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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. This view of the continuing presence and influence of the past on the present also appears to be true for Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff, as is shown again and again in this collection of her lyrical short fiction.
Often using parts of her autobiography as a starting place for her writing, Cliff has explored issues of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism throughout all her work across various genres, including three novels, No Telephone to Heaven, Abeng and Free Enterprise, nonfiction collected in the recent If I Could Write This in Fire, poetry, and criticism. Everything Is Now brings together the stories from Cliff’s two previous short fiction collections, Bodies of Water (1995) and The Store of a Million Items (1998) and introduces fourteen new pieces that offer a complex, prismatic look at familial relationships, the passage of time, the complex nature of identity, and the class and intermingling of cultures.
Memories of the past and actual ghosts appear throughout these brief, fable-like tales. Cliff’s stories, however, are far from simple or childlike, and occasionally their horrors are far too real. In “Bodies of Water,” for example, the narrator recalls the female watch factory workers whose “…tongues fell out, rotten in their heads…because of the radium they used to dot above the numbers on the watch faces. They licked the brushes with their tongues.” Everything Is Now shows how over the years Cliff has been attempting to speak for characters like these, men and women, wounded, marginalized but not completely forgotten or gone.
While waiting for her lover to arrive, the psychic narrator In the title story has an encounter with a female time-traveler, still bereft over the loss of her soldier-lover during World War II. Also set during the war years, “Ecce Homo,” is a brief, poignant fragment about of love and loss between a black, gay linguist and an Italian. The academic at a Connecticut college in the more contemporary “While Underneath” discovers that the tunnels under the school, touted as being part of Underground Railroad, was also the site of a more sinister episode, a hushed-up gang rape involving an apparently homeless woman on campus.
In the one of the stronger of the new stories, “My Grandmother’s Eyes,” a Jamaican immigrant’s granddaughter retells the story of her grandmother, from coming to America illegally by banana boat in 1923 through her rise to fame as a dancer in Harlem, and her assortment of adventures, lovers, and marriages. A shard of her tale mentioned in passing in that story gets fleshed out in another, “Ashes, Ashes…” One wishes Cliff would continue bringing this fascinating, wide-ranging, complex but not entirely admirable character back to tell more of her story.
Some of the stories in Everything Is Now are more like vignettes, or prose poems, shiny and compelling but brief notions, perhaps, from her “Store of a Million Items.” Often moving and beautifully written, Michelle Cliff could be speaking about herself and her work when writing about the title character of “Keeper of Souls” who creates an altar made up of
…things Sam arranged and rearranged, as his vision moved him. Things collected. Things the earth had yielded after a summer downpour, a spring thaw. Things the blade of his tiller turned up. Shards working their way back to the surface….You never know what you might find.
EVERYTHING IS NOW
By Michelle Cliff
University of Minnesota Press
Hardcover, $24.95, 248p.