Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: If I Could Write This in Fire by Michelle Cliff

If I Could Write This
Michelle Cliff

Published by University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Aundi Howerton

You might open this book at any page and begin reading. You might read it back to front. You might not ever finish. Any of these options will grant you some sort of reader reward; but I suggest you do finish If I Could Write This in Fire in its entirety, and if you read nothing else, read the brilliant preface to the book. As a cohesive piece, this patchwork travel memoir, cut with snippets of personal history and poetics (although this description falls far short of what this multi-genre of writing potentially accomplishes), sets forth as a series of geographical journeys, a blueprint of criss-crossing DNAs, not unlike the body of the author herself, at whose accumulation of destinations we find a genius piece of social theory in her preface, “A Journey into Speech.”

The preface could be the summary and vice versa, and this seems to be the exact trajectory of the journey into identity that Cliff takes, both in this manifesto-esque text as well as in previous novels. Cliff’s genre-bending and mixing in If I Could Write This in Fire” might echo the posed questions of her contemporaries in the visual and multi-media arts, whose focus on collage and composition rather than on narrative or form offer hope of renaming a self which feels the tug of the constant state of being externally named. Like Mark Boulos’ “All that is Solid Melts into Air” or any number of DJ Spooky’s (Paul D. Miller) digital “accidents,” Cliff creates a petabyte-type parable in attempting to write into the cleft that is, what she calls, the “split consciousness” of the Jamaican. “It would be as dishonest for me to write it entirely in patois as it would be to write it entirely in the King’s English,” she writes. Also from the preface:

“One of the effects of indoctrination, of passing into the anglo-centrism of British West Indian, is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the proper forms of expression. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, or worse. And folklore can never be art … The reader has to dissect anglican stanza after anglican stanza for Caribbean truth, and may never find it.”
Not only is Cliff a Jamaican, she is also a queer. She is harboring and protecting an ancient expression -- one woven with the occupation of others -- while fighting at the avant garde of an ever-exploding identity. As the quote above indicates, If I Could Write This in Fire, ripe with rage and questioning and “Sites of Memory,” reads like a databank being plotted into a fractal generator. The overall shape of it is yet to settle in me. I can’t tell exactly what the story is saying. Perhaps this is because it is part of a larger story, like the Petabyte, still compiling. Shoving it into some old form will just not work. It is bound to take its own form. Cliff is successful here. She infuses the classical with something new, and a hybridizing occurs. We get a conclusion, not at the end but at the book’s golden ratio. At two-thirds of the read, Cliff writes:

“I am not a metaphor. My place of origin is not a metaphor. I inhabit my language, my imagination, more and more completely. It becomes me. I do not exist as text. I am spoken into being… I use this speech to craft fiction, which is not a record of myself, which is self-consciously – self-confidently – political. I do believe in the word, that a new world may be spoken into being.”

And then the story continues.



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