A leading voice in Black, Caribbean, and lesbian feminist literature, Michelle Cliff (1946-2016) was born to a mixed-race family in Kingston, Jamaica. She moved to Staten Island at the age of three, but returned to Jamaica with her family in 1956. Four years later, when she was fourteen, the family moved back to Staten Island. According to her Curtis High School yearbook entry, she had been living in the two-family house at 45 Belmont Place for about a year when she graduated in 1965. Her family primarily socialized with other Jamaicans on Staten Island and Brooklyn, but passed for white in their neighborhood and at work.
Cliff’s family purchased a house at 45 Fort Hill Circle in 1966, where she likely lived while she attended Wagner College until 1969. In 1975, while working as an editor at W.W. Norton & Co., she met poet Adrienne Rich. They began dating and in 1976 moved in together, establishing a lifelong partnership.
In 1977, Cliff joined a women’s writing workshop. Within a year she was contributing prose poems and essays to the lesbian literary journals Sinister Wisdom and Conditions. In 1980, she and Rich purchased Sinister Wisdom and moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. Cliff gave up her job at Norton to co-edit the journal with Rich and concentrate on her writing. That year, she published her first book, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise. In 1983, she began teaching at Norwich University’s Vermont College Campus, the first of several faculty positions, which included the Allan K. Smith Professorship of English Language and Literature at Trinity College, Hartford.
Cliff continued to publish prose poetry, memoirs, criticism, short stories, and three novels: Abeng (1985), No Telephone to Heaven (1987), and Free Enterprise (2004). The Poetry Foundation has characterized her work as slipping “between genres, combining history, and criticism in explorations of racism, homophobia, identity, and landscape.” Her strong sense of place is evident in several short stories set on Staten Island. These include “The Ferry,” with its depictions of Staten Island commuters and driving on the streets and boulevards of the island and “The Store of a Million Items,” where Cliff recalled childhood memories of taunting the matron at the local movie theater “who some of us would come to remember as stone butch.” Especially fond of movies, Cliff also presented a detailed and loving description of the splendors of the St. George Theater in her story “Monster,” while Staten Island’s sole lesbian bar, the Beach Haven, was “immortalized” in her 2000 short story “Rubicon.”
Cliff’s sense of her Staten Island history may also have been reflected in the woodcut print of local photographer Alice Austen and her partner Gertrude Tate that she and Rich signed and donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.