Caryl Phillips’s body of work is marked by his experience as an immigrant from the former British colony of St. Kitts to the Yorkshire city of Leeds, where he spent his childhood and was educated. His most significant dramatic works are the three plays written and performed in the early 1980’s, which have their origins in his firsthand knowledge of the painful cultural displacement that causes family conflict and breakdown among immigrants. His first two plays, he says, are based on his emotional identification with his characters, not on his own experience. In both plays, a central motif is the bitter disillusionment of West Indian immigrants with the paternalistic British society that marginalizes them. Their psychological security is undermined by the historical forces of colonialism and their own self-delusion. These two plays were traditional in form and, Phillips says, easy to write because of his youth and inexperience.
In writing the third play, The Shelter, however, Phillips suffered a period of intense difficulty. His solution to the problems of his material was to experiment with form, locating each of the two acts in a different historical time, requiring the audience to complete the connection. In this play, he confronted what he views as the ultimate taboo: the sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman that evokes hatred and fear in white people. Phillips wanted to force his audience to identify with the lives of Britain’s immigrants, whose stories had been ignored in England and continental Europe, and to acknowledge the racial prejudice that underlies both English and European society.
Phillips has continued to use this fracturing of historical time in his work, most notably in his novel Cambridge (1991, 1992), evoking mixed responses from literary critics. He has continued to explore the themes of his early plays in his fiction. He believes strongly in his responsibility as an artist to correct the myths of history and to reveal the truth. He echoes the words of Langston Hughes in defining the dilemma of the black writer: “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites.”
Phillips believes that critics have judged his work in terms of writing by white authors, rather than respecting his perspective as a black man. While acknowledging the horrors of the history of racial persecution, he describes a more subtle danger that white people do not understand. This is best expressed by the black male slave in The Shelter who says to the white woman: “I have much to fear in any man’s presence but it is not the chains that I dread, it is the manner of thought that flashes between a man’s clapping eyes on me and the opening of his mouth. It is not his touch but...
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