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Michelle Cliff

Santa Cruz, CA

Michelle Cliff, Jamaican-American author and longtime partner of Adrienne Rich, passed away on June 18, 2016 in Santa Cruz at the age of 69. Her life and work was celebrated in the New York Times:

“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.

Ms. Cliff’s entire creative life was a quest to give voice to suppressed histories, starting with her own. Her first essay, “Notes on Speechlessness,” written for a women’s writing group in 1978, can be read as the keynote for her subsequent work, which navigated the complexities of her life situation — she was a light-skinned black lesbian raised partly in Jamaica and partly in New York, and educated in Britain — against the broader background of the Caribbean experience.

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 passed away in 2012.”

Heifer International is honored to be included in Ms. Cliff’s legacy.