Poetry News

Michelle Cliff, Activist and Writer (1946–2016)

By Harriet Staff


Michelle Cliff, Jamaican-American author and longtime partner of Adrienne Rich, died last week in Santa Cruz at the age of 69. "[H]er entire creative life was a quest to give voice to suppressed histories, starting with her own," writes William Grimes at the New York Times.

Cliff's work was important for poets. Harryette Mullen pointed to Cliff's memoir Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise as an example of the "alternative strand of African-American innovation" she found to be emerging back in 1999; and Cliff is included in the anthology of experimental writing by black women in North America and the Caribbean forthcoming from Kore Press, co-edited by Dawn Lundy Martin and Erica Hunt (Letters to the Future: Innovative Writing by Black Women).

From the NYT:

Michelle Carla Cliff was born on Nov. 2, 1946, in Kingston, Jamaica. Her parents, Carl Cliff and the former Lilla Brennan, emigrated to New York soon after her birth, leaving her with relatives. She rejoined them when she was 3.

In 1956 the Cliffs returned to Jamaica, where Michelle attended the St. Andrew High School for Girls. Inspired by Anne Frank, she kept a diary, which her parents discovered and read aloud before other members of the family, an experience that deeply traumatized her and kept her from writing for decades. The incident provided the starting point for the title story of the collection “Bodies of Water” (1990).

The family came back to New York in 1960 and settled on Staten Island, in a heavily West Indian neighborhood. After earning a bachelor’s degree in European history in 1969 from Wagner College on Staten Island, Ms. Cliff worked briefly as a researcher at Time-Life Books and as a production editor at W. W. Norton.

At the University of London, she studied art with Ernst Gombrich at the Warburg Institute and received a master of philosophy degree in 1974 after writing a thesis on the Italian Renaissance.

She returned to Norton, where she worked as a production editor for books on history, women’s studies and politics. In 1975 she met Ms. Rich, who was published by Norton. They became lifelong partners. Ms. Rich died in 2012. Information on Ms. Cliff’s survivors was not immediately available.

Read more at the New York Times. Lambda Literary also points us to a 2010 interview with Cliff here. A review by Jessa Crispin and excerpt from Cliff's 2008 collection of essays, If I Could Write This in Fire, is at NPR.