Caryl Phillips

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

Born in St. Kitts, Caryl Phillips was raised in England, where his family moved shortly after his birth. They originally settled in Leeds. Throughout Phillips’s developmental years he lived in a variety of working-class neighborhoods and attended predominantly white schools. His status as a racial minority contributed to his later concern with migration and identity. The civil unrest that occurred in London in 1976, when police and blacks clashed, sharpened his understanding of racial difference.

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At Queens College, Oxford University, Phillips initially focused on courses in psychology but later switched to an English concentration. He became active in the drama group, directing a number of plays by such authors as Henrik Ibsen, William Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams. At Oxford, Phillips met Rhodes scholar Emile Leroi Wilson, an African American who encouraged him to broaden his understanding of race relations by traveling to London and the United States. In London Phillips became more acquainted with black life through film and social interaction.

In the late 1970’s Phillips’s brief sojourn in the United States, where he visited Harlem and Los Angeles, deepened his awareness of racial issues. Influenced by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and especially Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Phillips decided to attempt to become a professional writer. His literary career began taking shape during his last year at Oxford. One of his first literary works was a teleplay for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Although it was ultimately rejected, Phillips was not deterred from pursuing a literary career.

After graduating from Oxford with honors in 1979, he relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he worked as a stagehand during a period of personal economic hard times. He continued to pursue dramatic writing, producing Strange Fruit, staged by the Sheffield Crucible in 1980. Strange Fruit explores racial ambivalence and the differing attitudes of two brothers toward race consciousness. Another of Phillips’s dramas, Where There Is Darkness, was produced in 1982 at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London. The play explores a man’s disappointments after returning to his island homeland after twenty-five years in England. Another Phillips play, The Shelter, deals with a shipwreck and a racially mixed group of survivors.

In the 1980’s Phillips used his skills as a dramatist to produce projects for British television and radio. He wrote five television screenplays: Welcome to Birmingham, The Hope and the Glory, The Record, Lost in Music, and Playing Away. His radio scripts include The Wasted Years and a documentary, No Complaints: James Baldwin at Sixty.

Phillips’s transition to fiction occurred in the mid-1980’s with the publication of his first novel, The Final Passage, which earned him the Malcolm X Prize for Literature. The novel treats Caribbean emigration to England. Its central character is a woman who struggles in a problematic marriage compounded by British racism. Phillips’s second novel, A State of Independence, portrays similar issues of Caribbean identity and migration, using St. Kitts as the site of recollection for a returning islander. Phillips’s third book, The European Tribe, a controversial nonfiction work which received both negative and positive criticism, is somewhat autobiographical in its documentation of his travels in the United States and Europe. A critique of European cultural dominance, the book is primarily derived from his observations in such places as The Netherlands, Gibraltar, Spain, France, Italy, East Germany, and Poland. In 1987, the year he received the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for The European Tribe, Phillips lectured at the University of Mysore, India.

Phillips’s third novel, Higher Ground, explores varied settings, themes, and narrative voices: eighteenth century transatlantic slavery and West Africa through the voice of an African involved in the slave trade, the social protest of 1960’s America from the point of view of an incarcerated black man, and the 1950’s immigrant experience in England from Jewish and Caribbean perspectives.

In 1990 Phillips began teaching at Amherst College in Massachusetts. That year, he was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana. Phillips continued to explore slavery as a literary theme in Cambridge, his fourth novel; it uses the differing perspectives of an Englishwoman, who is the daughter of a plantation owner, and Cambridge, an enslaved African hanged for the murder of the plantation overseer.

In 1992 Phillips received a Guggenheim Fellowship, followed a year later by the publication of Crossing the River (which was nominated for the Booker Prize), another exploration of diverse narrative voices. Divided into four sections, the novel addresses repatriation in Liberia, black pioneers en route to California, and the tensions of an interracial relationship between a black World War II soldier and a British woman. The Nature of Blood also crosses long periods of time and ethnicities; one section retells the story of Shakespeare’s play Othello from Othello’s point of view as an outsider trying to fit into Venetian society, while another section is narrated in the first person by a Holocaust survivor. Phillips is a leading Caribbean novelist. He strives to create innovative fictional forms and to bridge the African diaspora through literary art. He has received a number of awards, including a Lannan Literary Award in 1994 for his entire body of work.

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