- Queer Rebellion in the Novels of Michelle Cliff: Intersectionality and Sexual Modernity by Kaisa Ilmonen
Kaisa Ilmonen's recent monograph explores "textual rebellion" (3) in Michelle Cliff's three major novels, Abeng (1985), No Telephone to Heaven (1987), and Free Enterprise (1993). Ilmonen reads these three texts as a quasi-trilogy, arguing that reading Free Enterprise "in a continuum" (4) with the previous two enables her to trace "an evolving line regarding the construction of identity" (4) for queer diasporic women of color operating within and/or bearing the legacies of colonization. Drawing on women of color feminism, queer studies, postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and Caribbean scholarship, Ilmonen demonstrates how Cliff is part of a genealogy of queer women of color whose texts feature journeys to "feel at home" (3) when home as a literal place and an affective site has been compromised. Attempts to find home reveal home is not entirely geographical, but can be temporal, linguistic, relational, and bodily. Ilmonen argues that Cliff has "been read too narrowly" (245) and mines her texts for their representations of racialized sexuality, alternative kinship, and home-making practices among diasporic women. These representations are part of the "textual rebellion" she identifies as "creating a liberatory poetics" (16) for the girls and women of the novels.
"Textual rebellion" names a range of strategies Cliff's novels employ in order to counter colonial, heteropatriarchal paradigms that delimit Caribbean subjectivities, epistemologies, and futures. Textual rebellion materializes in narration, narrative structure, language, characters that break with gender and sexual norms, and speech acts. The omniscient narrator of Abeng who teaches Jamaican history, the "nonlinearity" (59) of No Telephone to Heaven, and the "feminist archive" (67) of "forgotten…abolitionist women" (67) in Free Enterprise are all examples of textual rebellion in Cliff's oeuvre. Ilmonen pays special attention to the women who populate the novels and particularly to the "othermothers" (174), women who surround the texts' protagonists and model resistance against heteronormative mandates of motherhood. Textual rebellion enables representations that rebel against both the colonial authority and the white mythologies that erase Caribbean histories. In this way, Ilmonen makes the case for a mimetic relationship between the texts' formal features and their political aims. She names these formal features as creating "counter-stories" (32), "counter-discourse[s]" (120), "counter-narrative[s]" (128), "counter-myths" (129), and a "counter-mythos" (135). Ilmonen importantly notes that these multiple types [End Page 307] of counterforces aren't merely "opposition[al]" (243) but instead disrupt totalizing narratives of colonization that attempt to structure marginalized persons' realities.
Ilmonen examines how Cliff's novels reveal the centrality of sexuality to colonization and how gender expression and sexual desire can counter these colonizing forces. In this way, the body and its relations are sites of decolonization in the texts; Ilmonen thus reads queerness as one route toward decolonization. Cliff's textual rebellions are queer rebellions because they break norms that colonization renders natural and stable. Ilmonen identifies queerness in Cliff's novels as "something which is inappropriate, questionable, other, and strange" (41). However, she also calls her own reading practice "queer" (41). Ilmonen invokes David Bell and Gill Valentine to think of "queer reading as 'daring epistemological guerrilla warfare' which is an act of 'intervention, contestation, resistance, subversion, interrogation'" (42). The metaphorical invocation of guerrilla warfare to describe queer interpretation resonates with Ilmonen's reading of Clare Savage's literal participation in guerrilla warfare in No Telephone to Heaven. The guerrilla group that Clare joins models alternative kinship, "confront[s] the 'fake archaelogy' of Jamaican history" (101), and is a "site of radical agency for Clare" (64). In these ways, the guerrilla group is queer because they break with norms regarding heteronormative families and colonial versions of history. While Clare dies fighting, Ilmonen queerly reads her death as subversive because it ultimately returns her to "the Jamaican ancestral home" and "free[s]" her "from all language" (142). This tension between liberation and violence reveals that queer is not always inflected with a...