Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

Cultural Identities

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Many times when a woman writes, her stories go beyond the issues of women’s inequality and their struggles to find acceptance in society; their writing becomes a symbol and inspiration for those who are of  different nationalities and come from different cultural backgrounds. Michelle Cliff is a prime example of a famous women writer who takes true-life experiences and implements them in such a way that forces her audience to be aware of how one’s culture can affect their entire lifestyle.

Born in Jamaica, Cliff was a light-skinned Creole and a lesbian.  Her autobiography entitled If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire, explores her identity as a Jamaican woman and uses the diversity of her and her ancestors in order to investigate and criticize the events that led to their oppression by the “white” society.  Cliff combines elements of history and fiction to represent the suppression and realism of her cultural identity.  Her reinvention of history through fiction can be seen as Cliff’s attempt to have her audience walk in the shoes of the oppressed and to peak into history through their eyes.

While explaining the roles of the “white” teachers during her secondary schooling, Cliff writes in her story:

“One teacher went so far as to tell us many people thought Jamaicans lived in trees and we had to show these people they were mistaken.)  In short, we felt insufficient to judge the behavior of these women. The English ones (who had the corner on power in the school) had come all this way to teach us.  Shouldn’t we treat them as the missionaries they were certain they were? The creole Jamaicans had a different role: they were passing on to those of us who were light-skinned the creole heritage of collaboration, assimilation, loyalty to our betters.  We were expected to be willing subjects in this outpost of civilization.” (919)

In my opinion, I could pick up a strong sense of sarcasm while reading this specific passage.  Cliff was light-skinned, but yet her “white” elders still demanded and expected behavior from her and her peers that reflected the utmost respect; but not respect based off of positive morals and excellence in being a role-model, but respect based solely off of the fact that their culture was deemed to be the “right” way of living.  Throughout Cliff’s story, she expresses the fact that her cultural identity had a significant impact on not only her writing, but her life as a whole.

Just like Cliff, Shara McCallum expressed much of the same ideas of cultural identity.  McCallum also was born in Jamaica and used her heritage as a source of influence for her writings.  During an interview, McCallum states that she considers herself to be a woman writer of many cultures.  Her poetry was highly effected by her need to re-write and revise history.  Many times McCallum moved back in time to popular myths and legends that shaped to world of women, and would attempt to “write or right” their story.  McCallum considered many of her works to span across a wide range of material that was meant to be reinvented in order for her audience to gain a new perspective on a traditional story.  During her interview, McCallum states: “The poet has always had a responsibility to address the culture in which she or he is raised and lives; and culture, second only to being conveyed by language itself, is transmitted through the stories, fables, and myths we make of our experience as human beings. It follows that rewriting these tales is one avenue to addressing their permanence and their effect on us ontologically.”

McCallum’s poem Seed states:

I am a child of the sun, balancing

the wind on my hips.
I have learned to make stones
dance, to walk with each footfall
echoing silence, to listen to the songs
of leaves. I am a child of the hushing sea:
waves, the sound of my listening;
salt, the scent of my sight.
I have taken machete to the coconut,
ground sugarcane between my teeth,
to unclasp their sweetened rhymes.
At dawn, I have held the waking earth,
each grain of dirt and sand
spilling from my half-open hands.
Wherever I am, I am
that space between
the husk and the heart
of the fruit.

McCallum takes many elements from her cultural background and creates a sense that it is not only her femininity that is being represented.  Especially in the above poem, McCallum emphasizes the hips, a body part that is the focus of many other writings; but she also mentions coconuts, sugarcane and rhymes, which are all elements of the Jamaican culture.  The video that is linked provides a small insight as to the daily lives of the Jamaican people and the importance of nature and how it shaped their entire well-being.  Natural fruits, bodies of water, dirt, sand and the sun provide resources for many societies in Jamaica that allow them to function, and by showcasing these elements, McCallum is expressing her appreciation for her culture.  This poem sheds a positive light on coming from a different nationality, but none the less shows how much of an influence culture has on the identity of a woman writer and how it can affect their writing style and content.

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