“If I Could Write This in Fire” by Michelle Cliff
c.2008, University of Minnesota Press $21.95 / $27.40 Canada 89 pages

It happens when you’re not paying attention.

It happens, in fact, better when you’re not paying attention.

Small thoughts flit through your brain like fireflies in summer. Things you need to remember at the store. Something that has to do with what’s in your hand or in front of your face. Barely-noticed scenery spotted through a window. Half-completed ideas. Things you murmur to yourself, then quickly forget.

Imagine what the world would be like if we all wrote those thoughts, short memories and ideas down. Fortunately, author Michelle Cliff did just that, and in her new book “If I Could Write This in Fire”, you’ll read a few of them.

Born light-skinned (or “red”, as a cousin claimed) in a country where your ancestors could have been slaves or slave owners, Cliff remembers her best friend, Zoe. They were close when they were young children in Jamaica, but as dark-toned Zoe and fairer Cliff grew up, their paths separated. Poverty and domestic violence became Zoe’s life. Cliff went on to private school in England. She suspects that the difference in skin tone may have meant a difference in opportunity.

On a cross-country tour of America and back, Cliff makes note of the places through which she passes: small New Mexico and Texas towns where souvenirs reflect the location and the history; Oklahoma, where “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates” signs dot the highway; a Missouri diner in which the cook’s wife appears to be speaking to herself; Civil War battlefields; Nebraska museums dedicated to African Americans; the coast of California where a Dust Bowl survivor tells Cliff about leaving her mark.

Back in Europe: Cliff is speaking about Jamaican literature at a college in Frankfurt. The students seem indifferent, but they’re listening. In between sessions, Cliff visits the local cemetery where opfer Auschwitz and opfer Riga are carved on Jewish headstones. She talks with an elderly rabbi. She believes herself alone with ghosts.

Finally, on a plane to Houston, Cliff overhears an exchange between two men in which racism is expressed almost blithely. This gives her reason – as if a light-skinned, lesbian woman with “tall hair”, a descendant of Africans needs reason – to examine race and discrimination. In her last chapter of this book, Cliff offers ten simple “tests” for anyone who believes that racial inequality is dead.

I have to admit, I almost didn’t finish this book. The preface made me want to toss it aside with great force. In the end, I was glad I didn’t.

Author Michelle Cliff has a knife-sharp eye for detail and has an uncanny ability to burrow into your brain with observations that almost hurt. The sadness in “If I Could Write This in Fire” is so real that you can carry it; the wit, so keen it can cut; the anger, hot as a poker.

Pick up a copy of “If I Could Write This in Fire” for a gift, then grab one for yourself. This satisfying, thought-provoking book is the kind that, when finished, begs for renewed attention.