength from it. To keep their bodies as their own, even while they were made to subject to the whimsical violence of the justice and his slavedrivers, who were for the most part creole or quashee.[64]

In this description of Mma Alli, she is both a sexual and medicinal women’s healer.  In the novel, Mma Ali works in a female-dominated space that builds relationships with other women. As a healer of the community and by implementing both African religious practices and erotic sensual touches to her female patients, Mma Alli enmeshes the spiritual with the sensuous powers of healing. The fact that “Mma Alli had never lain with a man,” situates her in a nonsexual and non-affiliated positioning with “Black men: her brothers” within Jamaica. Unlike Nanny, who is a de-sexed, nationally recognized warrior, Cliff fashions Mma Alli as a mentor, healer, lover and provider to women.  She helps them discover their sexuality and power and she teaches them “how to take strength from it”[65] in her reclaiming of a solely female erotic.

By using the healing powers of touch, Mma Ali’s sexuality also becomes an act of resiliency that resists patriarchal violence against Caribbean women’s bodies and heternormativity. This is present in Inez’s abortion that was a result of a “buckra [white man’s] rape.”[66] In preparation of Inez’s abortion, Mma Ali “brewed a tea of roots and leaves, said a Pawpaw chant over it…Mma Ali began to gently stroke her with fingers dipped in coconut oil and pull on her nipples with her mouth, and the thick liquid which had been the mixed-up baby came forth easily and Inez felt little pain.”[67] Through this practice, Mma Ali uses the aromas and healing properties of the tea leaves, chants and sings and strokes Inez as part of her healing.  She does not simply abort the baby, but rather applies sensuous and spiritual rituals, which serves as both an “act of healing of the body as well as an act of resistance. ”[68] Through this intimate scene, Inez finds agency and healing: Mma Ali with her “tongue all over Inez’s body-night after night- until the judge returned from his trip to London and Inez had to return to the great house.  But she was there with a newfound power.”[69] After this sexualized abortion, Inez’s embodies a feminine power that “challenges heterosexuality and male control over female sexuality and reproduction.”[70] Cliff situates Mma Ali in both an abortion and homoerotic and sexual scene, which provides a new female erotic power to her story that does not involve patriarchal or heteronormative validation.

Harry/Harriet as a Liminal Healer and Trickster Figure

Out of all of characters in Michelle Cliff’s novels, Harry/Harriet is the openly out “lesbian” figure. Biologically male, Harry/Harriet is a transgendered and biracial character, whose liminal status further complicates identity. Cliff writes of Harry/Harriet as “the most complete character in No Telephone to Heaven…And I did that purposely because Jamaica is such a repellently homophobic society, so I wanted to have a gay hero / heroine.”[71]  Similar to Nanny and Mma Ali, Harry/Harriet also practices medicine and healing.  As scholar Nada Elisa contends, “Harry/Harriet never undergoes a physical transformation, remaining ever dual in body, as indeed is the fate of all Creoles, diasporans and biracians for whom transformation is possible. The only option available to hybrids is a reconciliation with the various elements that make up their identity, a spiritual healing that gets these elements into viable wholeness rather than fragmentation.”[72]  Cliff crafts a mythopoetic license for Harry/Harriet as a healer, spiritual and whole figure much like Nanny and Mma Ali,

[Harriet] had been studying the healing practices. At the university and with old women in the country, women who knew the properties of roots and leaves and how to apply spells effectively…One old women, one who kenned Harriet’s history, called her Mawu-Lisa, moon and sun, female-male deity of some of their ancestors.[73]

Harry/Harriet’s character is based off of Mawu-Lisa, a mixed-gendered deity from Africa. As liminal characters, and in contrast to Césaire’s phallic representations of Eshu, Mau Lisa and Harry/Harriette are feminized and treated as trickster-like characters that obstruct the binaries of male/female, black/white, etc. In Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s book Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature, she writes that Harry/Harriet is both “a healer and a path clearer; flushing out imaginative blocks against new, revolutionary formations of Afro-Jamaican womanness,” she “clear[s] bush that still chokes out space for new geographies of gender complexity, same-gender eroticism, and meaningful postcolonialism.”[74] As a liminal figure, who is “whole,” Harry/Harriet strays away from mere categorization, and instead provides a public and complicated lesbian subjectivity that dismantles the binaries between gender identity and sexuality.


Chapter 4: Re-Envisioning the Eye: Black Lesbian Futurity and Possibility in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Thomas Glave, a prominent gay Caribbean-American writer, is vocal about Jamaica’s homophobic politics and is inspired by the works of Audre Lorde.  As a diasporic figure and one of the first openly gay Caribbean-Americans to write about same-sex relationships, Thomas Glave was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx and Kingston, Jamaica. He has published many anthologies on gay and lesbian writing in the Caribbean, including Whose Song? And Other Stories (2000), The Torturer’s Wife City (2008), and Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (2005). In his most recent work, Words to Our Now, Glave reveals the impact that gay and lesbian American writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill have had on his writings.[75] Within this community of writers, Glave strives to fill in the silences of queer Caribbean voices and uses Audre Lorde as inspiration. He writes,

I have longed, viscerally, for the sheer force of [Audre Lorde’s] powerful voice speaking out loud, once more, among us; my longing the yearning one feels for a mother…Longing for that voice that, each day, without fail, fearlessly impelled so many of us toward all the struggles and demands awaiting us… I still long for Audre Lorde to admonish me again that my silence will never protect me as, in this Cyclops that we call ‘America.’”[76]

Audre Lorde is a self-identified Caribbean-American author, poet, mother, warrior, and black lesbian feminist.  She grew up in Harlem, New York, in the 1950s to a Carriaccou immigrant family. Similar to Thomas Glave, Audre Lorde’s is also a diasporic figure. As her story unfolds, Lorde reveals her experiences growing up in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s.  As she grows older, she travels to Washington D.C., Connecticut, and Mexico.  Audre Lorde is known for her poems, speeches, essays and novels, especially her “Biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.  During the 1980s, when Lorde was writing Zami, anti-war sentiments, and rising feminist, black, queer rights and ecological politics began to shift the paradigms of American culture. During these movements, Lorde inspired a revolution by making the black feminine and lesbian voice visible for non-heterosexual women and several abject/subjugated classes, races and sexual minorities.  Lorde cultivates new lesbian erotics and subjectivities that are not closeted or suppressed in speech. In one her famous quotes, “Your silence with not protect you,” she advocates to speak about one’s multi-faceted, complex and manifold identities in order to “challenge racist and heterosexist myths that Afro-Caribbean women cannot be included in histories of same gender desires and relationships.”[77]

Audre Lorde’s Mythpoetics as Erotic and Sensual

Lorde creates a mythopoetics of her diasporic journey to becoming in her “Biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.  By creating a new genre, “Biomythography,” Lorde asserts a self within a newly self-made literary form. Etymologically, “bio” refers to life, and “mythography” relates the act of writing or studying of legends, myths, orature, and origins of the past. By creating her own “Biomythography,” Lorde imbues one of her famous quotes “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[78] In order to counter colonial ethnographies conducted by the Columbus and Vespucci’s early writings of the Americas and heteronormative constructions of thought, Lorde uses different tools to form her own literary traditions.  She does this by reaching into the deepest parts of herself to reveal stories that are part truth, fiction, memory and folklore, and many of these stories speak about the trauma and pain of realizing her difference as black and lesbian.  By using all of her differences, Lorde becomes a bridging of voice to other Caribbean and black queer writers that have relocated and are unable to speak openly about themselves. In the preface of Zami, she writes,

“I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and richest parts of my mother and father within/into me—to share the valleys and mountains         upon my body the way the earth does in the hills and peaks.” [79]

In this passage, Lorde strives to affirm both the male/female and spiritual/sexual parts of her identity that have been separated.  Lorde plays with the binaries differences of white/black, male/female, hetereosexual/homosexual, sexual/spiritual, etc. in her work.  For example, in one of Lorde’s openly lesbian texts, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power,” she advocates for a lesbian subjectivity that merges sensual body with spirituality. Lorde states “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”[80] By expressing her desire to coalesce both femininity and masculinity and both sensuality and spirituality into her being as she situates herself with the liminal space, the place not spoken of, and strives to transcend these distinctly separated categories as dual-gendered body.  Lorde’s erotics also counter myths and epistemologies from Puritanical Christian views that separate the pure soul from the impure body.  The body, ridden with temptation, is viewed as sinful or fallen.  In order to rid the body of this stigma and shame, Lorde rewrites these origins myths and the erotics by bridging together the deep, subjective, feminine, spiritual plane with sensuality and the body that allow her to incorporate all the fragments of her identity together in one.

By emphasizing the senses and the body as a possibility for lesbian subjectivity, Lorde also presents a new black lesbian subjectivity and mythopoetics that involves senses other than the eye. In describing how she became a poet, Lorde describes her childhood as owing up “counting the rainbows of color” in a “dazzling world of strange lights and fascinating shapes.”[81] In this technicolor world, Lorde begins to perceive the world through her own unique lens.  Her impeded vision is not seen as a lack or disability. Rather, in order to make sense of the world without vision, her other senses, suchaste, touch, and smell,” are heightened “Biomythography.”[82]   For example, in Lorde’s first sex scene with Ginger, she recounts,

Ginger moved in love like she laughed, openly and easily, and I moved with her, against her, within her, an ocean of brown warmth.  Her sounds of delight and the deep shudders of relief that rolled throughout her body in the wake of my stroking fingers filled me with delight and a hunger for more of her.  The sweetness of her body meeting and filling my mouth, my hands, wherever I touched, felt right and completing, as if I had been born to make love to this woman, and was remembering her body rather than learning it deeply for the first time.[83]

Lorde’s erotics and focus on the sensuous aspects of their love-making is more than just a visual pleasure.  Instead, Lorde illustrates Ginger’s “sound of delight,” “her body in wake of my stroking fingers,” and the “sweetness of her body meeting and filling my mouth, my hands.”[84] By focusing on the senses other than the eye, Lorde subverts a colonial male looking.  Through this, Lorde re-envisions a new female and lesbian subjectivity throughout her mythopoetics.

Becoming Afrekete

After her travels, Audre Lorde makes her way back to Greenwich Village where she meets Afrekete.  Afrekete is a black lesbian from New York who helps Lorde make sense of her multiple identities through an “archetype…[that] releases her creative and self-healing powers and sets her on the path to wholeness.”[85] For Lorde, Afrekete is her mythopoetic heroine; she helps Lorde fuses the parts of her culture and multiple identities (woman, lesbian, poet, mother, etc.) in order for her to survive and remain whole. Similar to Eshu, Harry/Harriet and Mau-Lisa, Afrekete is a trickster and liminal figure that contests discourses of identity. By identifying with Afrekete, Lorde herself embodies a trickster and liminal figure that can transcend discursive identity politics and colonial naming to her body and identities.  In identifying with Afrekete, Lorde is “identifying with the liminal, multi-voiced, multi-faceted trickster [which] offers Lorde alternatives to being silenced, rigidly confined, or completely isolated by the potentially exclusionary nature of identity and discursive practice.”[86] Along with Cliff’s Harry/Harriet, these liminal figures disrupt the identities and discursive violence that are attached to black women’s bodies.

Altogether, through the erotic, Afrekete and senses, Lorde’s mythopoetics builds a queer of color futurity and possibility that is fixed in the liminal. The liminal is a contentious and dangerous place.  As defined by Victor Turner, it is the “Betwixt and between; a state of transition, indeterminancy, ambiguity and openness.”[87]  Residing in the liminal are the trickster figures, “ruined” terrains and lesbian-erotic healers. The liminal becomes a place where healing is possible.  By locating herself in this space, Lorde allows all of her identities to flourish within the hegemonic cultural contracts that impede her becoming and survival,

For those of us who live at the


Standing upon the constant edges of


Crucial and alone

For those of us who cannot indulge

The passing dreams of choice

Who love in doorways coming and


In the hours between dawns

Looking inward and outward

At once before and after

Seeking a now that can breed


Like a bread in our children’s mouths

So their dreams will not reflect

The death of ours…

So it is better to speak


We were never meant to survive.[88]


Colonial myths construct powerful and salient discursive violences that project essentialist ideas of race, gender and sexuality onto Amerindian and Afro-Caribbean bodies.  Although written in the 15th and 16th century, Columbus and Vespuccis’ ideas persist in contemporary Caribbean literature, ideologies, and societal norms.  This project examines Michelle Cliff and Audre Lordes’ mythopoetics as they serve as counter narratives and counter myths to colonial heteronormative discourses of violence against black women’s bodies.  By examining the gaps and silences in these discourses, myths, and origins, I have illuminated alternative histories.  By showing how Michelle Cliff and Audre Lorde experiment with literary form, origins, and the “Erotic” and senses, I have demonstrated the lesbian subjectivities they have given voice to in a post-colonial world.



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Sharpe, Jenny and Samantha Pinto. “The Sweetest Taboo: Studies of Caribbean Sexualities; A     Review Essay.” Signs, 32(1), 247-74. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives.            Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean       Literature. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, (Chicago, Aldine Transaction, 1969),     81.

Vespucci, Amerigo, Luciano Formisano, Garry Willis, and David Jacobson. Letters from a New    World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America. New York: Marsilio, 1992, 46-53.

[1] Michelle Cliff,  “Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 47.

[2] Hulme, Peter, and Neil L. Whitehead, Wilde Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day: An Anthology, (Oxford, English: Clarendon, 1992), 12.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 10.

[6] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (New York: Routledge, 1992), 6-7.

[7] Ibid, 6-7.

[8] Amerigo Vespucci, Luciano Formisano, Garry Willis, and David Jacobson, in Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America, (New York: Marsilio,1992), 46-53.

[9] Jenny Sharpe, Lecture, in “Caribbean Contact Zones,” 8 October, 2013, University of California, Los Angeles.

[10] Amerigo Vespucci, Luciano Formisano, Garry Willis, and David Jacobson, in Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America, (New York: Marsilio,1992), 50.

[11] Ibid, 51.

[12] Ibid, 51.

[13] Shakespeare, William, William Shakespeare, the Tempest: Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations, (New York: Norton, 2004.), 1.2.273-76.

[14] Ibid, 1.2.338.

[15] Oxford American Dictionary, date accessed 16 May 2013.

[16] Ibid, 2.1.43-44.

[17] Ibid, 2.1.43-44.

[18] Ibid, 3.3.52 (footnote).

[19] Ibid, 1.2.301.

[20] Ibid, 3.3.53.

[21] Ibid, 3.3.54-56.

[22] Césaire, Aimé, Richard Miller, and William Shakespeare. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Adaptation for a Black Theater, (New York: TCG Translations, 2002), 1.2, p. 20.

[23] Ibid, 1.2, p. 17.

[24] Ibid, 2.1, p. 26.

[25] Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), 6.

[26] Césaire, Aimé, Richard Miller, and William Shakespeare. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Adaptation for a Black Theater, (New York: TCG Translations, 2002), 3.3, p. 48.

[27] Césaire, Aimé, Richard Miller, and William Shakespeare. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Adaptation for a Black Theater, (New York: TCG Translations, 2002), 3.3, p. 48.

[28] Ibid, 1.2, p. 18.

[29] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in Stanford Law Review, (Stanford University Press: 1991), 1245.

[30] Meryl F. Schwartz and Michelle Cliff, “An Interview with Michelle Cliff,” in Contemporary Literature, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 595.

[31] Michelle Cliff, The Land of the Look Behind: Prose and Poetry, (Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1985), 12-13.

[32] Ibid, 13.

[33] Ibid, 13.

[34] For example, Louise Bennett’s “Dry-Foot Bwoy” and Lorna Goodison’s “To Mr. William Wordsworth, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland” are poems that critique the British colonial education systems in the Caribbean.

[35] Oxford American Dictionary, date accessed 23 May, 2013.

[36] Maylei Blackwell, ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement, (University of Texas Press, 2011), 90.

[37] “Definitions and understandings of oral literature,” date accessed 24 May 24 2013,

[38] Michelle Cliff,  “Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 47.

[39] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 14.

[40] Olive Senior, A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, (Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann, 1983), 114.

[41] Michelle Cliff,  “Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 49.

[42] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 20.

[43] Ibid, 14.

[44] Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 7.

[45] Michelle Cliff,  “Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 47-48.

[46] Ibid, 45.

[47] Leslie Camhi, “ART; Her Body, Herself,” in The New York Times, date accessed 19 May 2013,

[48] “Ana Mendieta: Silueta Works in Mexico 1973-77,” in MOCA Museum, date accessed 19 May 2013,

[49] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 3.

[50] Michelle Cliff,  “Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 38-39.

[51] Ibid, 44.

[52]  Ibid, 40.

[53] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 21.

[54] Ibid, 5.

[55] Gyantri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, 2.

[56] Micah Fink, “A Challenge to Jamaica’s Anti-Sodomy Law,” 21 March, 2012, date accessed 26 May 2013,

[57] Jenny Sharpe and Samantha Pinto, “The Sweetest Taboo: Studies of Caribbean Sexualities: a Review Essay,” in Signs, (University of Chicago Press, 2006), 248.

[58] Shana L. Calixte, “Things Which Aren’t To Be Given Names: Afro-Caribbean and Diasporic Negotiations of Same Gender Desire and Sexual Relations,” in Canadian Woman Studies, (Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 2005), 129.

[59] Ibid, 129.

[60] Kamala Kempadoo, ““Caribbean Sexuality: Mapping the Field” in Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, (University of West Indies Press, 2009), 8.

[61] Meryl F. Schwartz and Michelle Cliff, “An Interview with Michelle Cliff,” in Contemporary Literature, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 601.

[62] Although I have stated that “lesbian” and “queer “ are problematic terms in Caribbean literature, for the purposes of this essay, I will use the term “lesbian” through Michelle Cliff and Audre Lorde’s reclamation of the term as a sexual woman-loving-woman term.

[63] Evelyn O’Callagan, “Paradise with Pepper Sauce: Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven,” in Moving Worlds, (University of Leeds Press, 2003), 56.

[64] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 35.

[65] Ibid, 35.

[66] Ibid, 35.

[67] Ibid, 35.

[68] Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Textual Healing: Claiming Black Women’s Bodies, the Erotic and Resistance in Contemporary Novels of Slavery,” in Callaloo, (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1996), 531-32.

[69] Michelle Cliff, Abeng, (New York: Plume, 1984), 36.

[70]  Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Textual Healing: Claiming Black Women’s Bodies, the Erotic and Resistance in Contemporary Novels of Slavery,” in Callaloo, (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1996), 532.

[71] Meryl F. Schwartz and Michelle Cliff, “An Interview with Michelle Cliff” in Contemporary Literature, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 601.

[72] Nada Elia, “’A Man Who Wants to Be a Woman”: Queerness as/and Healing Practices in Michelle Cliff’s ‘No Telephone to Heaven,’” in Callaloo, 23(1), (John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 353.

[73] Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven, 171.

[74] Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 199.

[75] Thomas Glave, Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 31.

[76] Ibid, 3.

[77] Shana L. Calixte, “Things Which Aren’t To Be Given Names: Afro-Caribbean and Diasporic Negotiations of Same Gender Desire and Sexual Relations,” in Canadian Woman Studies, (Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 2005), 134.

[78] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, (New York: Cross Press, 1984), 110.

[79] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, (New York: Crossing Press), 7.

[80] Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider, (New York: Cross Press, 1984), 53.

[81] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, (New York: Crossing Press), 31.

[82] Sarah, E. Chinn, “Feeling Her Way: Audre Lorde and the Power of Touch,” GLQ (Duke University Press, 2003), 187.

[83] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, (New York: Crossing Press), 139.

[84] Ibid, 139

[85] Charlene M. Ball, “Old Magic and New Fury: The Theaphany of Afrekete in Audre Lorde’s ‘Tar Beach’” in NWSA Journal, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 63.

[86] Charlene M. Ball, “Old Magic and New Fury: The Theaphany of Afrekete in Audre Lorde’s ‘Tar Beach.’” NWSA Journal, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 61

[87] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, (Chicago, Aldine Transaction, 1969), 81.

[88] Audre Lorde, “Litany for Survival.”