Caryl Phillips Phillips, Caryl - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Caryl Phillips 1958–

English novelist, playwright, and essayist.

Phillips is perhaps better known today for his novels, particularly Cambridge (1991) and Crossing the River (1993), than for his plays, which have been produced for the stage, television, radio, and cinema. In both his drama and awarding-winning fiction, Phillips consistently has related the experiences of the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Europe, and America; his works offer a historical and an international perspective on the themes of immigration (forced and other-wise), cultural and social displacement, and nostalgia for an elusive "home" that often exists in mythical proportions in the minds of his characters. Yet Phillips adamantly has refused the label "black" writer. In the preface to his play The Shelter (1983), he said: "In Africa I was not black. In Africa I was a writer. In Europe I am black. In Europe I am a black writer. If the missionaries wish to play the game along these lines then I do not wish to be an honorary white."

Biographical Information

Born March 13, 1958, in St. Kitts, West Indies, Phillips was brought to England when he was only twelve weeks old. He was raised in Leeds and attended The Queen's College, Oxford, from which he received a B.A. with honors in 1979. Phillips's first stage play, Strange Fruit, was produced in 1980, followed by Where There Is Darkness (1982) and The Shelter. He then pursued other media for his dramatic productions. In 1984 he produced the radio play The Wasted Years, which was published in Best Radio Plays of 1984, and the television plays The Hope and the Glory and The Record. In 1985 Phillips was awarded the Malcolm X Prize for his first novel, The Final Passage, which encouraged him to write another novel, A State of Independence (1986), and a collection of three novellas, Higher Ground (1986). Upon returning from a European tour during 1986, he wrote The European Tribe (1987), a collection of travel essays for which he received the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize. With the publication of his third novel, Cambridge (1991), Phillips was recognized by the London Sunday Times as "Young Writer of the Year" in 1992 and was listed among GRANTA's "Best of Young British Novelists" of 1993. His latest novel, Crossing the River (1993), was nominated for the respected Booker Prize. Phillips was appointed writer-in-residence at Mysore, India, in 1987 and at Stockholm University, Sweden, in 1989. Since 1990 he has been Visiting Professor of English at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Major Works

The dominant theme in most of Phillips's works is the human displacement and dislocation associated with the migratory experience of blacks in both England and America. His first plays explore the lives of West Indian immigrants pulled between England and their Caribbean homeland; his later dramas focus on historical situations concerning the African slave trade in America and England. Much of Phillips's fiction expands the issues presented in his plays. For instance, The Final Passage tells of a West Indian family who gain passage to England during the 1950s, while A State of Independence relates the return of a man who had left his native island twenty years earlier for an Oxford scholarship. Cambridge juxtaposes the journal of Emily, a nineteenth-century English woman living at her father's West Indian plantation, with the story of Cambridge, an educated slave there; it reflects the situation portrayed in the play The Shelter, in which a white widow and a freed slave are shipwrecked on a desert island at the end of the eighteenth century. Crossing the River, like Phillips's radio play of the same name, addresses the human cost of the African slave trade, but the novel is narrated by several voices, including a father who sold his children, a slave-ship captain, and an English shopgirl who loves an African-American soldier stationed in England during World War II. Higher Ground voices the separate tales of an African operative in the slave trade, an African-American convict during the 1960s, and Irene, a Jewish Pole exiled in London after World War II. Notable among the travel essays in The European Tribe are studies of the Shakespearean characters Othello and Shylock, made while the author was in Venice, and reminiscences of a dinner party with James Baldwin and Miles Davis in France.

Critical Reception

Critics almost universally acclaimed Phillips's first novel, The Final Passage, which revealed to David Montrose the author's "clear potential as a novelist." But detractors began to appear with the release of A State of Independence. According to Adewale Maja-Pearce, the novel suffers from "appalling prose style and indifferent characterisation." Higher Ground generated confusion about whether the individual stories were meant to be linked thematically; nonetheless, Charles P. Sarvan called it "a moving and disturbing book." The racial theme in The European Tribe made this work "too important a book to be ignored," in the opinion of Charles R. Johnson, but most critics concurred with Merle Rubin, who found the collection "significant but uneven." Phillips reached a considerably larger audience with the publication of Cambridge, "a masterfully sustained, exquisitely crafted novel," according to Maya Jaggi. Following the appearance of this work, certain commentators noted Phillips's adept handling of female voices in his fiction, while others detected an undercurrent of pessimism in his novelistic vision. Recently, scholars have started exploring Phillips's texts within the context of postcolonial literary theory. Many critics found significance in the "multi-voiced chorus" of Crossing the River; as John Brenkman indicated, "the global awareness of the [black] diaspora has stimulated a writer like Caryl Phillips to find the languages and the stories in which [our] complex fates can be told."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Strange Fruit (drama) 1980
Where There Is Darkness (drama) 1982
The Shelter (drama) 1983
The Hope and the Glory (television screenplay) 1984
The Record (television screenplay) 1984
The Wasted Years (broadcast drama) 1984
The Final Passage (novel) 1985
Lost in Music (television screenplay) 1985
Crossing the River (broadcast drama) 1986
Higher Ground (novellas) 1986
Playing Away (screenplay) 1986
A State of Independence (novel) 1986
The European Tribe (travel essays) 1987
The Prince of Africa (broadcast drama) 1987
Cambridge (novel) 1991
Writing Fiction (broadcast drama) 1991
Crossing the River (novel) 1993

∗Comprises the novellas "Heartland," "The Cargo Rap," and "Higher Ground."

Hugh Barnes (review date 7 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Return of the Native," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 4, March 7, 1985, pp. 20-21.

[In the following excerpt, Barnes discusses the myth of resettlement in The Final Passage, concluding that Phillips "only partially illuminates its theme."]

Homesickness is fabulous magic. Even as the world shrinks and the epic edge is blunted, the resettlement myth persists. Ulyssean travelogues are few and far between in Caryl Phillips's The Final Passage and the novels of Paule Marshall, but families uproot themselves. Their stories correspond, but not in time or place. Phillips's travellers leave their small Caribbean island for Britain in the 1950s,...

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David Montrose (review date 8 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Out and Back," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4275, March 8, 1985, p. 266.

[In the following review, Montrose finds little to fault in The Final Passage, noting that Phillips "has clear potential as a novelist."]

Caryl Phillips's first novel [The Final Passage] opens in 1958, with its young black heroine, Leila Preston, queuing on a Caribbean dockside. Along with Michael, her husband of twelve months, and her baby son, she is about to leave the unnamed island of her birth for England. As the voyage begins, a long flashback retails the events which brought her to seek "a new start after the pain of the last year".

The cause of...

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Adewale Maja-Pearce (review date February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Like a River in Summer," in Books and Bookmen, No. 364, February, 1986, pp. 35-36.

[In the following review, Maja-Pearce pans A State of Independence, faulting its "appalling prose style and indifferent characterisation."]

For some time now writing by 'black' authors has been extremely fashionable. We know this because last year the Greater London Council, giving its seal of approval to current fashion, instituted a number of annual awards exclusively for young 'black' writers. It was a case of never mind the quality, feel the ethnicity. The most lucrative of these prizes, the GLC Malcolm X Prize, was awarded to Caryl Phillips, once upon a time from the...

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Richard Eder (review date 6 July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A State of Independence, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 6, 1986, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder finds "a singular freshness" in Phillips's characters in A State of Independence.]

From the time he lands in St. Kitts, the Caribbean island he left 20 years earlier for a scholarship in Britain, Bertram Francis is assaulted by the heat.

He feels it at every moment and in every movement—this native, returned from what was to have been a brilliant future but turned out to be two decades of improvisation in London's West Indian slums.

Now it is independence eve in St. Kitts. Bertram is back, not as...

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Ashok Bery (review date 10 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sudden Departures," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4384, April 10, 1987, p. 396.

[Below, Bery calls The European Tribe "an uneven, thin-textured book."]

Caryl Phillips's novel A State of Independence deals with the dilemma of a man who goes back to the Caribbean after twenty years in England, only to find his assumption that he would be able to settle easily into life on his native island shaken by his experiences. Phillips, who left St Kitts at the age of twelve weeks, also made a journey back, but, as he explains in the introduction to The European Tribe, "still felt like a transplanted tree that had failed to take root in foreign...

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Andrea Lee (review date 9 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Into the White Continent," in New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1987, p. 7.

[In the following review, Lee suggests that the essays in The European Tribe are too brief for "sustained analysis" since Phillips's focus is too broad.]

Part travelogue, part cri de coeur, [The European Tribe, a] short book of essays, records a year-long odyssey through the multiracial Europe of the 1980's. Caryl Phillips, a young British novelist of African-Caribbean descent, seems ideally suited to explore themes of national and racial identity, exile and cultural disorientation. An Oxford graduate who grew up in white working-class London feeling like "a...

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Merle Rubin (review date 19 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Racial Undertones in European Attitudes," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 79, No. 186, August 19, 1987, p. 22.

[In the following review, Rubin determines that The European Tribe "is a significant book, but an uneven one."]

"As a first-generation migrant, I came to Britain at the portable age of 12 weeks; I grew up riddled with the cultural confusions of being black and British," writes Caryl Phillips. Born in St. Kitts in the West Indies, Phillips spent his formative years in England, living in predominantly white, working-class neighborhoods while attending predominantly white, middle-class schools. Until meeting up with a defiantly black...

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Adam Lively (review date 2-8 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After Slavery," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4496, June 2-8, 1989, p. 619.

[In the following review, Lively complains that the theme of oppression in Higher Ground "sticks out too much."]

One of the most damaging ways in which to draw and quarter a novel is by plucking out "themes". And conversely, one of the most dangerous traps that a writer can dig and jump into is to take an overly conceptual approach, imposing an idea on the imagination rather than letting it breed there. Something like this may have been the case with Caryl Phillips's Higher Ground. He describes it—in what sounds more like an apology than a subtitle—as "a novel in...

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Barbara Smith (review date 24 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Past Has Fled," in New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Smith laments the lack of "a vision of transformation" in Higher Ground.]

Caryl Phillips's novel Higher Ground recounts a tragically familiar tale three times over. Through his subtle portraits of an African go-between for British slave traders in the 1080's, an African-American prisoner during the late 1960's and a Jewish woman from Poland exiled in London following World War II, Mr. Phillips—the author of The European Tribe and two previous novels—creates a complex chronicle of oppression. The focus is not on the politics of those who have...

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Charles P. Sarvan and Hasan Marhama (essay date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fictional Works of Caryl Phillips: An Introduction," in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 35-40.

[In the following essay, Sarvan and Marhama examine the representation of historical violence and its consequences in The Final Passage, A State of Independence, and Higher Ground.]

Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts in 1958 and was brought by his parents to England in that year. He grew up in Leeds, studied at the University of Oxford, but returned recently to St. Kitts and the Caribbean. (Of course, there are no real returns but always and only onward journeys.) He has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe and...

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Maya Jaggi (review date 15 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Society and Its Slaves," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4589, March 15, 1991, p. 10.

[In the following review, Jaggi finds Cambridge to be "a masterfully sustained, exquisitely crafted novel."]

Caryl Phillips's first two novels skilfully probed the link between Britain and the Caribbean after the Second World War. The common theme was migration, whether viewed through Leila's hopeful journey to the metropolis in The Final Passage (1985) or Bertram's tentative return to a de-colonized island following a twenty-year absence in A State of Independence (1986). In his fourth novel, Phillips resumes this Anglo-Caribbean exploration but in a...

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Caryl Phillips with Graham Swift (interview date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Caryl Phillips Interviewed by Graham Swift," in Kunapipi, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1991, pp. 96-103.

[In the following interview, Phillips discusses the genesis of Cambridge and comments on the different cultural influences at work in his writings.]

I first met Caryl, or Caz as I've come to know him, a few years ago at a literary jamboree in Toronto. I think we fulfilled all our official duties, but we spent a lot of time in a place in downtown Toronto called the Bamboo Club—one of those places which has acquired since a sort of metaphysical status, because whenever Caz and I have met again in some far-flung corner of the globe, it seems our first instinct...

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Caryl Phillips with C. Rosalind Bell (interview date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Worlds Within: An Interview with Caryl Phillips," in Callaloo, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 578-606.

[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in St. Kitts, West Indies, Phillips speaks to his identity as a writer, relates various literary and cultural influences in his work, and discusses his writing process.]

[Bell:] When did you start to allow yourself to be introduced as a writer? Was it at the point of your first sale or while you were actually in the middle of some work?

[Phillips:] I still don't like to be introduced as a writer.

Really? Why is that?

Well … I think it...

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Claudia Roth Pierpont (review date 10 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "English Lessons," in The New Yorker, Vol. 68, No. 25, August 10, 1992, pp. 76-9.

[In the following excerpt, Pierpont analyzes Cambridge in the context of Phillips's other works.]

In the introduction to his play The Shelter, produced in 1983, when he was twenty-five, the British writer Caryl Phillips described a postcard photograph that he had kept pinned to the wall above his desk for over a year: "A white woman's face, probably that of a woman of thirty or thirty-five, who had probably just cried, or who would cry; and curled around her forehead, with just enough pressure to cause a line of folds in the skin above her eyes, were two black hands;...

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Evelyn O'Callaghan (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Historical Fiction and Fictional History: Caryl Phillips's Cambridge," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1993, p. 34-47.

[In the following essay, O'Callaghan treats the intertextual aspects of Cambridge by examining the novel's relation to slave narratives and travel journals or diaries.]

Post-modernism maintains that everything is fiction. Post-modernists say that there is no such thing as reality, only versions of reality. History is fiction, science is fiction, psychology is fiction.

So what about fiction itself? What is it supposed to do now? Plot and character are done for. If...

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Oliver Reynolds (review date 14 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sold into Slavery," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4702, May 14, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review, Reynolds likens the structure of Crossing the River to "a consciousness of the burdens of slavery."]

Crossing the River, Caryl Phillips's fifth novel, returns to the structure of his third, Higher Ground (1989), by juxtaposing stories from the past and near-present. It is divided into four main parts and two of its four stories overlap. In the first part, Edward Williams, an American tobacco planter and a solid Christian, sets off for West Africa in 1841 in search of a former slave of his, Nash, who is now a missionary.


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Maya Jaggi (review date 30 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tracking the African Diaspora," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 148, No. 22, May 30, 1993, p. 29.

[In the following review, Jaggi relates Phillips's own comments on Crossing the River.]

Graham Greene once said childhood was the bank balance of the writer. For Caryl Phillips, the source goes deeper: "For writers who are black, and working against an undertow of historical ignorance, it's our history that's our bank balance."

Phillips's novel Cambridge (1991) exposed the lasting psychological legacy of slavery through layers of irony in the twin accounts of Emily, a 19th century Englishwoman visiting her father's plantation in the...

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Janet Burroway (review date 30 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Slaves to Fate," in New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1994, p. 10.

[In the following review, Burroway considers Crossing the River "a brilliant coherent vision" and "a book with an agenda."]

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner observed. "It's not even past." This perception is brought home in Caryl Phillips's fifth novel, Crossing the River—which, although it plays with disjunctive time, presents a brilliantly coherent vision of two and a half centuries of the African diaspora.

The main body of Mr. Phillips's novel consists of four taut narratives—two white voices, two black; two male, two female. But its...

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Caryl Phillips with Carol Margaret Davison (interview date 14 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crisscrossing the River: An Interview with Caryl Phillips," in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 4, October, 1994, pp. 91-99.

[In the following interview, Phillips talks about his literary success and his responsibilities as a writer.]

Taken to England at the "portable" age of 12 weeks from St. Kitts, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, 35-year-old Caryl Phillips grew up in Leeds, was educated at Oxford, and has spent his literary career probing the ramifications of displacement, a complex condition that he claims characterizes the twentieth century and "engenders a great deal of suffering, a great deal of confusion, a great deal of soul searching." Describing...

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Farah Jasmine Griffin (review date June-September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Crossing the River, in Boston Review, Vol. XIX, Nos. 3-4, June-September, 1994, pp. 45-46.

[In the following review, Griffin gives a favorable assessment of Crossing the River, concluding that "the book's final pages [are] surely among the most powerful and beautiful pages written in contemporary literature."]

Caryl Phillips's stunning novel [Crossing the River] begins in a painful act of abandonment: the anonymous narrator, a father on West Africa's Pagan Coast, sells his three children into slavery. Through this desperate act, he unwittingly initiates a "many-tongued … chorus of common memory" that extends from the Middle...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Campbell, James. "Answering Back." London Review of Books 13, No. 13 (11 July 1991): 20.

Praises Cambridge for revealing the consequences of the slave trade from an African's perspective.

Campbell, Peter. "Pictures." London Review of Books 11, No. 10 (18 May 1989): 16-17.

Comments on the "colonial impulse" in Higher Ground.

Chambers, Veronica. "A Father's Lament." Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 February 1994): 3, 10.

Claims Crossing the River is more than a...

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