Let it go on the record that I do not care that we live in the immediate and global now. Being notified of a beloved’s passing via any medium other than a shaky human voice is unsettling and makes the news that much more psychologically difficult to digest. Because of texting there is no preparation granted to the person on the receiving end. Because of Twitter there is no reading of body language that can warn. Because of Facebook there are no audible cues to be heard in the weighted silence of stagnant pauses and nervous delays. The sounds that were once synonymous with respect for life — the sounds of someone searching for the right words and the right way to explain that a person who holds your respect and your heart’s strings is no longer alive — have been erased by the contemporary age.
Chinua Achebe passed away in 2013. Maya Angelou passed away in 2014. Benedict Anderson passed away at the end of 2015. Derek Walcott passed away in March 2017. V. S. Naipaul passed away in August 2018. Andrea Levy passed away in February 2019. And too recently, too painfully, Toni Morrison passed to the ancestors over night.
I have not had time to process this mortal blow. I have not had time to walk with this new day’s mourning. And because of that, I do what we all do; I make connections through the fibers of trauma. That is to say, that memory is a web and if I am to remember Toni Morrison and her impact on me as a literary scholar, as a black woman, as a black American in the world, as a woman in a man’s world, as a lover and practitioner of words, I must first confront the unhealed wound left by the passing of Michelle Cliff on June 12, 2016.
Introduced to her in 2002 via her 1987 novel No Telephone to Heaven, Michelle Cliff changed my life. Before reading her novel I had never seen my Jamaica in print. Yes, my Jamaica. So on page 23 when “Paul arrived home to Stony Hill” I gasped. Then I held my breath as I read the subsequent paragraphs that detailed a young man’s realization of how much some people have and others simply have no access to.
Murder and machetes. Rape and rum bottles. And the silent death of a woman whose identity was hardly known. No Telephone to Heaven was akin to looking into a magnifying mirror for the first time and being met with a face that I knew and did not know all at once. This was Stony Hill. And, this was Stony Hill? The declaration came face to face with the interrogation. Reading No Telephone to Heaven was confirmation that the Jamaica of my narrated memory was speakable and writable and discussible and contemplatable and, most of all, it was real and shared by other Jamaicans. In a very personal way No Telephone to Heaven demonstrated for me the very real power of the writer to give voice to a place, a people, a cause, a history.
Three years after her passing and on the 57th year of Jamaica’s independence, I know that this post is overdue. But some grief takes a while to process and needs a catalyst to force the healing. Today, feeling wholly unprepared to receive news of Toni Morrison’s departure, I face the ghost of Michelle Cliff wearing no masks.
Cliff was my first literary experience of that upward spiraling road from Manor Park into Stony Hill. She exploded everything I knew and did not know about my Jamaica. In vivid and poetic detail she took me home and I loved her for it. I still do.
When Michelle Cliff passed, I had the daunting feeling that this imagined community of Caribbean literary scholars to which I belong had lost a truly phenomenal woman. When Michelle Cliff passed, I had the unsettled feeling that things really do fall apart. I have that feeling again with news of Toni Morrison.
I still miss Cliff and, upon reading the news this morning, I instantly missed Morrison. And, as it is with any trauma, it stirs all prior losses. I miss my grandparents and the stories they would wrap me in. I miss their warmth but I give thanks that I can still hear their words in my mind’s coziest corners. I give thanks for old birthday cards and hand-written letters because words keep us near.
Last week I walked through a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Rockville, Maryland searching for a Caribbean fiction to gift. I found Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy positioned on prime shelf-space in all its orange and purple boldness. I found two spines of Junot Diaz’s Drown. And I found a single thin Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. That’s it. No other Caribbean texts sat on those austere shelves. I was disappointed by the way that the digital age is limiting readers from being introduced to writers of color in brick and mortar stores. But my spirits were buoyed when I came across the pink hard cover of Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard.
Toni Morrison has been the voice and inspiration of a generation of black writers from Africa to the African diaspora. And she has been the rich voice of America (both black and white America because the stain of racism is not owned by one America, even though it is more visibly projected onto one kind of American than another). Toni Morrison has been the writer of truth. And her own writerly honesty is what has revealed readers, especially American readers, to themselves.
As I type these words in honor of Toni Morrison’s lifetime of writing words in fire, I am finally able to accept Michelle Cliff’s titular words. There is no telephone to heaven. I accept them because I see now that by accessing the written, the published, the recorded word archives (including the digital ones), we can forever connect and reconnect with those who have passed on. We do not need a telephone when words are forever.
To my Riddim readers, I implore you to read every word that Morrison ever wrote. Listen to her keynote addresses, including her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture. Read Sula. Read Song of Solomon. Read The Bluest Eye. Read Beloved. Read every word that Cliff wrote. Read Abeng. Read No Telephone to Heaven. Read If I Could Write This In Fire. Read every word. I know that I will read and re-read them now, especially. This is how I will heal myself as a broken citizen of two broken nations. But we all must read. This is how we successfully mourn the pain of absence. We have to read. This is how we celebrate our word-artists, for storytellers are our reconciliation with the past and our promise for a future.
No meaningful writer ever leaves us. R.I.P. – Read. In. Power.