Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 352-365
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"A Man Who Wants to Be a Woman":
Queerness as/and Healing Practices in Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven
Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies
Across the lines
Who would dare to go
Under the bridge
Over the tracks
That separates whites from blacks
Or run for Your lives
Tonight the riots begin
--Tracy Chapman, "Across the Lines"
Michelle Cliff describes Harry/Harriet, one of the two protagonists of No Telephone to Heaven, as her lesbian model: "Harry/Harriet is the novel's lesbian in a sense: he's a man who wants to be a woman and he loves women." 1 But Harry/Harriet, a non-operative transgendered transvestite, is more than lesbian, s/he is ultimately queer, refusing to draw new lines, new boundaries, create new divisions and new definitions as s/he chooses her/his new identity. 2
No Telephone to Heaven does not lend itself easily to a plot summary, yet I will attempt here to offer a brief synopsis of the main parts of the novel, before analyzing the pivotal role of Harry/Harriet's queerness in bringing about physical and spiritual healing among various marginalized and oppressed social groups. Moving back and forth through Clare Savage's travels over three continents, No Telephone to Heaven shows us the light-skinned young Jamaican Creole immigrating to the U.S. with her family, and staying there with her father after her parents' divorce, and the return of her mother and younger sister to Jamaica. Clare then goes to England for her university education, visits Jamaica on her vacation, befriends Harry/Harriet, returns to Europe for a while, and eventually goes back to Jamaica, where she joins a guerrilla group fighting for the island's independence. The novel, which does not follow a chronological order, begins and opens with the guerrilla scene, taking place on an American movie-stage set up in the Jamaican jungle, foregrounding camouflage, passing, performance, revolutionary ideals and, in the final scene, death. No Telephone to Heaven is a sequel to Abeng, [End Page 352] which introduced the readers to Clare Savage at a younger age, concluding with the teenager's budding awareness of the dynamics of race and sexuality in her native Jamaica.
In No Telephone to Heaven, Harry/Harriet's complexity is represented physically in her/his bisexuality and biraciality, but also intellectually in her/his training, which combines western and non-western knowledge. But the most significant aspect of No Telephone to Heaven is that Harry/Harriet never undergoes a physical transformation, remaining ever dual in body, as indeed is the fate of all Creoles, diasporans and biracials for whom transformation is impossible. The only option available to hybrids is a reconciliation with the various elements that make up their identity, a spiritual healing that gels these elements into viable wholeness rather than fragmentation.
Queer theory, which seeks to transcend the hegemonic binarism of hetero- vs. homosexual, is the most appropriate tool for an appreciation of No Telephone to Heaven, as it allows for the ultimate move beyond divisive paradigms. While all genealogies of social phenomena are arbitrary and political, and while I would in no way suggest that queers did not exist before their linguistic referent, I nevertheless argue that queerness as a political and theoretical movement is a consequence of such recent movements as poststructuralism and postcolonialism, which first successfully challenged and critiqued, as they sought to overcome, oppressive binary polarities. Thus while queers will name but not "define" themselves, because no definition can encompass the multiplicity of queer experiences and practices, they nevertheless transcend "the hegemonic binarism of 'heterosexuality,' and 'homosexuality'" (Jagose 64). Moreover, the choice of naming oneself queer represents spiritual and mental emancipation from the dominant discourse which, while it posits binary difference, fails to accommodate multiplicity. Thus queer theory is one facet of the end of modernism and its metanarratives, queerness a manifestation of the move beyond sexual...