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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, when prospects were cheery. The white folks of the West had never had it so good: too good, or so their masters told them, to settle at menial labours. Since the publication of her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959, Paule Marshall has been weaving a delicate history of the Barbadians who emigrated to America earlier in the century. Stepping off the boats, though not all were so fortunate, the wayfarers arrived in their new homes with nothing to declare but memories and aspirations.
The West Indians who alighted at Southampton and Bristol, wives in cotton dresses, husbands in demob suits and trilbies, were items of unfinished history, dredged up from the bottom of the sea of progress. Perhaps their experience has still not been assimilated. It is appropriate that The Final Passage opens at the seafront with the exiles-to-be waiting for the SS Winston Churchill to drop anchor. The peanut vendor offers comfort to the greedy. Leila and her baby son Calvin are waiting not only for embarkation orders but also for a third passenger whose valedictory boozing has left him worse for wear. Phillips ruptures the time-scheme of his novel, leading us back from impending departure into the events of the previous year. Michael is an unprepossessing family man. He takes what he likes and abuses the rest, which is sometimes his wife. When her pregnancy entered its advanced stages, she became useless, no longer pleasurable, and he left her for the consolations of his mistress. Nevertheless, for all his shortcomings, he emerges as the avatar of his companions' forebodings: 'Leaving this place going to make me feel old, you know, like leaving the safety of your family to go live with strangers.' Leila would say he was a fine one to talk of his family and its safeties. Phillips's thesis is straightforward and unassuming. The Final Passage chronicles loss, not acquisition. The opening section which unveils this small beginning is ominously entitled 'The End'.
Leila is unimpressed by the amenity of Baytown and environs, which she interprets as stasis: 'this small proud island, overburdened with vegetation and complacency'. And not much else, apart from dreams of excellence at sex or cricket or calypso. Bordered by mountains that contain the heat, the island sprawls in dust, its inhabitants for the most part listless and contented. Politics and anger surface intermittently, but they seem to belong to the older generation always, to Leila's mother, who scolds her for loitering with white tourists, or to Michael's grandfather, who tries in vain to prepare him for the ways of the world: 'Too much laughing is bad for the coloured man, too much sadness is bad for the coloured man, but too much hating is the baddest of them all and can destroy a coloured man for true.' Michael listens doubtfully, taking little of it in. His determination to reach England is founded on fantastic rumours about white women, for whose sake he...
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is cultivating a Ronald Coleman moustache. Alphonse Waters tells him it's 'a stupid and bad crazy world' across the sea. Secretly this is what he hopes. During the sea voyage, the men assemble on deck and exchange boastful ignorance, gleaned from random studies ofThe History of the English-Speaking Peoples and the Encyclopedia Britannica. There's an industrial revolution raging in England, that much they are agreed on, but who's leading it, and against whom, remain mysteries. Phillips neatly captures the harsh reality of the promised land, its smugness and its outlook of permanent grey, booms and recessions notwithstanding. The notices outside guest-houses and cafés are manifestly hostile, and the faces on the advertising hoardings stare down reprovingly at the strangers. The family move out of a communal slum into a slum of their own, which they cannot pay for. Michael's periods of silence draw out and last for days at a time. Seldom at home, when he is he trains his surliness like a weapon, or returns in the early hours for drunken assaults on his wife and for vomiting. After one particularly ugly ordeal, and dispiriting inquiries from the social work department, Leila abandons Michael and his adopted country for the sufferable hardships of home. Perhaps this is the novel's bleakest moment: it is also one of affirmative self-discovery which unites Leila with the heroines of Paule Marshall's novels. Selina Boyce in Brown Girl, Brownstones leaves Brooklyn for Barbados, where her father had inherited a plot of land. And Avey Johnson in Praisesong for the Widow digs deep into her past, and that of her ancestors in South Carolina, to replenish it and make it usable. The Final Passage is a small story by comparison, and only partially illuminates its theme. There is sadness certainly, and defeat. But as Christmas comes to London, Leila's hopes are exhausted and also just beginning.
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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."
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.
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.
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."
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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 that pain has been Leila's ill-advised marriage. Michael is unreliable, selfish, a drunk and a layabout; a noted philanderer, too. While courting Leila, indeed, he continued his long-standing affair with Beverley, the wife of a man working in America. Michael is the father of her child. Leila knew all this, but accepted him nevertheless, jilting the steady Arthur—also in America, studying—and alienating her invalid mother, who emigrated to England soon afterwards. Obviously, Leila found Michael the more exciting suitor, but an impatience to change her life was a factor as well; it would have been another two years before Arthur qualified and they could marry. Michael has inflicted heartache from their wedding day onwards. After a quarrel at the reception, he walked out and spent the next two nights at Beverley's. Returning, he passed a fortnight with Leila—during which she conceived—then took up with Beverley once again. Leila had already decided to follow her mother when he reappeared, spurned by Beverley, promising to accompany her, to "make it work".
But the new start proves to be a resumption of the old pain. Leila's mother is in hospital, terminally ill; Michael quickly reverts to his familiar ways and virtually fades from the scene (though not before making Leila pregnant a second time). England itself administers further hurts. The weather is unkind even in summer, the people are largely indifferent or hostile. Walls carry racist slogans, landlords' signs stipulate "No coloureds". Finally, her mother now dead, with Christmas icily approaching, Leila determines to return without Michael to her homeland. This resolution is preceded by the symbolic burning of "the objects and garments that reminded her of her five months in England". The novel ends, as it opens, with Leila on the verge of a fresh beginning. Her prospects of serenity remain uncertain, but the outlook at least seems promising.
Despite some shortcomings—notably a rather jumbled structure—The Final Passage shows that Phillips, hitherto known as a play-wright, has clear potential as a novelist. The characterization of Leila is a trifle flat, but Michael is admirably portrayed, especially when rationalizing his behaviour. In addition, the author sustains an atmosphere of emotional adversity without ever allowing the book to degenerate into soap opera. (He proves, however, less adept when the gloom lifts: little comes across of the misplaced hope with which Leila contemplates marriage and emigration.) Phillips left his native St Kitts as a baby in 1958; Leila's experience of England is that undergone by many of his parents' generation. One looks forward to a novel drawing on his own past.
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Strange Fruit (drama) 1980Where There Is Darkness (drama) 1982The Shelter (drama) 1983The Hope and the Glory (television screenplay) 1984The Record (television screenplay) 1984The Wasted Years (broadcast drama) 1984The Final Passage (novel) 1985Lost in Music (television screenplay) 1985Crossing the River (broadcast drama) 1986 ∗Higher Ground (novellas) 1986Playing Away (screenplay) 1986A State of Independence (novel) 1986The European Tribe (travel essays) 1987The Prince of Africa (broadcast drama) 1987Cambridge (novel) 1991Writing Fiction (broadcast drama) 1991Crossing the River (novel) 1993
∗Comprises the novellas "Heartland," "The Cargo Rap," and "Higher Ground."
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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 West Indian island of St Kitts, for his novel The Final Passage. It wasn't a good novel, but who cared? The organisers had been able to pat their little black brother on the head. Now Caryl Phillips has published a second novel, A State of Independence. It is as bad as the first and for much the same reasons: an appalling prose style and indifferent characterisation.
The novel opens with the hero, Bertram Francis, returning to the Caribbean island of his birth after a 20-year absence in England. Entering the village in which he had been born and brought up, he is arrested by the following sight: 'Underneath (the) houses played the children and fowls, while the sun-blackened adults tended to the sporadic yam or cassava plants that speckled the yard. Above them towered the stubborn breadfruit trees, pregnant with food, and together with the thick rubbery banana leaves, the wispier leaves of the palm, and the blazing red of the hibiscus, they created a spectacle of foliage through which only the sharpest spokes of light could penetrate.' I'm not quite sure what a 'sun-blackened adult' is, though one must assume that he doesn't mean an adult who was once white. Nor would I have described plants as 'sporadic', however few and far between; in any case, to say that they 'speckled the yard' conjures up the image of small spots or stains, however pleasingly alliterative. Meanwhile the breadfruit trees are made to carry a heavy load: 'stubborn' and 'pregnant' at the same time, like wilful teenage daughters who didn't listen to their mothers. Nothing can be simple or straightforward: the banana leaves must be 'thick and rubbery' and the hibiscus must be 'blazing red'. This is typical of the level of the prose which, when not buried under the weight of so many adjectives, is deadened by clichés: 'The gate still hung drunkenly from its hinges'; 'Their letters to each other, though never frequent, seemed to have dried up like a river in summer'. Caryl Phillips is obsessed with similes. Nothing can be left to stand on its own. Matters are made worse when he attempts to be original: 'The houses … were wooden shacks painted all colours, as though a rainbow had bent down and licked some life into the place'; 'The stillness of the sea in the foreground looked … like a mirror set ablaze'. And where he isn't straining for effect the writing is simply bad. People are forever 'peeling' themselves off the sand, 'draping' their arms around each other, 'threading' their way through bars, 'folding' into embraces or over counters, 'winding' themselves round doors. It is all very unconvincing, as unconvincing as the story itself.
Bertram Francis has returned to his island with the idea of perhaps opening a small business and settling down to look after his elderly mother. To this end he seeks out his childhood friend, Jackson Clayton, now a politician and wealthy businessman. But Jackson's business consists of being the local representative of foreign capital. For this reason he is hostile to people like Bertram who want to develop indigenous industries, on however small a scale. Their relationship is further complicated by a long-standing feud over a woman, Patsy, whom Bertram had been on the verge of marrying before he won the scholarship which took him away. This left the way open for Jackson, who has a brief affair with her, but it comes to nothing. Patsy has only ever loved Bertram, and when he returns she is conveniently waiting for him. Bertram discovers this after his final showdown with Jackson, and the novel ends with him back in Patsy's bed. The characters themselves are all crudely drawn. Patsy in particular is a cliché of the woman as symbol for the country which finally embraces our returning hero. Apparently she didn't have anything better to do in the meantime. If she has any inner life the author does not suggest so. But then none of the characters do. All Bertram can remember of England is the fog, which seemed to him 'like a grey-white blanket that would rip as easily as water, yet it was as thick as solidified milk'.
There is even reason to think that such an appalling novel would never have been published if it had been written by a 'white' author, despite the publishers' assurance that Caryl Phillips, in his second novel, 'has given us yet another deftly drawn study of the Caribbean predicament'.
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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 the successful lawyer and future judge that scholarship boys hoped to become in the old days of the Queen, but with a little money and vague hopes of finding a place.
But he sweats all the time. He changes his clothes continually, pulling them out of the two English suitcases that take up half the floor space in his mother's hut on the outskirts of the capital. His antiperspirant is flooded out.
It is the sign of a larger estrangement. In Caryl Phillips' acrid and touching novel [A State of Independence], the message is both: "You can't go home again" and "You have nowhere else to go." Independence is a party, and a shift of the colonial axis from Britain to the United States. What remains on these Caribbean microdots is a bleak constant.
There is nowhere to seek a fortune, neither at home nor abroad. There is no frontier, or big city; merely a cramped economy with dying sugar mills, a few luxury hotels for the tourists, shadowy administrative facilities made available to shadowy foreign businessmen, and the women in print dresses who sit all morning in a dead marketplace with their tiny piles of wares.
It is a somber message, but A State of Independence is far from a somber book. For the most part, Bertram's adventures in attempting a return that resists him are told with dry comedy. Phillips, who comes from St. Kitts and lives in London, adorns a harsh judgment with the gentlest of lampoons. It is calypso, if you like: a moral played out with a lilting absence of moralism.
Bertram left St. Kitts under a halo, having won the prize examination at his village school. The examination scene, told in flashback, is a wondrously colonial affair. A dozen papers arrive in a sealed packet from London; three hours later, a dozen futures are mailed to London to be judged and returned.
Even as he sits there writing, Bertram is visibly set apart from his best friend, Jackson Clayton, who is affable, a prize cricket-player and an indifferent student. And when he wins and goes off, it is clear that nothing will ever be the same between him and his friend.
Nothing is the same, and it is the book's hinge. Studying law in London was simply the token pigeonhole provided for blacks from the islands. If it meant a job once, when the empire was in bloom, it means very little now that the empire has withered. Bertram drifts off from his studies; Clayton, on the other hand, uses his cricket and his affability to make connections, go into politics and flourish.
And so, Bertram comes home counting on his friend, now deputy prime minister as well as minister of agriculture, lands, housing, labor and tourism. But things are not that simple. Bertram is an ebullient miscalculation bobbing in a sea of frigid calculations.
Times have changed, as Clayton makes brutally clear when Bertram finally manages to see him in his lavish office. Surely, Bertram ventures, his London background and his connections will let him "make a contribution" in the new St. Kitts.
London counts for nothing, Clayton tells him. St. Kitts' metropolis is Miami now, along with the money and deals that trickle down from it. As for connections, he intimates with considerable pleasure; none of the deals are for Bertram. There are not, after all, that many to go around.
And there is the old resentment. Bertram's old girlfriend, Patsy, explains it to him. She had favored him over Clayton in the pre-scholarship days.
"I don't see why that can't just fall into the past now. What is done is done," Bertram protests. This is too simple; the author is setting him up for Patsy's reply. But the reply is worth it.
"You really feel so?" said Patsy. "Nothing in this place ever truly falls into the past. It's all here in the present, for we're too small a country to have a past."
Patsy, aging, disillusioned yet welcoming in her skeptical way, provides a lot of the book's life. Neither the theme, the story nor the relationships are particularly new; and toward the end, matters become decidedly forced.
But for much of the time, Phillips provides a singular freshness through the delicacy with which he handles his characters and their feelings. There is an intriguing balance of intimacy and distance. It is as if, as he introduces us to them, he were introducing himself to them as well.
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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 historical novel about slavery: it is also "about parenting, about bad decisions, and remorse."
Davis, Clive. "Noble Black Suffering." New Statesman & Society 2, No. 46 (21 April 1989): 36.
Derides the theme of "noble black suffering" in Higher Ground.
Delbanco, Nicholas. "Themes of Lament." Chicago Tribune Books (23 January 1994): 5.
Mixed assessment of Crossing the River, concluding that "we focus on the teller not the tale."
Forbes, Calvin. "Slavery's Cruel Web." Chicago Tribune Books (1 March 1992): 6.
Examines Cambridge in the context of both American and West Indian slavery.
Friedman, Melvin J. Review of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 195-6.
Compares Cambridge to William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Garrett, George. "Separate Prisons." New York Times Book Review (16 February 1992): 1, 24-25.
Positive review of Cambridge, focusing on Phillips's characterization and narrative style.
Holmstrom, David. "Triple Mirror Images in Black and White." Christian Science Monitor (10 February 1994): 11.
Discusses racial relations in Crossing the River.
Johnson, Charles R. Review of The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips. Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 July 1987): 3, 11.
Concludes that The European Tribe "is too important a book to be ignored."
―――――――. "Slaves and Slavers, Then and Now." Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 October 1989): 2, 11.
Summarizes the novellas comprising Higher Ground.
Review of The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips. Journal of Black Studies 20, No. 1 (September 1989): 113.
Praises The European Tribe for its "penetrating insights" into the social and cultural isolation of blacks in white societies.
Ledbetter, James. "Victorian's Secret." Village Voice 37, No. 17 (28 April 1992): 67.
Glowing review of Cambridge in terms of its "sterling and lyrical" language.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips. The New York Times (27 July 1987): C20.
Examines Phillips reasons for writing The European Tribe.
Lezard, Nicholas. "Facing It." London Review of Books 15, No. 18 (23 September 1993): 21.
Likens Phillips's prose in Crossing the River to "a mirror and a level surface on which the superficial differences between black and white can be smoothed out."
MacErlean, Neasa. "Tales of Fortune." Books and Bookmen, No. 353 (February 1985): 27.
Calls The Final Passage "a finely written and intelligent first novel."
Miller, Lucasta. "Passages." New Statesman & Society 6, No. 253 (21 May 1993): 34-35.
Considers Crossing the River "a nuanced, humane, and sympathetic" work.
Nixon, Rob. "Home Truths." Village Voice (16 August 1988): 51.
Reviews A State of Independence in the context of West Indian literature.
Pritchard, William H. Review of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips. Hudson Review XLV, No. 3 (Autumn 1992): 489-90.
Favorable review of Cambridge, comparing it to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels
Sarvan, Charles P. Review of Higher Ground, by Caryl Phillips. World Literature Today 64, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 518.
Observes that Higher Ground "is a moving and disturbing book."
Sarvan, Charles P., and Bulaila, Abdul Aziz Review of Crossing the River, by Caryl Phillips. World Literature Today 68, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 624-5.
Treats Crossing the River in terms of postmodern, postcolonial discourse.
Spurling, John. "But Not the Passions of the Slaves." Spectator 270, No. 8603 (29 May 1993): 30-31.
Finds Crossing the River "too imaginatively timid."
Sutherland, John. "Carre on Spying." London Review of Books 8, No. 6 (3 April 1986): 5-6.
Briefly considers A State of Independence, calling it "an accomplished work."
Washington, Laura. "Still Invisible." Chicago Tribune Books (5 July 1987): 5, 9.
Praises The European Tribe, but notes that Phillips is "sometimes an uneven and disjointed writer."
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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 soil". He travelled around Europe for nearly a year in an attempt to understand the forces that had helped to shape him; this book comes out of that period.
Phillips finds that "there is one story and one story only": the reality of the racism he sees almost everywhere in Europe. During his travels he encounters responses ranging from insufferable self-satisfaction to outright hostility; his account is rounded off by a polemical conclusion which explores the consequences of European colonialism and angrily attacks the continent for its bigotry and its deficient sense of history.
There are plenty of things to be angry about, incidents of a sort that can be paralleled in the lives of many black people, and Phillips describes some of them powerfully; Norwegian customs officials single him out for interrogation at Oslo airport; a London publishing house editor refers to him as a "jungle bunny". Europe, he concludes, is indivisible, united in its exclusive attitude towards blacks. The anger is real and abundantly justified, but it also seems to shut him off from some of his experiences.
There is a compulsive, driven quality about his actions which he never explicitly acknowledges. Like the Ancient Mariner, Phillips is always leaving places and people, hurriedly passing from land to land, from city to city, sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes impelled by more obscure urges. After seeing Rocky II in a Casablanca cinema (though why he should want to do this in Casablanca remains a mystery), he is so disgusted that he has to leave Morocco. The vulgarity of Torremolinos repels him; there are sudden departures from Dresden and Frankfrut; and a meeting with a drunk, unhappy Trinidadian woman in Tromsö—where Phillips has gone to test his "own sense of negritude", expecting to be the only black person around—is summarily ended when she invites him home.
This kind of abruptness is a symptom of a wider failure: he engages only intermittently with the people he meets, the countries he passes through, and even with himself. The impression is reinforced by an odd mixture of materials: personal encounters are encased in a doughy mass of statistics, routine descriptions and elementary historical, geographical or social information. Much of the book exudes dutifulness. Spain, for example, is described in lame guidebook fashion as
a beautiful and large country, second only to the Soviet Union in Europe. Of all its disparate parts Andalucía is probably the best known, the most often written about, and the most romantic. The climate is good, food and drink cheap, so it has always attracted writers….
Later, an account of Dresden-Neustadt railway station is snuffed out by a copywriter's cliché: "The atmosphere was bleak, haunting, and strangely beautiful."
The result is an uneven, thin-textured book, with the secondhand material continually interposing itself between Phillips and his experiences. It could have been different: in his final paragraph, he describes himself standing on the Rialto, unmoved by the culture of which Venice is a symbol, excluded from a Europe which denies part of its history, the part he represents. It is an eloquent image, worth much of the hackneyed description which he has felt obliged to include.
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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 transplanted tree that had failed to take root in foreign soil," Mr. Phillips embarked on a voyage of self-discovery after a trip back to the Caribbean had convinced him that, willy-nilly, he belonged, at least culturally, to Europe. "I knew," he writes in his introduction, "I would have to explore the European Academy that had shaped my mind. A large part of finding out who I was, and what I was doing here, would inevitably mean having to understand the Europeans."
Mr. Phillips chose a fascinating and topical subject. Presentday Europe percolates with third world influences, and is home to an expanding population of non-whites, born and educated in Britain or on the Continent, who are now struggling to define their relationship to societies that only half accept them. The riots in Brixton and Birmingham are one manifestation of the struggle; new voices raised by-young writers like Mr. Phillips are another. The subject is also curiously elusive. Any discussion of race and nationality touches both irrational emotion and hard social and economic fact. A satisfying approach could be either scholarly or subjective and impressionistic. Mr. Phillips takes neither, which is the chief weakness of The European Tribe. Although in a preface he describes the book as nonacademic, a notebook based on personal experience, his brief essays—which are not long enough for any sustained analysis of the countries they address—break with disconcerting frequency into a simplistic didacticism, offering information and figures more appropriate to a magazine article.
What educated reader, of the type likely to be attracted to this book, needs a description, for example, of Anne Frank's diary? Or to be told that there is a housing shortage in the Soviet Union? Throughout these pieces, which, for Mr. Phillips's purposes, need to be quirky and perceptive, banal travel writing obfuscates more important themes. Rarely is there a sense of focus. Moreover, one does not feel that Mr. Phillips has attempted much objective penetration into the national mood of the countries he visits. One of the unintentional ironies of the book is that alongside the author's justifiably scathing condemnation of European racism are included offensive national stereotypes. "East Germans," he writes, passing through Berlin, "love saluting." His final essay, an emotional indictment of Europe for its mistreatment of minorities, suffers from the same irony; the central image of a homogeneous, colonizing "European tribe" seems only a pointless answering of prejudice with prejudice.
Mr. Phillips is a born observer and writer, and when he abandons rhetoric he creates disturbingly powerful images of the cultural, collision between black and white. There is the drunken Trinidadian woman, displaced and desperate, whom Mr. Phillips meets in Tromso, Norway, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle; the Irish archbishop reminiscing nostalgically about missionary work among the Ibo; the deadend stylishness of African street people in Paris, with their Oxford bags and Burberry coats; James Baldwin and Miles Davis laughing late at night behind the isolating walls of Mr. Baldwin's estate in St.-paul-de-Vence. These and other images convey the disorientation and anguish of minorities in Europe far better than anything that Mr. Phillips can explain. For the American reader, the territory he charts in The European Tribe is new and important; had he narrowed his focus, the result, paradoxically, would have covered more ground.
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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 American fellow student at Oxford, so he tells us, he had little idea that a black person might become a writer or that blacks have a long history worthy of study.
In truth, it may be said, young Phillips had almost exactly the same uninformed view of black people as that held by the vast majority of the white "European tribe." The chief difference—though a crucial one—was that where his white neighbors, teachers, classmates, and colleagues saw him at best as a kind of blank, a white man manqué, Phillips felt that sense of void within himself.
A trip to America helped inspire him to become a writer. (He has written two novels and several plays in addition to this book.) A trip to his Caribbean birthplace brought him insights about his "roots," but could not explain the cultural forces that had shaped his development. As a product of Europe, Phillips decided to undertake a journey, starting from Casablanca, with stops in Spain, France, Venice, Amsterdam, Belfast, Dublin, Germany, Poland, Norway, and Moscow, in order to explore the culture that seemed at once to have nurtured and rejected him.
The European Tribe is a significant book, but an uneven one. Some parts are thin. Of Casablanca, Phillips has little more to say than that its very real poverty is nothing like the glamorous image dreamed up by Hollywood. In Gibraltar, he is predictably snide about the self-consciousness "Britishness" of this last outpost of empire. Visiting the novelist James Baldwin in the south of France, he tactfully retreats when jazz musician Miles Davis arrives, so as to leave the two old friends alone, which may have been nice for them, but is, to say the least, disappointing for the reader.
Describing what he sees, writing at times off the top of his head because he wants to keep this book impressionistic, Phillips is occasionally inaccurate, often naive, and always highly impressionable. Yet, he also has the capacity for making sustained judgments, for putting things in perspective, and for pinpointing the dangerous trends building up throughout a continent whose white "tribe" feels inundated by floods of immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the West Indies.
In France, he takes note of the National Front slogan "2 million immigrants—2 million unemployed." In Amsterdam, at the Anne Frank House, a room documenting the history of fascism contains a photo of a 1924 banner in Berlin: "500,000 unemployed. 400,000 Jews. Solution very simple. National Socialism."
Recoiling from neofascism in Western Europe, Phillips finds no comfort in the East. In Moscow, he finds the official artwork as chilling as the weather and is deeply distressed by the plight of a refusednik family. A Polish writer in Warsaw indicates that there are "benefits in being a victim of Western imperialism that those in the Eastern bloc could only dream about."
At Auschwitz, he finds the sheer number of killings beyond comprehension: "At least the Atlantic slave trade had some vestige of logic, however unpalatable. Auschwitz transcended the imagination." Back in England, however, a member of the educated, liberal class dismisses Phillips's reference to the 11 million Africans forced into slavery as "bloody ridiculous."
In Venice, that most scenic of settings, Phillips achieves a striking—and poignant—effect by looking inward instead of outward. Rather than admire the wealth of culture all around him, he ponders the fates of two who were outsiders, aliens in Venice: Shylock and Othello. One is a Jew, scorned by Christian society; the other a black who "makes it" in white society only to discover that he is alone and isolated in a world whose signals he does not know how to interpret.
Here, and elsewhere throughout the book, Phillips traces parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-black attitudes. He rightly resents the fact that in his educational experience, the oppression of colonialism and the scandal of slavery received no attention on television or in text-books.
Brought up in a Europe still sensitive to the Holocaust, he was, however, able to identify with the plight of the Jews. His sense of parallels between the two groups does not blind him to the differences in their situations. But, to his credit perhaps, he remains at a loss to account for the virulent strain of anti-Semitism among some American blacks, beyond echoing the far-from-adequate "explanation" that inner-city blacks felt exploited by Jewish shopkeepers.
The impression one gains from reading this book is that European blacks have only begun in recent decades to face the kinds of prejudice and antipathy that American blacks have known for hundreds of years. Phillips writes calmly, succinctly, at considerable pains not to exaggerate, but alarms go off throughout his European journey and throughout this book, which, for all its flaws, sounds an important warning, a call for a sea change in attitudes that is well worth heeding.
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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 three parts", and in a sense the problem with the book is not that the parts lack connection, but that the connection is too transparent. The "theme" sticks out too much.
This theme is the long history of racial exploitation and oppression that has followed in the wake of the Atlantic slave trade. The first part is set on the West African coast some time in the eighteenth century; the second in a jail in the American South in the 1960s; and the third in London in the late 1950s, where the backlash against post-war immigration is beginning to be felt. The intention, clearly, is to illustrate this dreadful history from a variety of perspectives, each carefully chosen. The last part, for example, is written from the point of view of a Jewess who escaped as a child from Poland just before the Second World War. Here, Phillips is making a connection between the unhappiness and sense of dislocation felt by West Indian immigrants and that felt by other "alien" groups. To make his point absolutely plain, he steers Irina, the Polish woman, towards a lonely one-night stand with Louis, who is about to return in disgust to the Caribbean.
If the overall plan of the book is a little cut-and-dried, much of the writing in the first two parts is powerful and gripping. The opening piece, "Heartland", is a particularly impressive single sweep of narrative, a tale told by a collaborator, an African who acts as an interpreter and general stooge for the British slave traders. It is a vivid evocation of historical time and place, getting inside the web of force and moral corruption through which the business was pursued. Whereas "Heartland" owes its immediacy to strength of visual imagination, the second part, "Cargo Rap," is notable for the way it catches and holds up for examination a particular voice—that of the 1960s Black Power movement. The voice—authentic in its puritanical authoritarianism and forthright sexism—is heard in the letters that one Rudi Williams writes from jail, explaining Black history and politics to his family and berating them for their Uncle Tom tendencies. But having set up this character and his situation so brilliantly, Phillips seems unsure what to do with them, and the story slides into bathos. This descent continues in the last part, where the grim emotions tend to lack context and clarity.
The history of the African diaspora is an enormous and complex subject—exploring it could consume an entire creative life. In the first two parts of Higher Ground, Caryl Phillips does get inside that complexity, but it was perhaps a mistake to give the impression that he was trying to wrap the whole subject up in one book.
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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 used racial, religious and sexual differences as a rationale for hatred and injustice, but instead upon the internal impact of oppression, especially its numbing effect on the individual spirit.
The unnamed narrator of the novel's first section, "Heartland," has been taught English in order to assist the slave traders and has thus avoided being sold. He is expected to act as an interpreter for the Europeans, not only of languages, but of behavior and customs. The whites' objective, of course, is not to communicate with the Africans, but to learn just enough to dominate them, to carry out the trade as safely and efficiently as possible.
Although his position is filled with contradictions, the go-between does not dwell on these, but sees himself as a person caught by events over which he has no control. His emotional and physical survival hinges upon his capacity to obliterate his former life, to forget the very meaning of freedom and what it was to be a respected member of the community he now helps to exploit. He thinks: "I am grateful, and would thank the Gods (if there were any to thank) that I have finally mastered this art of forgetting—of murdering the memory."
This "murdering of memory"—the destruction of the past and of history—is one of the novel's major themes. For people who are in bondage, the ability to forget may make it possible to survive the terror of the present, but it also undermines the vital core of self.
When the go-between falls in love with a young African woman, whom he originally helped to bring to the fort for the use of one of the brutal officers, his relationship to his past and present alters. Inspired by the woman's courage and independence of spirit, he finds a reason to risk his fragile security. When their relationship is discovered, the two are separated and shackled for shipment to the New World. Just before the ship sails, the go-between begins a chant that his fellow captives join, despite their different languages. He explains that "we are all saying the same thing; we are all promising to one day return."
Despite this dream of freedom, the African's final statement is one of absolute despair: "My present has finally fractured; the past has fled over the horizon and out of sight."
Rudi Williams, the protagonist of "Cargo Rap," the novel's longest section, keeps the dream of African return alive. Centuries later this descendant of slaves and victim of modernday racism imagines going back to Africa, a place the has never seen. As a black man in a Southern prison, his current reality is intolerable. Logically, he draws sustenance from the possibility of freedom in the future, as well as from the legacy of black political struggle in the past.
The section is composed entirely of letters written by Rudi to his family and to members of his defense committee. Mr. Phillips convincingly captures the voice of a self-educated prisoner—both its incisive originality and its occasional awkwardness. The character's tenacity and faith come through, but so do his arrogance and insensitivity. For example, he constantly plays his parents off against each other, depending on which one of them has most recently offended his revolutionary sensibilities.
Rudi's stark assessment of this country's racial battleground is as applicable to the late 1980's as it is to the late 1960's, and "Cargo Rap" contains the novel's most explicitly political writing. The limitations of his hard-line black nationalism become glaringly apparent, however, in the realm of sexual politics. He is a firm believer in male dominance and a supporter of the double standard. When Laverne, his teenage sister, becomes pregnant, he castigates her and cuts off all communication. The fact that he fathered a child, with another teenager nine years earlier does nothing to mitigate his wrath.
In a moment of rare humility, Rudi admits his emotional limitations: "Dr. King used the phrase as the title of one of his books: 'Strength to Love.' I have not the strength. I do not even have the strength to be kind."
But love and kindness may not be particularly useful in the hell that Rudi inhabits. Like the African go-between, he adopts the psychological stance most likely to assure his survival. His haunting last letter to his mother indicates that his captors may have succeeded in breaking his mind and body, but not his spirit. Like his African ancestors, he vows in the end to "return to you a whole, honorable, and clean man. Hold on."
In "Higher Ground," the novel's final section, the theme of forcible separation from one's past is fully crystallized. Although Irina is neither a slave nor a prisoner, she is nevertheless bound. She has survived the Nazi Holocaust because her father managed to send her from Poland to England on a children's transport. Although his decision saved her physical life, the loss of her family has destroyed her sanity. After 10 years in a hospital, she is having trouble living on her own. No matter where she is, she cannot rid herself of her past, nor of her longing for the father, mother and sister she will never see again: "Today was Papa's birthday and Irene began to cry. She could not spend another winter in England staunching memories like blood from a punched nose. She could not afford a memory-haemorrhage, but to not remember hurt." Irina can neither forget her past nor return to the physical place where it occurred. Insanity is a perfectly plausible response to the magnitude of this loss.
The only character in the entire novel who actually gets to return home is a West Indian man whom Irina meets, fleetingly, hours before he Jeaves London for the Caribbean: "He was going home, for he knew that it was better to return as the defeated traveller than be praised as the absent hero and live a life of spiritual poverty…. Louis was going home to where his short, but presently experienced, nightmare would eventually distil down into rum stories of the past. This way he could keep the faith."
Each of the novel's three protagonists tries to keep the faith all of them ultimately fall prey to the bigotry and forced dislocation of the society they inhabit. Perhaps because Caryl Phillips has chosen to depict their struggles in such extreme isolation, the novel conveys an unsettling pessimism about the possibility of freedom for the dispossessed. Oppression and the violence it spawns have destroyed many, but by no means all. The most compelling art about oppression has inherent in it a vision of transformation, a vision that is missing from Higher Ground.
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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 has visited Africa.
The Final Passage (winner of the Malcolm X Prize) is the story of Leila, who comes to England, bringing her husband Michael (more burden than baggage) and infant son Calvin. Left alone by her unfaithful husband, living without hope or happiness in slum conditions, she decides to return to her little Caribbean island. However, by this time Leila has suffered a breakdown, is unemployed, and one wonders if she will be able to give the decision practical, financial expression. It is not that Britain has opened her eyes to previously overlooked positive aspects of her island home; return is merely the lesser of two unattractive alternatives. The author, who himself was taken to England as a baby and who as an adult has made the journey back, writes about "the West Indian wave of immigration" into Britain, the so-called mother country, in the 1960s. Through Leila we gain an inkling of understanding as to why people left the Caribbean and what life was like for those immigrants in Britain, where at that time it was legal and normal to display signs that read, "No coloureds [or 'blacks']. No dogs." (Wole Soyinka records his experiences in the satiric poem "Telephone Conversation.") The novel thus has wider dimensions—of a historical, economic, and cultural nature.
In 1962 V. S. Naipaul published a collection of essays titled The Middle Passage. The phrase "the middle passage" comes down from the days of slavery. The "first passage" was when a ship left England for Africa, carrying baubles, cheap industrial products that were bartered for slaves. Then began the dreadful "middle passage," to the American and Caribbean plantations, during which voyage many died and were thrown overboard. (It is estimated that as many as twenty million Africans were abducted from the continent.) The survivors were sold at auction; with the money realized, raw materials were purchased to feed the voracious industrial machines back home, and the ship began "the final passage," so much the richer for the "enterprise." Leila wishes to make her final passage black to the Caribbean, although, as already indicated, she may end up marooned and captive for the rest of her life: a different form of life imprisonment from that experienced by Rudy in Higher Ground (more on this later). On the other hand, the first section of the novel bears the subtitle "The End," describing Leila's departure from the Caribbean: the end may also be the beginning of a return after all. Her mother, dying in a London hospital, says, "London is not my home…. And I don't want you to forget that either." Naipaul, in The Middle Passage, observes with detachment the subdued, bewildered immigrants herding onto the ship for England. Phillips presents us with the case of one out of those anonymous thousands, one from the historical statistics.
In the same collection of essays Naipaul describes St. Kitts as "an overpopulated island of sixty-eight square miles, producing a little sea-island cotton, having trouble to sell its sugar, and no longer growing the tobacco, the first crop of the settlers…. We were … watching the lights of the toy capital where people took themselves seriously enough to drive cars from one point to another." He records his nightmare, "that I was back in tropical Trinidad," a land indifferent to virtue as well as to vice. History, he argues, is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies. (The epigraph of The Final Passage is from Eliot: "A people without history / Is not redeemed from time.") Slavery has bred self-contempt, and the "West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands." Phillips undertakes a telling, and absence becomes the essence of the novel: absence of history and achievement, of scope in the present and hope for the future.
The second and longer section of the work is "Home." Michael's grandfather uses a metaphor to convey the island's cultural hybrid: yams from Africa, mangoes from India, and coconuts from the Pacific. The men almost miraculously find money to go drinking day and night, but it is not a glorious riot, a Bacchanalian celebration of life, but rather a drinking through boredom and hopelessness to a state of stupor. The island is a place where the sound of a motorcycle starting up is a sufficient event to attract adult spectators: "There's nothing here for me to do, nothing!… Nothing, man!" Michael falls back on physical vanity: great care is taken over the length of his shirts sleeves and trousers; the motorcycle gives him the illusion of power, and he possesses the "freedom" that is a total denial of responsibility. In sleep, with pose and posturing set aside, his tired face crumbles like a bride collapsing into rubble. He gets drunk on his wedding day and spends the night with Beverley, by whom he already has a son. As Leila's pregnancy advances, he moves into Beverley's shack and sees the baby for the first time when it is six weeks old.
In order to escape from the life in which she was trapped, Leila decides to emigrate to England. Michael's preparation for the challenges of this new life is to wonder whether or not to grow a moustache. Leila does all the packing; Michael drinks—and almost misses the ship. Leila's beauty, discipline, and determination attract Michael, but he feels inferior and, as a consequence, resentful. He has no understanding of himself, of the forces that have shaped him and account for his circumstances and behavior. He is an unthinking victim: his situation is all vague and confused but, nevertheless, real and damaging. His grandfather had advised, "You must hate enough, and you must be angry enough to get just what you want," but disgruntled, destructive Michael is not clear about what he wants, much less how to set about getting it.
Unqualified, unskilled, and unprepared, Michael and Leila move into a depressed part of London, initially to a boardinghouse, where men sleep "head to toe" for want of space. The house they later rent is squalid.
Two of the upstairs window panes were broken in, and the door looked like it had been put together from the remains of a dozen forgotten doors….
The light switch did not work. The house was dark and smelled of neglect….
Upstairs there was a solitary bedroom. A soiled double mattress lay prostrate in the middle of an otherwise naked floor…. The small bathroom consisted of a toilet bowl and a wash basin…. There was no bath, and the door to this room hung from its hinges.
Michael's reaction is to walk out (escape), saying he expected to find the house in better shape on his return. Whether describing scene, house, character, or conduct, the narrator impassively, "factually" gives us the details.
Michael forced his hand down between her legs and prised them open. Then he hauled himself on top of her, unable to take any of the weight himself…. But it was no good. He leaned over and vomited beside her head, catching the edge of the pillow and running back some of the vomit into her hair. Then, having emptied his stomach for the third time, he lay unconscious and draped across her…. She looked at the side of his head and waited until morning came….
Leila had booked passage on a ship, but a passage is also a path, an initiation, as in Forster's Passage to India. Having learned, she would rather retrace her steps and come to terms with life back home: there she has a friend who loves and understands her. Her experience is one that was shared by many: "home" is a plantation economy in dilapidation, with an imported population (the descendants of slaves and indentured laborers) without history or hope. Attempting to fashion a more meaningful life, they leave their stagnant societies and come to Britain, only to find that she can be as cruel as the heartless stepmother in fairy tales. Lacking education, training, and (especially the men) inner resources, encountering racial prejudice, reduced to mean employment, and restricted to certain areas for accommodation, they neither find nor are able to create opportunities. Since individuals like Michael are unaware of the impersonal forces that have damaged their lives, they continue the pattern: irresponsible, violent, fantasizing, trying to find temporary escape from a reality they do not comprehend and cannot combat. It is the reader who reaches an understanding.
The title of Phillips's second novel, A State of Independence, recalls Naipaul's In a Free State. Bertram Francis returns to his Caribbean home (having lived the last twenty years in Britain) three days before the country gains its independence. The island has turquoise coral and green forests, but outside the capital the houses are small fragile boxes with roofs of corrugated-iron sheets: "People seem just as poor as they always been" (sic). In the naïve rhymes there are shades of Naipaul's perception of Caribbean politics: "Forward ever—backward never"; "Proud, Dignified and Black / None Can Take my Freedom Back!" There is a touch of satire in the doctor and the funeral director's joint ownership of a rum distillery, in the fire-brigade station's catching fire and burning down. And, as in most of what is hopefully called the "developing" world, there is exploitation: "Our finest minds … who all been overseas [sic] … are so bored with how easy it is to make money off the back of the people that they are getting drunk for kicks and betting on who can lap up the most sewage water from the gutter."
Much of this is embodied in Jackson Clayton, once a close friend of and almost a brother to Bertram and now deputy prime minister as well as minister of agriculture, lands, housing, labor, and tourism. Among the things Clayton proudly claims to have done for his country is the bringing in of the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II (with her affluent tourists), Pan American Airlines, and Hollywood films. In short, this man who once referred to himself as Jackson X, following the example of the radical Malcolm X, is a representative of Western capitalism rather than of the island's people. Made calloused and smug by wealth and power, Jackson now advocates closer ties with the United States, not because of a rejection of Britain and her imperial past but because the United States is commercially more promising to him. (Jackson imports Japanese cars via the U.S.) Independence means that, in addition to economic "clout," complete political power will now pass into such hands. To the people, celebrating independence is a patriotic excuse to drink more and longer than usual. It is an inefficient, poor, and polluted island, "And what is the response from the people with the money? The Rotary Club decide to donate a dustbin to every village…. As a people we come like prostitutes." The people are not angry, not even cynical, but only apathetic. (Cynicism implies understanding.) Enter Bertram Francis.
Francis went on a scholarship to England but, after two years, was asked to leave college. Thereafter he drifted: "My time just slide away from me … there's plenty more just like me…. People who went there for five years, then one morning they wake up with grey hair and wonder what happened." Bertram returns with guilt and apprehension, after an absence of two decades. The airport runway is his welcome carpet, but otherwise, to adapt the words of Christopher Okigbo, he was the sole witness of his homecoming. It is not that Bertram has been away so long; it is not that he slacked in his studies and returns with nothing to show for all those years, but that during his absence he did not write to anyone—not to his mother, his brother Dominic, his girlfriend Patsy, or his friend Clayton—much less send the odd bit of money to his long and silently struggling mother. Bertram returns unaware that his brother, who had become an alcoholic, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. This failure in human relationships, and the obligations which go with them, is paralleled by our misgivings about his political stance.
Bertram returns because the country is about to become free. He did not help in the hunt and, in fact, showed no interest in it, but has come to see if he can get a share of the meat. He seems to think that the mere fact of his having lived in Europe is qualification enough, something that makes him superior. An obnoxious Clayton demands, "What do you have to offer us? What is it about yourself that you think might be of some benefit to our young country?" All he has is a vague notion of setting up a commercial venture that will not depend on the white man. It is significant that he wants to "seize the opportunity" by going into business: he does not think of a cooperative project, or rural development, or of education, but only of making money for himself. Neither in personal relationships nor in public matters is he any different from Clayton, and his sense of moral superiority is baseless. Most of the time between arrival and independence (three days later) he spends drinking bottle after bottle of beer. The positive characters are the minor ones (and all female): Bertram's mother; Mrs. Sutton, who, though old herself and having no obligation to do so, cares for Bertram's mother; and Patsy, who loves, forgives, is quietly cheerful, and takes back the failed and directionless man.
Bertram has lived "in a free state," one without commitment and duties, but now accepts his "mediocrity," resumes his relationship with Patsy, and begins to wonder what he can do for his bedridden mother. (Perhaps nineteen-year-old Livingstone is his son.) As Bertram moves away from his selfish, sterile "freedom," the country is moving into its state of independence under the likes of the Honourable Jackson Clayton. Are the rains which disrupt the celebrations inauspicious or a sign of fertility and promise? A similar enigma is also faced at the end of Ngugi wa Thion o's novel A Grain of Wheat.
Higher Ground, subtitled "A Novel in Three Parts," consists of three stories. The first, "Heartland," is told by a "collaborationist" (an anachronistic term), an African who assists in the slave trade: "It is moments such as these … marooned between [the European traders and the enslaved Africans] … that the magnitude of my fall strikes me." Circumstances have distorted the narrator—"If survival is a crime then I am guilty"—and there is a diminution of human feelings to the point of extinction. Because "Heartland" is a first-person narrative, the reader is situated within the consciousness of this man, and contradictory impulses result: between identification and sympathy, on the one hand, and recoil on the other. The reader must constantly remind her- or himself of the appalling wretchedness the slave trade inflicted, of the terror and misery. The brutality is heightened by the neutral tone of the narrator: "In the corner trading equipment is temporarily stored: whips, flails, yokes, branding-irons, metal masks." Women are kept separate because they often attempt, mercifully, to take the lives of their children. The European slavers, who equate literacy, technological (military) superiority, and fine clothes with "civilization," are barbarous in conduct, often perverted and sadistic; but the African chiefs are also guilty of selling their own for baubles and beer.
This holocaust is little remembered because it was visited upon "natives" long ago, at a time when that graphic recorder of human cruelty, the camera, had not yet been invented. In the end the narrator resists and is himself transported to the United States as a slave. Beyond degradation, there is regeneration and moral recovery. He decides to feign ignorance of English, for competence in the language is a liability and has led to his being a tool in the exploitation of his own people. Caliban ostensibly forgoes Prospero's language yet is subversive in that he writes his memoir in it, using the language of the slave masters to indict them, to return, if not to his home across the ocean, then to himself: "We are promising ourselves that we will return to our people…. And the promise comes from deep inside of our souls."
"Heartland" is told throughout in the present tense, which accords with the narrator's determination to keep the past alive and thus to "return" to it, yet it is more a memoir than a diary. As with that earlier African novel, Houseboy, apart from literary conventions and a willing suspension of disbelief, the impact is such that we do not query how the narrator, given his circumstances, contrived to write, and preserve, his testimony.
Prisons have sometimes proved to be places of education, reflection, writing. At random, one thinks of Pandit Nehru of India and, from more recent times, of Kenya's Ngugi and Nigeria's Soyinka. The letters that constitute "The Cargo Rap" (the longest and the most central of the three stories) are the direct descendants of the prison letters of George Jackson, published in 1970 as Soledad Brother. In 1960, at the age of eighteen, Jackson was misadvised to plead guilty to a charge of robbery and was sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of one year to life. In Soledad Prison he was accused of the murder of a white prison guard and transferred to San Quentin, pending trial. He was killed there on 21 August 1971 in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained. "Rudy," who writes the letters of "The Cargo Rap," is very similar to Jackson. He did not enter prison because of a politically motivated act, and his consciousness developed while he was in prison. As Jackson wrote, "I have almost arrived but look at the cost."
Both Jackson and the fictional Rudy arrive at an understanding of society and what it has done to them, but too late. Indeed, because of their awareness, consequent stance, and political influence, the system does not release them. Jackson's letters were to his parents, whom he loved (but about whose limitations—their mental shackles and timidity—he remained bitter and upbraiding); to his younger brother (shot dead while attempting to free him); to his lawyer Fay and to Angela Davis, the black activist. Rudy, also serving a "one year to life" sentence for robbery, writes to his parents, his sister, and two female lawyers. However, unlike in Jackson's case, finally it is not Rudy's life but his sanity that is killed. In style too, the letters—in one instance real, in the other fictional—are similar, for Jackson's correspondence ranges from sardonic, terse, and witty to impassioned protests of tremendous rhetorical power. Jackson belongs to history, however, and what is interesting in "The Cargo Rap" is the fictional Rudy: the processes by which character is created, the character himself, and his perceptions. Unlike Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, "The Cargo Rap" must provide its own context, its own external data, necessary for an understanding of the fictional present.
The narrator of "Heartland" lived inside a fort, a stockade; Rudolph Leroy Williams is in prison, and prison becomes the metaphor for an unfree society and for captive lives: "It is only logical that two hundred years of exposure to the idea of a 'natural' (inferior) position should have nappied your mind," Rudy writes to his mother. His teacher had told him that he had talent and could, one day, become a clerk: "He did not mention doctor, lawyer, judge, professor, or nuclear physicist…. He wanted me to make peace with my mediocrity." Black Americans are released from the womb "only into the greater captivity of American society," and prison brutality is but a reflection of that brutality which is present in society. Rudy describes himself as follows: "Name: Homo Africanus; Occupation: Survivor; Age: 200-300 years; Parents: Africans captured and made slaves; Education: American school of life." The reader wonders whether this survivor will survive. Will he succeed in being moved from solitary confinement to the main block? Will he win parole? "In the bosom of this country there is a man who is being stretched and tortured for forty dollars."
Rudy's passing references to a broken arm, a concussion, and to spitting blood indicate that the letters do not tell everything; this is an epistolary story, and the letters are all we have to go by: "I am once again down here on Max Row. I apologize to you for the disappointment that this will no doubt cause you." What happened? Why is he back in the "maximum" (solitary) wing of the prison? His struggles are protracted, and there are increasing signs of irrationality. Don't let mother work so hard and physically, he writes, without confronting the reality that the family needs the money, that his mother cannot find other work. Has his sister lost her virginity? Can he pay his lawyers with fruit from Africa, once he is released and "returns" to that continent? And, writing to his father, he asks whether the latter still derives sexual pleasure from sleeping with Mother or whether he masturbates. Rudy's last letter, poignantly, is addressed to his mother, whose death a month earlier represented the proverbial final nail.
Since there is no narrator other than himself and the replies he receives are not included, Rudy is characterized solely through his letters. These can be direct, with a conversational casualness: "Come a Saturday night Mr Charlie likes nothing better than to go out and crack a coon [black man] or two." Rudy educated himself politically, relying on books, and the language of these works enters his vocabulary with incongruous effects, so that in writing to his family we have "I'll amplify upon this in my next communication…. She is being malprogrammed in a hostile and alien culture." He uses words and phrases such as "peruse" or "your senescent body" and pellucid disquisitions, but he can be succinct: "For half an hour each day, I breathe fresh, if not free, air." Life in prison is like being inside not a boxing ring but the boxing glove itself: one passively and helplessly encounters pain. Rudy uses irony ("I tried to liberate some money"), puns ("We are trying to make the white Americans change their attitudes but are we getting any change [results]?"), and paradox ("I sit here in the darkness of constant light")—the last phrase also possessing biblical overtones of a people who sat in darkness and then saw a great light. He can be warm and persuasive, as when writing to his mother—"You describe yourself as an invalid…. In-valid…. You are a very valid part of our world"—or sardonic and bitter: "In the mornings, grandfather would get up, take down his cap and jacket, hang up his dignity and his mind, and slope out to slave and giggle for the white man." He can rise to tremendous verbal power, reminiscent of protest and revivalist rhetoric: "Do you want mustard for your hot dog, flowers for your hair or bullets for your gun?"; "Hang in or hang up." Black women in prison are there "for whoring, not warring." The black man needs "your support, not your scorn…. I am a literal and metaphorical prisoner, Moma. I need you to stand by me, not sit on me." His perceptions and his power point to potential, and thus to the waste.
Rejecting the society in which he is a prisoner, Rudy turns (in order to fill the void) to the original home of his people, to Africa and to a "Negro Zionism": "Is this America, the civilized country of satellites and color television?… We must flee and burn bridges behind us as we leave…. The dice are loaded, the terms are unacceptable, the American odds too long." It is here that the setting (in terms of time) throws a cruel irony on Rudy: his (fictional) letters were written between January 1967 and August 1968; Higher Ground was published in 1989, and, seen from the perspective of the latter date, Rudy's vision of Africa is undercut and mocked. His heroes are Lumumba, Nyerere, and Kenyatta; he wishes to visit Egypt and Ethiopia, and then settle in Ghana. Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was killed before he could implement his policies, but Nyerere's long experiment with village socialism led Tanzania to economic ruin; indirectly admitting his mistakes and failure, he resigned from office. Jomo Kenyatta "hijacked" the Kenyan revolution and created an exploitative society, with his family and supporters being the beneficiaries—the structures Ngugi condemns and opposes. Egypt has grave economic difficulties; so does Ghana, which has the added bane of military coups and violence. As for Ethiopia, it is now associated with extreme poverty, mass starvation, and the attempt to raise money through international music concerts. These are Rudy's ideal leaders and countries: the irony is gained by placing the story two decades back in time. Events and developments of the seventies and eighties subvert and mock Rudy, even as we are moved by his predicament and words, and leave the reader to make her or his own way out: a disturbed character, and a work that is disturbing in more ways than one.
The third story, "Higher Ground," begins with the narrator telling us that Irene did this, Irene did that, Irene, Irene, Irene. It is winter and the trees are naked; when they put on their clothes, so will Irene. We move from an outer observation of Irene to what she thinks and feels, and we realize that she has passed beyond what is termed normality. A headache is an iron handcuff around her head—again, the prison image. "Stop talking to yourself, you crazy Polish bitch," shouts the incontinent old man next door, throwing a shoe at the dividing wall as an added expletive.
We gradually make sense of it all. Rachel and Irina were daughters of a Jewish shopkeeper in Poland: decent, caring parents; a frugal flat but well stocked with books; a close relationship between the sisters; prospects of university studies. Then Nazism reaches out, Rachel is beaten up and takes to her bed, and the sisters no longer attend school. There is talk of mother and daughters escaping while father remains to tidy up and sell the shop. (How can one abruptly abandon a shop slowly built up over the years? And he could not have known the virulence of the evil coming closer.) The ominous minutes of history tick by, and suddenly it is too late. Time only to hustle Irina, clutching the family photographs, to Vienna and so to England. Working in a factory, she meets and goes out with Reg, gets pregnant, and miscarries; relieved of responsibility in this way, he abandons her. She meets Louis from the Caribbean; he has been in London ten days and has already decided to return home, on the reasoning that "it was better to return as the defeated traveller than be praised as the absent hero and live a life of spiritual poverty." There is a strong affinity between them; but Louis is determined to return, and Irene is left to her loneliness. In the face of her alienation and total loss (parents, sister, home, language, and even name, with Irina Anglicized into Irene), destruction seems inevitable. In his book-length essay The European Tribe Phillips writes that the exploitation and sufferings of black people were not in his school curriculum, nor did they find articulation on television and in the media: "As a result I vicariously channelled a part of my hurt and frustration through the Jewish experience."
Joseph Conrad in his "Author's Note" to Youth wrote that the three stories "lay no claim to unity of artistic purpose"; Higher Ground is described as a novel in three parts. However, one expects a degree of integration within a novel, and if, for example, the work produces new characters, we assume they will be related, however tenuously, to the preceding characters. The three parts of Higher Ground take us from Africa and the slave trade, to the United States of the 1960s, and finally to Britain during and shortly after World War II. The characters are an African, a black American, and a Polish-Jewish woman. Therefore, to claim that Higher Ground is a novel—not short stories on the same theme—is to urge readers to see the stories as a unity. The work is a triptych, and it is not only that when we place the three parts together they form a unity—of damaged and hurt lives—but that there emerges a significance which no one part by itself can communicate with such clarity and force: "If one takes a piece of banal journalistic prose and sets it down on a page as a lyric poem, surrounded by intimidating margins of silence, the words remain the same but their effects for readers are substantially altered." So too, by the simple device of asserting that Higher Groundis a novel, Phillips makes us approach it as a single, unified work, and to respond and draw significance accordingly.
Can Phillips be described as a British (or a black British) writer? In the bulk of Conrad's work, Poland—in terms of setting—is not significant, yet his Polish life shaped a part of his basic awareness. So too with Phillips, and even if little of his work thus far is set in England, his British years, from infancy to manhood, have given him great advantages. The term advantages may surprise, given the degree of racism—covert or overt, suave or crude—that pervades contemporary Britain. Still, I would argue that having grown up in Britain has heightened Phillips's awareness and fine (in the two meanings of sharp and excellent) sensitivity. This is not to suggest that Phillips is some bruised plant trembling delicately in unkind winds. His difference and exile have positively defined him; they make up his essential being, and, if often a source of hurt or anger, of alienation and loneliness, they also constitute his awareness and strength. It is the turning of what a hostile society and a denigrating culture would impose as misfortune and limitation into advantage and a wonderful broadening out of understanding and sympathy, a turning of prisons into castles (with acknowledgment to George Lamming and his novel In the Castle of My Skin), a moving from pain to knowledge and beyond to joy, pride, and thence to celebration.
To return to the question, can Phillips be labeled "British" despite his "return" to the Caribbean? Not to do so would leave our taxonomic lust unsatisfied. If anything, his latest work, Higher Ground, shifting from the days of slavery somewhere on the coast of black Africa to a contemporary maximum-security prison cell in the United States and then to a Polish-Jewish woman suffering incomprehension, loneliness, and a breakdown in Britain during World War II, shows a liberated Phillips, a writer who can penetrate the inner being of people vastly different from himself in time, place, and gender, yet people very much like us all in the common and eternal human inheritance of pain and suffering. In a recent essay Phillips writes that his "branches have developed, and to some extent continue to develop and grow, in Britain" but that his "roots are in Caribbean soil." Eluding labels that will seize and fix him, he finally remains Caryl Phillips.
If one were to ask what unifies the fictional works of Phillips, I would turn to the words of the Spaniard Camilo José Cela (winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature), who said that he is on the side not of those who make History but of those who suffer History. In Phillips's work there is a strong sense of historical violence and its consequences, of resulting journeys and alienation, but also the effort to find (or make for oneself) a little peace. As Rudy urged from prison, don't let anyone take away your dreams.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065
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 nineteenth-century setting, where the nexus is not migration but slavery.
A young Englishwoman, Emily Cartwright, is despatched by her father, an absentee plantation-owner, to visit his sugar estate in the West Indies. Most of the novel (following a third-person prologue signalling her departure) consists of Emily's journal, in which her impressions of the voyage and plantation life are described in genteel, if convoluted, Austenian prose. Elements of gothic mystery unfold through her eyes, around the puzzling presence in the Great House of a slave woman, Christiana, who dabbles in obeah, and the repeated chastisement of Cambridge, a literate, Christian slave, by the enigmatic overseer, Mr Brown.
In Part Two, the perspective shifts to Cambridge. His account of his life echoes the late-eighteenth-century autobiographies of freed African slaves such as Olaudah Equiano (Cambridge's Guinea name is Olumide), Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, whose eloquent testimonies lent fuel to the Abolition movement. Part Three is a brief official record of the events leading to Brown's death and the hanging of Cambridge for his murder.
Through this triple perspective, Phillips builds on the ambitious experiments with structure and style of his last novel, Higher Ground (1989), where the reader was left to discern links between three disparate narratives set in different times and locations. In Cambridge, the unity is more compelling, and the novel achieves a profound marriage of stylistic virtuosity and artistic purpose.
Cambridge is set at a time when the slave trade has been outlawed (after 1807) but slavery continues and, as plantation profits decline, debate rages in England over the merits of the "institution". The "open mind" which Emily professes reveals itself through her journal to be blinkered. In the manner of contemporary travel writers, Emily transforms the harshness of plantation life into a pastoral in which slaves are viewed as a contented part of the local fauna. Africans are not heard to speak, but to "bray", "jabber", "bellow", "drawl", and "slobber", as they "gawp", "slink", "squat" and "teem". Compounding this insistence on the animality of the "sable stock" is a litany of their putative vices: indolence, uncleanliness, dishonesty, promiscuity. Even the perceived attribute of "loyalty" becomes "the virtuous animal fidelity of the dog". While at times the narrative approaches parody (as when Emily dreads her dreams being invaded by "dark incubae"), Phillips skilfully steers away from facile laughter or deflating ridicule.
Cambridge's testimony provides relief from the relentless insularity of Emily's vision. He describes his capture and passage to England where he received an education and became a Christian, lobbying against slavery until he was betrayed into re-enslavement in the West Indies. His narrative inverts notions of African "otherness" (the European slavers were first viewed as "men of no colour, with their loose hair and decayed teeth") while exposing the hypocrisies of English society, where slavery was illegal but "human flesh merchants" plied their trade. In condemning slavery, Cambridge appeals, in the manner of his day, both to self-interest and to the Christian conscience.
Yet Phillips's primary concern appears not to be to re-write history from the standpoint of the enslaved, in the established African-American literary tradition. (The horrors of the middle passage are scarcely dwelt on.) Rather the novel sets out to explore through its shifting perspective the psychological nature of the society which upheld slavery, and the moral contradictions which it endeavoured not to see.
The prejudices rife in Emily's perception are attributable not merely to ignorance, but to a self-serving system of deliberately nurtured and forcibly sustained myths. Emily's rival suitors, McDonald and the clergyman, Rogers, insist that education and Christianity be denied to slaves, lest they view themselves as "equal to the white man in the eyes of the Lord", and rebel. More to the point, since the moral justification of slavery rested on the "self-evident inferiority" of Africans, to acknowledge their equality would be to undermine the consensus in England favouring the continuation of the institution. And, as Brown puts it, "if negroes do not labour, then who will?"
Cambridge's very existence poses a challenge to this system of myths, raising a red rag to the bullish Mr Brown. Nor can the coarse overseer feel particularly at ease with a slave who possesses a "firmer grasp of the English language than … Mr Brown might ever conceive of achieving". Cambridge's account confirms Brown to be a bullying, swaggering brute who sees in Cambridge's "wife" Christiana a perverse means of subjugating him.
Yet part of Phillips's considerable achievement in Cambridge is to situate this central conflict within a wider social context. The distinctions of colour emerge as part of an obsessively hierarchical society where a "correct degree of deference" from the lower orders is deemed crucial to keeping "anarchy" at bay. Sexual inequality is also rigorously enforced. In the prologue and epilogue, the author evokes the pathos of Emily's circumscribed life in England. Subject to a father's imperious commands and the "horse-trading" of the marriage market, the woman who haughtily assumes the privileged role of "massa's daughter" is herself in flight from an oppressive powerlessness.
Nor is Cambridge's narrative free from authorial irony, since he, too, is a product of his age. In endeavouring to rule Christiana, Cambridge asserts that "a Christian man possesses his wife, and the dutiful wife must obey her Christian husband", oblivious of the fact that in rendering her a "possession", he is also enslaving her. It is the "mad" Christiana, clinging to her "pagan" beliefs, who mocks Cambridge for disdaining his "uncivilized" African past, "a history I had cast aside" in order to become "an Englishman". Christiana's story remains one of the lingering mysteries of these partial accounts. Cambridge is a masterfully sustained, exquisitely crafted novel. Through its multiple ironies and fertile ambiguity, if offers a startling anatomy of the age of slavery, and of the prejudices that were necessary to sustain it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3608
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 has been to find out where the 'Bamboo Club' is. Caz, I confess, is a little bit better at finding it than I am.
Caz was born in 1958 in St. Kitts, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. He came to England when still a babe in arms and was brought up and educated here. In more recent years, he has travelled extensively and has made his temporary home in many parts of the world, including his native St. Kitts. In keeping with his nomadic inclination, it could be said that one of the main themes of his work is that of the journey or, put rather differently, of human displacement and dislocation in a variety of forms. The journey behind his first novel, The Final Passage (1985), was the one Caz himself took part in, albeit unwittingly—the emigration of the postwar years from the Caribbean to this country. The journey that lies behind both Caz's last novel, Higher Ground (1989), and his new novel, Cambridge, is a more historic, more primal and more terrible journey, the journey of the slave trade westwards from Africa.
Caz has maintained, however, a keen interest in Europe or, to be more precise, in Europe's pretensions and delusions about the place of European civilization in the world. His book of essays, The European Tribe (1987), was devoted to the subject. In Higher Ground, a novel in three parts, we travel from Africa in the slave trade days to North America at the time of the Black Power movement, only to end up in a Europe still nursing its wounds from the last war. In Cambridge, Caz has reversed the direction of this journey to bring a European consciousness face to face with Europe's global perpetrations. He does this through the person of Emily, a woman of the early nineteenth century who escapes an arranged marriage by travelling to her father's estate in the West Indies (her father being an absentee landlord), where she is exposed to and, indeed, exposed by the effects of slavery and colonialisation.
Like its predecessor, Cambridge is a novel in three distinct parts, the first and longest of which is Emily's own account of her journey and her observations when she arrives. From what seems at first to be an inquisitive, self-consoling travelogue there emerges a drama revolving around a handful of characters: Emily herself; Brown, an Englishman whom we understand has somehow ousted the previous manager of the estate; the Cambridge of the title, a negro slave who has suffered the singular and equivocal fate of having lived in England and having been converted to Christianity; and another slave, Christiania, who, despite her name, indulges in decidedly un-Christian rites and appears to be on the verge of madness.
The second part of the book is Cambridge's own account of how he came to be Anglicized and Christianized. The third, written in the form of a report (which we guess to be far from reliable), describes how Cambridge comes to be executed for the murder of Brown. And the brief epilogue of the novel tells us the effect of all this on Emily. These last few pages are particularly astonishing. Coming at the end of a novel of enormous accumulative power, they pack a tremendous punch and, written in a prose of tense intimacy, they show how facile it is to assess either Caz's work as a whole, or his heroine, by any crude cultural or racial analysis. Caz is interested in human beings. Emily's plight at the end of the novel plainly has its cultural and racial dimension, but it's essentially one of personal trauma—psychological, sexual, moral and (a word Caz will no doubt love) existential.
[Swift:] How did Cambridge arise? What was the germ, the idea behind it?
[Phillips:] You know that period when you've finished a book and you don't know what to do? We generally have lunch during these periods in that place around the corner from the British Library, as one of us is pretending to be 'working' in there. Well true to form, I was doing little more than scrambling around in the British Library, having just finished Higher Ground, and having a month and a half on my hands before I was due to go down to St. Kitts. It was during this period that I happened upon some journals in the North Library. One in particular caught my eye. It was entitled Journal of a Lady of Quality, and written by a Scotswoman, named Janet Schaw, who at the beginning of the 19th century travelled from Edinburgh to the Caribbean. What attracted me to this story was the fact that she visited St. Kitts. Right beside what was once my brother's place, up in the mountains in St. Kitts, is a broken-down Great House. Janet Schaw described going to a dinner there when it was the centrepiece of one of the grandest plantations in the Eastern Caribbean. I began to realize then that there was a whole literature of personal narratives written primarily by women who had travelled to the Caribbean in that weird phase of English history between the abolition of slavery in 1807 and the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. Individuals who inherited these Caribbean estates from their families were curious to find out what this property was, what it would entail to maintain it, whether they would get any money. The subject matter began to speak, but that's never enough, for there's another and formidable hurdle to leap; that of encouraging a character to speak to you. At the back of '88 when we used to meet, I was concerned with the subject matter and the research, but as yet no character had begun to speak.
And how did the character of Cambridge evolve?
Actually, he came second. Emily, the woman's voice, came first, partly because for the last ten years I'd been looking for a way of writing the story of a Yorkshire woman. I'd grown up in Yorkshire and I had also read and reread Wuthering Heights, so I'd this name in my head, Emily. Emily, who wasn't anybody at the moment.
The novel's called Cambridge, but Emily certainly has more prominence in terms of pages. I wondered whether you'd ever thought of Cambridge as the main character, or indeed if you'd still think of him as the main character?
No. Emily was always going to be the main character, but Cambridge was conceived of as a character who would be ever-present. He doesn't appear often in her narrative, in terms of time, but he's always in the background of what she's doing, and what she's saying, and what she's thinking. And then, of course, in the second section of the novel, he has his own narrative.
There's a lovely irony to Cambridge's narrative. We've had many pages of Emily and then we get Cambridge's account: Emily figures in Cambridge's mind merely as that Englishwoman on the periphery—scarcely at all, in fact.
There is a corrective in having Cambridge's perspective. Cambridge's voice is politically very important because it is only through painful application that he has acquired the skills of literacy. There are so few African accounts of what it was like to go through slavery, because African people were generally denied access to the skills of reading and writing. Reading and writing equals power. Once you have a language, you are dangerous. Cambridge actually makes the effort to acquire a language. He makes the effort to acquire the skills of literacy and uses them to sit in judgement on himself and the societies he passes through.
Did your feelings about Cambridge change as you wrote the novel? He is a very ambiguous character.
You know you cannot be too judgmental about your characters. Novels are an incredibly democratic medium. Everyone has a right to be understood. I have a lot of problems swallowing most of what Emily says and feels. Similarly, I have difficulties with many of Cambridge's ideas and opinions, because in modern parlance he would be regarded as an Uncle Tom. But I don't feel I have the right to judge them.
Emily seems to be a mixture of tentative liberal instincts and blind prejudice. And it could be easy for us, with our 20th century complacent hindsight, to judge her quite harshly, but you are very sympathetic—and we can't do anything but sympathize with her, pity her, I wonder if your feelings about her changed as you wrote her long narrative?
Did you have the end even as you wrote the narrative?
No. No. I think she grows. She has to make a journey which begins from the periphery of English society. I could not have told this story from the point of view of a man. She was regarded, as most women of that time were regarded, as a 'child of lesser growth' when placed alongside her male contemporaries. She was on the margin of English society, and I suspect that one of the reasons I was able to key into her, and to listen to what she had to say, was the fact that, like her, I also grew up in England feeling very marginalized. She also made a journey to the Caribbean for the purpose of keeping body and soul together, which is a journey I made ten years ago. So in that sense, looking at it coldly now, through the prism of time, I can understand why I would have listened to somebody like her and why she would have entrusted me with her story. And through the process of writing … you are right, I did begin to feel a little warmer towards her. She rose up above her racist attitudes.
She became alive in her own right.
Because she was courageous. It may be a small and somewhat unpleasant thing in the context of 1991 to find a woman expressing some warmth and affection for her black maid, but in the early nineteenth-century it was remarkable that a woman, and particularly this woman, was able to confess to such emotions. A nineteenth century man couldn't have done this, for men have a larger capacity for bullshit and for self-deception, even when they are talking only to themselves. I am not sure that I would have trusted the narrative of a nineteenth century man engaged in the slave trade. The only time I read men's narratives which seem to me be lyrical is when the men, nineteenth century or otherwise, are in prison.
Emily, in a way, is about to be sold into a kind of slavery—her arranged marriage—which gives her a perspective on what she sees. Is that how you saw it?
Yes. I don't want to push it too hard, for the two things are obviously only analogous on a minor key. However, an arranged marriage to a widower who possessed three kids and a guaranteed income was a form of bondage. Emily finds the strength, the wit, and the way out of this. I admire her for this. What makes her grow are a series of events which are particularly painful and distressing for her. As I have already stated, part of the magic of writing is that you cannot be too judgmental about a character. You have to find some kind of trust, some form of engagement. You attempt to breathe life into these people and if you're lucky they breathe life into you. You love them with passion; then, at the end of two or three or four years, you abandon them and try and write another book.
You said a moment ago that men could only become lyrical when they are in prison. The second part of Higher Ground actually consists of letters from prison in a very distinct male voice. In that novel generally, you seemed to depart from your previous work in using strong first person voices. In Cambridge again, there is an emphasis on first person narrative. Was that a conscious decision or did that just happen?
It was conscious. There are any number of stories that you can tell. You are populated with the potential for telling stories from now until doomsday, for these things are circling around in your head. But it seems to me that the real test of a writer's ability is the degree to which that writer applies him or herself to the conundrum of form, to the task of imposing a form upon these undisciplined stories. I had written two novels in the form of the third person and somehow I couldn't address myself again to such a manner of telling a story. It was as though I had to find some way of expanding my repertoire. So the first part of Higher Ground is written in first person present tense, the second part as a series of letters and the third part is in the third person but with these rather strange flashbacks. Each segment of the novel demanded a different point of attack. It was a way of breaking out of what was becoming, to me, the straightjacket of the third person. We used to talk about this when you were writing Out of This World. I remember you saying that there was an intimacy about the first person which you found attractive. Well, me too. And like you, I am interested in history, in memory, in time, and in the failure of these three things. It seems to me, at this stage anyhow, that the first person gives me an intimate flexibility which I can't find in the third person.
Nine-tenths of Cambridge is written in a pastiche of 19th century language. Certainly, the final few pages of it are your language, the language of the 20th century. This sense of a language that can talk about certain things suddenly bursting through Emily's own language in which she can't, is very volcanic. It is a brilliant conclusion to a novel. I wonder if we could broaden things out and talk more generally about your writing. You say in The European Tribe that you wanted to be a writer while sitting by the Pacific in California with the waves lapping around your ankles …
All right, all right! The summer of my second year in college, I travelled around America on a bus until my money ran out in California. And I went into this bookshop and bought this book, Native Son, by Richard Wright. There weren't many black people writing in England. So it never occurred to me that writing as a profession was a possibility. But when I was in the States, I discovered such people as Jimmy Baldwin and Richard Wright and Toni Morrison.
Do you think it was necessary to go to America to become a writer?
I was slouching towards a writing career. Being in the States shifted me into high gear and out of the very slovenly third that I was stuck in.
How old were you when you first went back to St Kitts?
Twenty-two. I had written a play, Strange Fruit, in 1980, which was done at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. And with the royalties from that, I went back to St. Kitts with my mother, who had left in 1958 when she was twenty. It was strange, because I had grown up without an overbearing sense of curiosity about the Caribbean. My mother hadn't been back either. She held it in her memory. But when we arrived in St. Kitts, many of the things that she remembered were no longer there: her school had burnt down, people that she knew had died, and someone she dearly wanted me to meet had long since emigrated to America. For her it was like discovering a ghost town. But for me, it fired my curiosity about myself, about England, about the Caribbean. Naturally, the 'rediscovery' confused and confounded me, but that was no bad thing for, after all, writers are basically just people who are trying to organize their confusion.
Your first two novels were very much about the Caribbean, coming from and going back to. How much was that actually paralleling your life and exorcising your own feelings about the Caribbean?
My first novel, The Final Passage, was published in 1985. I had started it some five years earlier, on the inter-island ferry between St. Kitts and Nevis. I looked back at St. Kitts and began to write some sentences down. I wanted to try and tell the story of the journey from the Caribbean to England, which seemed to me to be, in terms of fiction in this country, an untold story. People had written novels and stories about this journey, but not people of my generation. The second novel, A State of Independence (1986), although not autobiographical, followed the emotional contours of my life, in that it dealt with the problems of returning to the Caribbean and thinking, they are not sure if I am one of them, and yet feeling that I am not sure if I am one of them either. However, I have certainly not exorcised my feelings about the Caribbean. I have no desire to do so. The reason I write about the Caribbean is that the Caribbean contains both Europe and Africa, as I do. The Caribbean belongs to both Europe and Africa. The Caribbean is an artificial society created by the massacre of its inhabitants, the Carib and Arawak Indians. It is where Africa met Europe on somebody else's soil. This history of the Caribbean is a bloody history. It is a history which is older than the history of the United States of America. Columbus didn't arrive in the United States. He arrived in the Caribbean. The Caribbean is Marquez' territory. He always describes himself as a Caribbean writer. It's Octavio Paz' territory. It's Fuentes' territory. The Caribbean for many French and Spanish-speaking writers has provided more than enough material for a whole career. For me, that juxtaposition of Africa and Europe in the Americas is very important.
But now it's not just Europe, America has moved in. How do you feel about that? You are living in America now, teaching there.
The reason I am living in America is because, like yourself, like many people, business occasionally takes me to the United States. When I'm not there all I have to do is turn on the TV, or open up the papers, and I am bombarded with images of America. In other words, over the years I have come to think of myself as somebody who knows America because I have some kind of a relationship with it. However, I'm not sure that anybody can seriously claim to 'know' a country as large and as diverse as the United States. It seemed important, given the opportunity of spending a year or maybe two years in the United States, to make a concerted effort to get to know a part of the country more intimately. That's really why I'm living there. Furthermore, the Caribbean is now, to some extent, culturally an extension of the Florida Keys, and I really want to understand a bit more about American people rather than simply imagining them all to be characters out of Dallas, or a nation whose soul is reflected in the studio audience and guests of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
I've one last question and it's quite a big one. We always have a lot of fun together, whenever we meet we have some laughs. Yet your work doesn't really glow with optimism. You are very hard on your characters; most of your central characters are lost people, they suffer. Pessimism seems to win through. Is that ultimately your view of the world?
I am always surprised that people think I am a pessimist. Cambridge is to some extent optimistic. Emily grows. Okay, she suffers greatly, but she still grows. It's the price of the ticket, isn't it? The displacement ticket. Displacement engenders a great deal of suffering, a great deal of confusion, a great deal of soul-searching. It would be hard for me to write a comedy about displacement. But there is courage. Emily has a great amount of courage. As does Cambridge. And in Higher Ground there is faith. I don't necessarily mean faith with a religious gloss on it. I mean the ability to actually acknowledge the existence of something that you believe in, something that helps you to make sense of your life. You are right when you say that the characters are often lost, and that they suffer. But I would like to claim that the spirit and tenacity with which my characters fight to try and make a sense of their often helplessly fated lives is in itself optimistic. Nobody rolls over and dies. If they are to 'go under', it is only after a struggle in which they have hopefully won our respect.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8141
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 takes a long time to earn the title. A lot of people are interested in being called writers, but not a lot of people are interested in writing. So to me I am very wary about that title. I think it is sort of debased by a lot of people. I just prefer not to be a part of that. Eventually, maybe.
What's eventually? You already have three novels, four plays.
Yeah, but I am still learning.
How would I introduce you?
I am a writer. That's what I do, but I don't like to be presumptuous.
So you haven't come to terms with the term.
No, it's still a dream. I suppose, when you know that there is so much more to be done and more that you can do, you don't want people to judge you quite yet. You don't want them to give you the label before you have actually earned it. I feel uncomfortable a lot of the time when people ask me what I do. I don't usually say "writer." I usually say that I work for the BBC, or I say journalist, because "writer" just….
Conjures up too many stereotypes?
Yeah. People say, "Ah. Um Hmm."
They want to tell you what they've written.
I have written some things, and no doubt I will write some more things. And eventually one day I will feel comfortable. When that day arrives, I might stop writing. But then again I might not. Who knows.
At the time that you're talking about, ten years ago, when Strange Fruit was about to be produced, when there was the possibility of my TV play being produced, I certainly didn't think of myself as a writer. I felt like someone who wanted to be a writer, still. But just because I got a contract, I couldn't figure myself as part of the club.
So every day or nearly every day, you were going home and doing nothing but pen and paper?
Yes, and right now I would say to anyone who is doing what I was doing ten years ago, "Yes, you're a writer. You must think of yourself as a writer." But, I don't know. It's just a label I have always been uncomfortable with. I'm less uncomfortable with it now than I was. It is just something that is easily appropriated by a lot of people. It's actually a hard title to earn.
Were there times that you wondered, "What am I doing here?" Or times that you wanted to give up?
No, never. I never wanted to give up. I got a lot of rejection and met a lot of people who were not interested in the ideas that I had or the proposals I put forth. I must have very thick skin, because I cannot think of a single moment when I thought that I would go get a job as a banker or go be a lawyer or a teacher. It never occurred to me to do that. But it was a curious period. At the same time I had no evidence that I could write except my own self belief. I was convinced that the subject area that I was dealing with, irrespective of my talent (or lack of it), was vitally important. I was writing mainly about—in a few short stories, in Strange Fruit, and certainly in the television play—the dilemma of being a West Indian in Britain, both in my parents' generation, the sacrifices they had to make and the contradictions that this created in them, and in their ambivalence towards their children, (i.e. us, the second generation not knowing how to relate to the Caribbean, not knowing how to relate to Britain, and not knowing how to relate to our parents). I was convinced, you see, that people ought to know about this debate and this area of confusion in British social history which was pressing, urgent, and needed to be talked about. I think if I'd been writing some sort of high faluting, airy-fairy kind of fantasy that wasn't rooted in contemporary reality, I would have been much more likely to have thrown the towel in. It was the importance of what I was writing.
It was virgin territory for the most part.
I hadn't seen stuff which had tackled the same area, you see. It was an area which I knew from friends and family. My own life was as important and, at least, as dramatic and real as anyone else's. I didn't see why on earth I could not be given a hearing.
The BBC did, in fact, produce the play?
No. They paid for it. I wrote the play; I can't remember the title. I can't remember what it was about! I did write a play, a 50-minute play for the BBC, which they never made.
Subsequent to that, did they?
They made other plays, but you see the thing with the BBC or any television company is that they commission far more material than they need.
You were in London, and you had an agent; you were bolstered by the fact that you've sold things. What next?
I went around Europe for a month. I got a Eurail Pass. I just travelled around on my own because I had never been to the continent. I had been to America, but had never been to France and Germany and Holland.
You were interested?
No, never. I didn't know anything about Europe, so I figured I needed to do something about my ignorance in that department. It was so close. All the kids at college had been to France and Spain on holiday. I had never seen anything like this, and I wanted to go. I had a month before we started rehearsing at Sheffield, and I wasn't going to be living in Edinburgh anymore. I was going to be living in London. I tried for a couple of weeks to find somewhere to live in London, but I couldn't get that together at all. So I thought, I'll go around Europe for the month, come back and go to Sheffield where the play was being produced and then try again to live in London at the end of the year. So that's what I did.
When I travelled around in Europe, I took a lot of notes and determined then that one day I would write a book about travelling around in Europe as a black person. So many weird things happened to me as I was travelling around in Europe in 1980. I knew that there was a great travel book in this, and I knew that there was something there. That was the note in the back of my head—do it properly.
And you did.
Yes, four years later.
That was The European Tribe. Did you find an outlet for publishing?
I already had a publisher. The European Tribe was written after The Final Passage.
I read in the biography … the criticism leveled at The European Tribe was sort of barbed.
Some. The European Tribe is the book that has created the most….
Yes. A hell of a lot. It deals with Europe from a point of view from which Europe has never had to deal with itself. It deals with Europe from the point of view of somebody who has had the benefit (or however anyone wants to put it) of a European education. I grew up in Europe; I was schooled in Europe. I didn't buy the hype. I see what I see. I refuse to buy the notion of a Europe which is holding at bay the "barbarism" of the rest of the world, particularly America. I've seen what Europe is. I've seen what Europe can be. I have visited Auschwitz and Dachau. If you want to talk about tribal warfare in Africa, check out Northern Ireland. You want to talk about imperialist double-speak, check out Gibraltar. I went around with the view of just relating what I saw and how I felt to who I am. The word "tribe" upset some people. But if it's a word that's applicable to black people and red people and yellow people, it's applicable to white people too. If you deal me that card, I deal it back to you.
It got a couple of particularly vicious reviews, but it doesn't really bother me because you have to look at who is judging you. The people that judged me were, in the main, second-rate and utterly dismissable. I have received more letters and more commentary on that book than anything I have ever written. I still do get mail. White and black people alike say that they are glad somebody said it. The criticism just washes by. I don't think that there is any single black writer who hasn't been subjected at one time or another to racist reviews. It is how you deal with them that will tell you something about what type of writer you are. If you write just to be praised, you're in the wrong business. I think it is just part of the territory. You are going to be abused. People are going to get personal about you; people are going to misunderstand what you intended. In the case of that book, because it was written from the first person, it was non-fiction and it was me; I put myself on the line. I am bound to feel it more than a play. The criticism was bound to be more extreme. It is hard to really get at a writer who has written a play or has written a novel. You have to put yourself down the line as a critic. You have to make it clear that you are not actually criticizing the play; you are being small enough to criticize the man who wrote the play.
That was the harshest criticism you've received. With that was there a lesson on how to deal with criticism?
Yes. Very much so. The lesson is this: I really don't read reviews. I don't read anything that is written about me. I don't read interviews.
You have not read a review of Higher Ground?
No. I have not read a review of anything for three and a half years.
Because of that experience?
Not directly related to that because I didn't read half the reviews for The European Tribe. I couldn't avoid them because people kept telling me, "Have you seen this?" But I had already made up my mind that I was not interested in reviews. I have to stress that most of the reviews were great. There were just a couple that were a mite personal. But they of themselves would not be enough to make me want to say I don't want to read reviews. I was already very loathe to read them. But now I just can't be bothered. I think it is a total waste of time. I don't have any curiosity, to be honest, about what's written.
In terms of your sphere of influence, what has influenced you as a writer? Personal experience is influential but apart from that….
Let me see. I don't know how to answer that properly. I'll just run off a list of names as they occur to me: Ibsen, Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Faulkner—those are the principal people. Some for the same reason. Ibsen because he was the first writer whom I ever read where I detected passion. I detected real, absolute passion. The domestic conflicts of these plays reminded me of black families—people tearing strips off each other, completely at odds with society, parents and kids in conflict. I read something in this thing you gave me about one of the actors in the "Cosby Show": Ed Hyman, one of the old black actors who learned Norwegian because he loves Ibsen so much. I was like that, you know. I just loved it. That's why I went to Norway. I've been to Norway a few times. This actor was saying that when he first saw a production of Ibsen, it made him want to be an actor, and he took it to the extreme that George Bernard Shaw did and actually wanted to learn Norwegian so he could read it from the original. It was quite interesting that he as an older actor is talking about it in this way and about the experience of going to Norway and doing Ibsen in Norwegian. Ibsen was so much at odds with the mainstream Norwegian life. He also wrote really great women's parts. So there's Ibsen.
What's your favorite of his?
Ghosts, maybe closely followed by Hedda Gabbler.
A Doll's House?
I love it! Nora—I think Ibsen is a truly great writer. Richard Wright because he was a man who really made me feel like I wanted to write after reading Native Son. And if I had to be marooned with one book, I think I'd take Black Boy. It just made me laugh, and it made me feel desperate at the same time. It made me run the gamut of my emotions. It's a work of great, consummate genius. It is so funny in places, very, very funny. Yet, at other times it is so sad and so desperate. I love the prose.
Baldwin, because he's a monumental intellect….
If you were marooned on that same island, could you choose just one?
I think I would take "Strangers in the Village." It's about him going to a small village in Switzerland. These people, not having seen a black person before, keep following him around. He went there to write in the 1950s. I think it's in Notes of a Native Son. I like his fiction, too, but it's his essays where the prose is unbelievable. Also, knowing him as I did, I learned in a paradoxical way about how not to be a writer.
Well, because he got seduced into becoming a personality, and he didn't spend enough time at his desk. It's a lot easier to talk about writing and to be the writer, than it is to write. And Jimmy had such a magnetic personality. I mean, he always wanted to be an actor. You could see that whenever you talked to him. He was a great, huge personality. But having a personality and having personal magnetism can be a very bad thing for you as a writer, because you develop a social life which is more preferable to writing. Jimmy spent too much time entertaining and being generous with his time, and not enough time writing. That's why I say there is a paradox in Jimmy teaching me a lot about how not to go about being a writer.
To guard jealously your time.
Yes. You have to. And I asked him several times why he surrounded himself with these idiots. Anybody who knew him well will tell you the same thing—Jimmy always had a bunch of complete fools that were always around him, and he tolerated it. One half of you admired the fact that he was so tolerant and generous and open; the other half wanted to say, "You're being had." You wanted him to get on to doing what he did best. I got very angry with him one night about six years ago. We had both drunk too much. I asked him why he was pissing about. He was 60, and he had written six novels. He had written his last novel nearly eight years before, and he had done nothing since. Jimmy Baldwin giving a talk on such and such a chat show is all well, but it wasn't his job. Maybe I was a bit insensitive, and maybe I was talking out of place, but we'd drunk a lot. I felt I knew him well enough to tell him. I was telling him out of frustration, because I'd had enough of trying to get to Jimmy through conventional means. It didn't work. I wouldn't say that he wasted his talent. He did not. I wouldn't say that he'd have necessarily written better. I think he could have written more, and I think he had more to say. He dissipated his talent in a way (I think that even he acknowledged this) that was perhaps self-defeating. There's umpteen Baldwin interviews; there's umpteen lectures and chat shows. In 1972, he wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a bad, bad novel. It is a terrible novel, I don't care what anybody says. It is a thin vapid piece of work. He then wrote a novel, Just Above My Head, and this was his last novel, a novel which needed editing. It needed someone to run a line through some of it, and it needed to be sharpened up. Between then and the nine years that he had to live—nothing. I just felt that a lot of time had been taken up "being a writer" but not writing. I admire Faulkner because I think that he did something with form in twentieth-century American fiction. He wrestled with questions of form and structure that others haven't even come anywhere near exploring. I find some of his work rather self-indulgent and a bit, quite frankly, boring because of his whole thing about the genealogy of the South; but the peculiar thing about Faulkner is that even though I might think his story is a bit so-so, I will like the way he tried to tell it. That is what I like about him.
Toni Morrison, I think, is a consummate artist.
You met her?
Briefly, at Jimmy's funeral. I just admire her so much. I think she's a master in subject, she's a master in form. She's very adept at managing her time and public appearances. When she does appear in public, she speaks sensibly and incisively. I think she's a great, great novelist.
Are there any Caribbean writers?
Derek Walcott, he's my favorite. I admire him; and although I am not a poet (and I don't feel qualified to criticize poetry), I admire his struggle to reconcile being of the Caribbean but not submitting to the parochialism that the Caribbean can impose upon your work. Many poets of Derek's generation have, if you like, wings that they can spread; they have learned how to fly, but few have soared like Derek. He has gone from strength, taking whatever influences he finds: be it Greek mythology or whatever interest he has in Eastern Europe from knowing Brodsky; be it from being among Black Americans and witnessing things in Black America. He has managed to take all of these various influences and graft them back into the Caribbean experience and make it more resonant. In his work I admire that he has never lost sight of the Caribbean. He has never closed his eyes to other ways of viewing the Caribbean and using other experiences to feed back in. On the physical side there is the determination to actually maintain a link with the Caribbean. That is something that I have only recently begun to try to do. The fact that he has been trying to do it for many, many years and succeeded, gave me, in a sense, the confidence to come here. It made me realize, when I looked at the quality of his work, how important it was that I did so.
To keep the link.
To keep the link. To try to not be afraid of the disorientation and the feeling of displacement, both here and there. To consciously be aware of this and to know the price that he's paid is a very important thing. He's had to hope that the work could justify the personal discomfort, in a sense. When I look at a lot of his contemporaries, other West Indian writers in fact, very few have had the courage to attempt to pay the price of some degree of personal discomfort that comes with living the life of the itinerate and the toll that takes on one's personal life, the domestic life. He's done it.
You're in it; you're not of it. You're of it; you're not in it.
Exactly. Derek, more so than any writer I know, is a great exiled writer. But he's not in exile. I admire him for not having taken up American citizenship.
When people question you about where you are from or where you are now, do you find inherent in that a question of your loyalty?
Absolutely. All the time. Whenever I go to a conference, particularly if it is in Britain, Germany, Canada, wherever, people always want to find a label for me. They may see me as somebody born in St. Kitts, and they say I live half the time in St. Kitts. Then I open my mouth, and they hear this English accent coming out. So they want to know what my story is. What's my game? What they are trying to do is make me choose. People have tried to make Caribbean writers do that all the time. I think that is what Derek has resisted. I'm sure that Derek and many other writers have had to pay a heavy price for refusing to be pigeon-holed. My own small experience with it is quite straight-forward. I hold a British passport, and I hold a St. Kitts passport. I see no reason why, for the sake of any idle gesture, I should toss one in the fire. I have them both, and I will use them both as I deem fit. I write about both places.
Do the mechanics of writing seem to be as enjoyable as the creative parts of it?
Eventually … you see, it's how you tell the story that seems to me to be most important. There are endless numbers of stories. When I look at the subject matter that I would like to deal with or that I have dealt with, it is a matter of telling a story about … let's take "Heartland," the first part of Higher Ground. You're telling a story about someone who collaborated. Now what was interesting to me was not just the story, but how to tell the story and the technique and the challenge of telling in the first person and in the present tense. That was something that gave it a little added relish when I sat down to write. It was….
A technique. How you tell the story … well, I think Wallace Stevens said that it's a real test of your seriousness. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there is something in it. Grappling with form is very important. We talked about this before: Ibsen changed the form of the theatre. It wasn't further developed until you got to people like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, who introduced the notion of magic and poetry, flashbacks and techniques of the cinema. You look at people like William Faulkner: he changed the form of the novel. There are many writers who are fine writers but who are not obsessed with technique or form. But, to me personally, it is one of the things that I feel is one of the distinguishing features between English Caribbean literature and Spanish Caribbean literature. You can look at Spanish literature like Marquez or Carpentier and actually see a different form or technique from English Caribbean literature. English Caribbean literature tends to be much more imitative of European forms. I think that we have a lot to learn in English speaking zones in the Caribbean. We are always in danger of becoming an exotic imitation of what is being done in London or New York.
For some writers, the whole aspect of writing it may not be a chore, but it is, however, a hard thing to do. It is hard to be alone and to devote the amount of time that it requires. Do you feel that way?
One thing that James Baldwin said about six years ago about writing—this was when I was working on what turned out to be The Final Passage—he basically told me that if I thought it was "hard to write a novel now, just you wait. It gets harder." He was right. It gets harder. First of all, I think you can work on a certain degree of ambition and desire the first time, even the second time, because you want to have the evidence of this thing. You want to have a novel; you want to get a novel out. The second or third time you are concerned about imitating yourself and writing the same book again. You have a different story, but you have to find a new way of telling it. Otherwise, you will fall into the trap of just repeating a well-worn narrative. It becomes more difficult, because you want to find a new way to tell a new story. You have to find a new vehicle for it to travel on, a new narrative form, a new narrative technique.
It doesn't matter how interesting the story.
Well, you hope that the story is at least as interesting as the one you told before. In fact, you hope it is much more interesting, but you don't want to travel on the same rickety wheels. You want to transport your story. You want to further sharpen the narrative blades at your disposal so that you can thrust into the heart of the reader with even more precision.
Is writing for you wrapped up in great mystery? Do you find that you have to go to certain places in your imagination before you come to terms with what it is you want to write?
I think what happens is that you have to learn patience. To get the idea for a novel, for me, isn't that difficult, but, the idea isn't enough. What I have to have is characters that speak to me. An idea suggests that it might turn out as some kind of socio-historical bullshit. I am a firm believer in character. If a character doesn't speak to me, no matter how strong an idea I have, if I don't feel I can engage him or her to some extent and arrest that character and be their guardian, then I won't pursue it. I might try to pursue it in a different form, maybe a play or a film, but certainly not in prose….
The character comes first.
Sometimes the idea comes first. To me, it remains merely an idea until I've got a character. When I have a character, then it becomes a reality. It is easy to say that I want to write something about a slave from the South who joined up and fought with the North, because it's an interesting phenomenon—the black troops in the war. But it's not enough to have the idea. It's a good idea and very little fiction has been written about it. But I need to know who this slave is. He has to have a name, or she has to have a name. I might read a book about that period and see if anything happens. Then I wait a bit. Eventually, what I hope is that the character will speak back to me. That's when I know something is happening, when the character starts to talk back to me. That waiting period is incredibly frustrating, and what you need is patience. I was talking to Jimmy [James Baldwin] once, and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Well, I am working on this novel, and I'm looking for my characters." He fell about laughing [sic]. And then he said, "You don't look for them. You have to wait for them." And he was right. He told me that as I got more mileage on me as an author that I would learn to wait.
Have you leapt out of the bed?
Yeah. I know when something is right. I can always tell. It happened in the novel I'm finishing now. I just knew almost immediately. I knew this character had a voice that was so insistent that all I had to be was this conduit through which this voice was going to come. It's a bit like when Alice Walker talks about how The Color Purple happened. She was a vehicle. I think the same thing when I read Toni Morrison. Her work is so magical and brilliant. You can't imagine how come this book didn't exist before. It's like the book should have existed. How come Beloved wasn't there before? It's because these people's voices were real and resonant and inside somewhere. It was as if Toni Morrison was the chosen one. She was able to be patient enough to listen and receive. She had the discipline to put this stuff down. That's more or less the voices from the past demanding that you tell their story. There are a few imposters running around to whom you have to say, "Well, actually, brother, your story … maybe I'll just hold off." But there are voices that are around that demand that their story be told. If you think that you're honest enough to tell the story, then tell it. That's what I mean when I say you have to wait. Particularly for a black person, there are so many avenues of our history that remain untold. That's why Glory was such a revelation. I could not believe that they'd actually gotten Hollywood money to make this film about our history. But somehow somebody had gone in there and realized that it was a part of American history which needed to be dealt with. There are any number of stories which need to be told. I don't think the subject area is a problem. If you are interested in history, even a superficial interest in history, every page you turn there are stories. You go back to Harriet Tubman, then forward a bit to Frederick Douglass. There are all the people who don't have a profile right now. There's all this. Langston Hughes wrote a great essay about subject matters for black writers. Although it was a bit prescriptive, what he was saying was basically correct: all writers mark their characters, like dogs. I think for a black writer who is interested in himself or herself and his or her history, it is a tremendously privileged and responsible position. It's how you tell the story that's the real struggle.
My white contemporaries, particularly in England, I see what they are writing about and some of them are less sure than black writers, black American writers in particular, about their area. In a way, English history is much travelled territory. You're in a tradition that's pretty goddamn deep. There's Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens—that's heavy, heavy tradition. Black authors are in the process of constructing a literary tradition. It is a wonderfully exciting and dynamic process.
It's dangerous. You can hit those "rocks"; you can go down. But because it's uncharted, it gives you a certain freedom.
Is there anything that you fear when you write?
Good question. No. The only thing I ask when I've finished anything is "Could I do better today?" If the answer is "no," then it's done properly. Maybe tomorrow it could be done better, but you finished yesterday, so … There's no fear because there is a great surge of power that comes with creativity. You feel very confident when it's going well. A fear, not at that time, but a later fear is that you may be pulling the punch or you are just not being as honest as possible for fear of hurting someone.
When that thought comes to mind, I guess that it's like an indicator.
You have to go back and look again. Don't give up. The revising process that I am doing right now is painful and slow, word by word. I'm changing quite a lot. But the reason I have to do this is—even though it is really uphill, having spent two years working on it—this is the most crucial phase: It's now that you have to find the energy to go up again. Now, when you're out of gas.
Having scaled once.
You have to go back again. You know in your heart that there are a few things that are wrong. You know you could get away with it because the book is sold, the deal is done, it's going to be published. Probably not many people would notice this odd word or sentence or sentiment that was slightly out of key. You could just watch TV. Yesterday, I wanted to watch a Magic Johnson all-star game, but I couldn't. I just thought, "NO."
You could become a slave to something….
You know why you've gotta go back there? It's not only for yourself. You actually make the commitment early on to your characters, and you are prepared to be a clean and proper conduit for them. They're going to haunt you if you mess with them now….
The last things you published have been novels. Are you going specifically to write more novels, or do you still have an interest in plays?
I still have an interest in plays. I am going to work on a play this autumn which I wrote four years ago.
Can you do this simultaneously, or do you, when writing a novel just devote time to that novel?
I can do them simultaneously. I can, but I think that a play can reach a critical stage or a novel can reach a critical stage where it just demands … there's a point where you can see the end of the thing and you just have to go. While I am in the earliest first draft stages, I can actually fiddle with one and then go and fiddle on another. I'm in the sort of, hopefully, home run stage of this play, and I want to finish it when I'm in Amherst.
You started it four years ago?
I wrote it in London for the Hampstead Theatre Club. I wrote it originally for nobody. Then a guy at Hampstead saw a draft of it. And they commissioned a second draft, and they worked with me on it. We worked hard on it. Michael Attenborough wanted to go in one direction, and I wanted to go in another. So, gentlemen's agreement, we just figured it wasn't going to work. I left for about one and a half years while I wrote Higher Ground. It's only now that I've come back to it that I can see a way of finishing it.
During those four years, did the play nibble at your brain?
Again, it is not the play, but the characters. There are three characters, and I can't leave them without the final reel. All three of them are strong, insistent individuals. Their way of speaking is in that play. I can't condemn them. Anything that I have ever done which hasn't been produced, I can't remember the names of the characters. I sort of vaguely remember what went on. But whenever there is a strong character, they will always find a way.
In the books I've read, the things of home seem to be pervasive: looking for an identity, looking to belong.
My feeling is that anybody who grew up with the sort of background in which I did, and that is not an insignificant percentage of the population of England, will question their identity. In other words, we grew up not quite knowing if this was home. Being told to go back to where we came from. The question of home is a very serious thing because you don't feel at home in this place which is the only thing you know. The other alternative smacks of idealism, because you don't have any notion of it. You probably couldn't even pinpoint it on a map. It just reflects my generation's continuing struggle.
What about the comfort level?
I think that members of the emerging third generation feel much more comfortable describing themselves as black Britons, which is something my generation always had some difficulty with because they didn't even want to deal with the term "Briton." At the same time, they couldn't really deal with the term "West Indian" either. So I think that what will happen in this generation is that more barriers will be broken down. You see this when you turn on the TV set; you see black people on the TV and heading the news. They are doing things that they weren't doing ten years ago. I think people today feel a lot more comfortable describing themselves as British and black. Whereas, when I was a teenager, there was a real confusion with color and nationalism. I think that it has straightened itself out slowly, thankfully.
This relationship to Africa—in the U.S. there was a movement in the late 1960s to relate to the search for roots to find "home." Has a similar thing happened in the Caribbean?
Yes. It's been happening for a long time. Well, there was Marcus Garvey, and the whole philosophy of Rastafarianism is rooted in the notion that Africa, Ethiopia in particular, is the homeland and that we will go back to Ethiopia for redemption. I mean, it was strong even before its development in the United States.
Has it done a 360 degree turn?
I think so.
Away from Africa. I tend to feel that.
To be perfectly honest.
I haven't seen one Mandela t-shirt.
I've got a lot of Mandela cups and t-shirts in my house! The focus of identification is the United States of America. The aspiration is not to be a Black African. It's to be a black success. They want to be somebody who's got something going for them. Michael has—Jackson or Jordan. Like the rest of the world, this place is becoming more culturally identifiable with the United States rather than with Africa.
The only identity the U.S. can provide is a megalomanic one.
But that's powerful. It's much more interesting than identifying with a bunch of people who are still, if you switch on the TV, presented as barbaric. People bought the hype pre-Haley. Some of them continued to buy it post-Haley.
I think about State of Independence or the last few pages in it about cable TV being introduced at the same time independence is being introduced to the island. Is there some kind of correlation between them?
It is saying basically that there is no independence. They've become nominally independent from Britain, but what do they do in the cultural and economic dependency? That's symbolized by cable television. The whole notion of independence for a place as small as St. Kitts or for islands generally as small as these in the Caribbean is a non-starter. You have to be dependent on somebody, given the world economy. So it's just a matter of what comes with your dependency, and what comes with the dependency with the new Caribbean is a sort of cultural imperialism which is, perhaps, inevitable. Africa, of course, is closer historically, but the price of developing cultural and economic links with Africa is just too high. It's not practical given the realities of the world in which we live. So the politicians and the people naturally gravitate toward the power, which is the United States.
Riding around the island with you, I've been struck by the beauty on the left and just as awestruck by the absolute poverty on the right. The roads are lined with shanties and people without running water or things that we tend to take for granted in the U.S.A. I know the island's history includes slavery, for the purpose of harvesting sugar cane. Today, 140 years removed from slavery, there seems to be some link to that past.
I think you notice that more in the Caribbean than you would in the U.S.A., because the Caribbean remains principally a set of islands based on agriculture, upon tilling of the soil. That has changed slightly, but people essentially remained close to the domestic patterns of slavery in the villages: seasonal labor for the cane and then getting work wherever they can.
What strikes most for me, especially in The Final Passage, is the lyricism. It is evident throughout your work, but in The Final Passage I seem to denote it more than anything. I was finding myself in your character's future and in the next paragraph being in their past without losing any of the logic. Is that something you strove for, a new way of telling a story, or was it something that just grew?
I think it grew out of telling that particular story. I think most people when they set out to write a first novel are just desperate to get the damn thing done. For me, I think, a type of lyricism comes from the environment here. I was most powerfully struck when I came here 10 years ago, by the trees, by the landscape. Having grown up as a kind of concrete jungle kid in England, it had never occurred to me to describe things. Your environment was not something you described; it was something you endured. I knew that when I got back to England I would have to describe what it was like going back to the land of my birth and with that came a particular vocabulary. Because of the nature of the visions here—the visual feast—you have to be lyrical. In terms of the characters, I was trying to tell a story about some people who were looking forward. So there was inevitably this time dislocation between the narrator, the characters, and what the characters were hoping for.
In Higher Ground, you tackled three very different issues. The first one, "Heartland," you told me the impetus was Sophie's Choice.
Partly, I wouldn't say it was an impetus, but it was something that was at the back of my mind: the notion of the disruption, perhaps even the destruction of the family base, the family unit, in the people who eventually become slaves. That had always interested me, that and the choices they had to make. It was not as neat as Sophie's Choice. You could be wrenched from your mother, father or brother, or your wife or daughter in a very vicious way. You weren't given a choice. I was aware of some parallels to the great twentieth-century crime against the Jews. It had some parallels and echoes for me as a black kid growing up in Europe. I felt that if white people can do that to themselves, what the hell are they going to do to me? I became interested in Jewish history, and I subsequently visited Auschwitz and Dachau and Anne Frank's house. I was interested in these places as monuments, for they existed. From reading I knew that physical edifices of the slave trade also existed. I started putting together this notion of the family unit breaking down. The idea of the lack of choice. Out of this mish-mash of things emerged a story about the captivity of Africans and one man who collaborated in this.
You did this story before actually journeying to Africa. You just recently journeyed there and saw these things. How close do you think you came to….
It is really for the Africans to say. The ones that I spoke to when I gave readings seem to think that it was pretty close. When I got there, I was kind of surprised. I think the historical memory is deeper and a lot more powerful than some of us recognize. And perhaps writing about it exorcised some of the horror of actually seeing. I got there, and I understood it. I understood instinctively what was going on because I had written about it. I don't think that I made any factual or emotional errors. I felt I had already imagined what it was like, and so being there was like a journey back to something that I already knew about.
The second story basically attends to a "soul brother" in the 1960s becoming aware of politics in the U.S.A. at that time and how black people were apart from the politics in the nation and excluded from "main stream" society opportunities. How did that come about?
That came about because I was in Alabama making a film in 1982–83. I was doing a documentary film in Birmingham, nearly 20 years after the bombings in that city. Obviously, I had an interest before that in civil rights, but in Birmingham, I came face to face with the realities of the movement. I went to Birmingham City Jail where King was incarcerated. I went to Jefferson Country Jail which is where a lot of black people were held and continue to be held for a variety of reasons. I really am quite interested in the whole process of the psychology of the 1960s in America. A combination of exposing myself to reading about the 1960s, being aware of the martyrdom that many Black Americans went through in the 1960s, their struggles and misunderstandings, the difficulties of Vietnam and the hippie movement, and the actual physical horror, for the first time in my life, of being in a couple of prisons which had huge black populations and were primarily staffed by bigoted, Southern red-necks—I had to write something about all of this.
The third one seems to be a story of ultimate desperation and disillusionment, by not belonging to any place or anyone.
Well, it is on the one hand about two displaced ships passing in the night, so to speak. It's about two people, neither of whom belong in this big city, both of whom feel, "What the hell am I doing here?" One character is a Jewish woman who is a refugee from Poland. The other is a West Indian who is newly arrived in Britain. The story is set in the late 1950s, and they don't know what is going on. It's really about one of them who is too far gone because she's been in the country for nearly twenty years now. She's been sucked up into a vacuum of the nightmare of trying to survive as a displaced person. She knows no other way of surviving. The other can actually see, although he's only been there a few weeks, that if he stays how things are going to turn out: he is actually going to become mentally damaged by the experience of environment, feeling like an exotic but unwanted appendage to the larger British culture. There's a lack of despair, in that the black man, the West Indian, decides that he doesn't want to know. Most circumstances, as one might expect—and this has happened with lots of West Indian migrants in Britain—forced them to throw in the towel and take the path of least resistance, which would (in this case) have been to stay in her flat and just figure, "what the hell."
"I've met a friend, somebody I can talk to. She's good looking and a bit strange, but hell. I suppose I look a bit strange at the moment, too." He found the strength, the real strength not to do it. He has the strength to insist that he was going back to where he came from. From her point of view, yes, there is a terrible despair. Her despair is qualified by the twenty years of experiences that she's had. It is also qualified by her life before she left: how close the family was. It was a very tight Jewish family. When she walks outside of that framework, she is likely to fall apart anyway. When he talks about his family life in the Caribbean, he only does it very briefly. But it is a lot cooler, a lot more loose and fluid.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2509
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; obviously power and strength slept somewhere within them but at this moment they were infinitely gentle, describing with eight fingers that moment when a grip of iron weakens to a caress of love." The story of the relationship between this white woman and this black man—"perhaps the most explosive of all relationships, seldom written about, seldom explained, feared, observed, hated"—seemed to the author impossible to get down on paper, and many times, Phillips tells us, he wanted to quit: "The responsibility was too big, I would say, to myself only; and I would wait until I was more mature." It was with what he thought to be a final, regretful glance at the image that he experienced at last a clearing of the mind and with it the knowledge that "the postcard was a part of me and if I did not acknowledge it I would be haunted…. I clearly saw in it, perhaps for the first time, something that had made me what I was."
What Phillips was at the time—besides a budding playwright—was a recent Oxford graduate, brought up in Leeds, who was born in the West Indies and taken to England before his first birthday. He was just moving toward the discovery of his voice—the voice of an England not often heard, far from sweeping lawns and university quadrangles. Phillips has written elsewhere of the depths of exclusionism and ignorance which continually challenged his right to feel himself English, from the deliberate humiliations of boyhood to the questions of a BBC television producer as to "what African languages I spoke, and if I spoke them when I'm with other West Indians." At Oxford, he envied the African students for having "a home to which they could return"; he implies almost as much about black Americans. Two years after The Shelter, which dealt with the impossible relations of a black man and a flesh-and-blood Britannia, Phillips began writing novels on the subject of West Indian rootlessness—of in-betweenness, of pained unacceptance and categorically enforced un-Englishness—set forth in the measured and evocative prose of a natural master of the language.
Both Phillips' insistent early theme and his developing virtuosity of style are brought to an extreme pitch in his most recent novel, Cambridge. Set in the British West Indies before the victory of abolitionism, under a system of slavery carried out half a world away from its masters and beneficiaries, the story concerns the voyage of an Englishwoman, a near-perfect representative of the formative conventions of her class—"I am simply a lady of polite status with little talent, artistic or otherwise"—directly into the heat and confrontation of an island where her countrymen have painstakingly raised up a hell in the bower of paradise. Miss Emily Cartwright, come to inspect the running of her father's sugar plantation, is the proverbial drawing-room mirror, silvered and polished and transported over an ocean in order to capture in reflection the unthinkable English beast of slavery. Caryl Phillips, like Pat Barker, approaches the evils of history through the trials of individual conscience. His book, too, seems to set up a challenge of will against will, and a promise of transformation—in this case, through the presence on the plantation of a highly educated and articulate slave, called Cambridge. Yet as the story progresses these apparent promises grow dimmer and dimmer, until Phillips fatally reverses every prospect, every expectation. He leads where no one could expect who does not know his painfully divided earlier work.
Phillips' first novels centered on the physical beauty and social squalor of the Caribbean, the tiny islands of sizzling tin roofs and sleep and beer, "overburdened with vegetation and complacency," offering nothing, without future. This splendorous desolation he set against the cold, gray refusal of the great mother island, where what is offered is always out of reach, and where the past is all the comfort left. His people sailed away from their homes with a pity for all those "satisfied enough to stay," and they inevitably returned, defeated—in The Final Passage after several months; in A State of Independence after twenty years—and at once grateful and unfitted for the slow, eventless life they had thought to abandon.
In 1989, Phillips published a collection of three novellas under the title Higher Ground, in which he seemed not only to have become a new writer but to have become several writers. The growth and the range were remarkable, and the command of voice—with narrators belonging to different sexes, races, countries, and times—was uncanny. The strongest of the stories was a dramatic monologue in letters called "The Cargo Rap," which records a black American's seventh year in prison during the nineteen-sixties. Here Phillips captures an era and a way of thinking and speaking with line-for-line precision, and renders a particular human personality with almost unbearable penetration: a young man of mental complexity and blanketing self-deception, whose belligerence and naïve schemes slowly give way to a seeping, cracking desperation. All of this hundred-page story is told in the singular and ever-recognizable voice of one Rudolph Leroy Williams, although Phillips manages to create—over the teller's shoulder, as it were—an array of other characters. And it is characteristic of the author's temperament that the tale begins in prison, with his narrator's crime obscured in the past, barely relevant, and all his actions cut off at the level of thought. Even rage is something that the reflective and rather gentle Phillips explores rather than releases.
The narrator of Phillips' third novella is an educated and privileged slave employed by the British military at an African trading post, whose job it is to translate between English and the dialects of captured tribes. The story, again, is delivered as a monologue, but eighteenth-century speech is alluded to rather than reproduced; something other than historical accuracy is intended. This nameless figure is marooned between his two peoples, "knowing that neither fully trusts me, that neither wants to be close to me, neither recognizes my smell or my posture." In the end, despite his Christianized learning and civility, he is turned upon by his masters and shackled to the latest group of captives; in a vortex of self-realization and terror, he is sold, in a distant country, on the block. This is a potent nightmare, as hard and irreducible as myth. In varied forms, it is at least as old as Stowe's Uncle Tom. For Phillips, its gospel seems to be especially urgent, and it reappears, elaborated in detail and consequence, at the ambitions and inscrutable heart of Cambridge.
The familiar Phillips gifts are much in evidence in the new novel, and its early sections have an intoxicating vocal grace. Here is the Englishwoman's story, told in her own steady voice, a brief prelude of dishevelled memory quickly bound up into the ordered form of a journal: "I shall have a record of all I have passed through, so that I might better recount for the use of my father what pains and pleasures are endured by those whose labour enables him to continue to indulge himself in the heavy-pocketed manner to which he has become accustomed."
A great part of the delight of these early pages lies in the secret of high and risky artifice shared between author and reader—the perfect balance with which Phillips has summoned up this nineteenth-century Emily. But there is also the simple appeal of the woman herself, with her dartings of bitter knowledge and need beneath the dutiful pose of the lady, with her wry intelligence and her distinctive way of trying out a new thought or expression—restyling the conventional inflections of an even earlier period—as though pressing the taste of it up against her palate, as when she notes of a seasick cabin boy: "Merely a few years hence he will have sea legs as opposed to land legs, and find it difficult to reside in a world that is devoid of motion." One believes in this Emily, and cares for her, as she broods and italicizes her way across the ocean.
Confusion sets in soon after her arrival, however, and slowly expands throughout the book. At first, we lose our hold on who Emily is or might be. Simultaneously appalled and seduced by tropical languor, the woman who left England with the bold hope that she might one day "encourage Father to accept the increasingly common, though abstract, English belief in the iniquity of slavery" is converted with startling immediacy—through plainly expressed disgust with black features and habits, with violations of "laws of taste"—to a stony conviction of the natural rightness of the slave system. The character closes up, becomes merely priggish, loses the Brontë-like sense of mettle beneath apparent mildness; even in giving herself over to island delicacies and sensualities, she is reduced to the hard and casually abusive England she had so recently sought to escape.
While there is no requirement, of course, that the heroine of a novel be also a political or moral heroine, and while the brutalization of this woman's mind is as potentially valid and perhaps more devastating a subject than its liberation, the reversal here is carried out without struggle or question, or even transition. More, the tight airlessness of that diminishing mind becomes stifling for the reader, who is, after all, trapped inside it, craning to locate a clear fact or another human face, to escape a monologue that turns into a drone long before its hundred and twenty-plus pages are out. Phillips' extraordinary control of tone never wavers, but the cost is great.
It was perhaps part of the author's rhythmic plan to have the plot rush in so late and so wild: a love affair, a baby, a murder. Emily's lover is the cruel plantation foreman, whose killer is the "black Hercules" called Cambridge, the sole slave who would not back down, who sought justice. We have seen the two men facing off in the fields—the result is the first whipping that Emily witnesses—and have seen Cambridge sitting outside Emily's sickroom reading his Bible:
I asked if this was his common form of recreation, to which he replied in highly fanciful English, that indeed it was. You might imagine my surprise when he then broached the conversational lead and enquired after my family origins, and my opinions pertaining to slavery. I properly declined to share these with him, instead counter-quizzing with enquiries as to the origins of his knowledge.
Learning nothing of these origins, Emily "quickly closed in the door, for I feared this negro was truly ignorant of the correct degree of deference that a lady might reasonably expect from a base slave."
The history of this "base slave" is given at last by his own testimony, some thirty pages written out on the eve of hanging. Cambridge, born Olumide, was captured and taken to England, and there renamed, reclothed, reëducated, and eventually freed—"Truly I was now an Englishman, albeit a little smudgy of complexion!"—before the final and irrevocable betrayal back into slavery, aboard a ship travelling to Africa to convert the heathen. But his tale resolves the plot in only the most cursory way, and the book not at all. Where is Cambridge's voice? Far from sounding particularly fanciful, as Emily hears him, he sounds to us hardly different from Emily herself. It is soon apparent that Cambridge is less a man than an archetype, as isolated from sources of life as, finally, Emily is—or as she comes to be, it seems, once she has chosen, in the fields, in some mysterious and unexplored way, to set her heart toward the whip-wielding foreman rather than his steadfast opponent.
It is presumptuous to claim that an author should have stayed true to intentions that he may not, after all, have possessed. But everything that goes wrong with Cambridge—the sudden moral reduction of the heroine, the plot too sketchy and immaterial to contain, or even occupy, the characters, and the lack of conviction in the presentation of Cambridge himself—suggests a change of direction, the uprooting of a vital motivation: the meeting of this complex woman, white and free, and this complex man, black and enslaved, in a world set apart. Such is the magnetism of these twin poles of the narrative that just the anticipation of their mutual discovery is sufficiently charged to hold the story in tension, until the prospect is, chance by chance, eliminated. That there will be no connection made between these two people, no recognition, is emphasized more than once, as a kind of refutation, a warding off. ("That I might have conversed with her at ease, perhaps even discussed acquaintances in common, undoubtedly never occurred to her," Cambridge muses near the story's end.) This is not to say that these characters need to have become lovers but that the reader feels led inexorably toward some greater awareness, some eruption of sympathy, or of any emotion that would fertilize the sterile grounds in which the pair have been planted.
It is difficult to know whether this negative choice reflects technical restrictions or philosophical ones. On the simplest level, Phillips has chosen to retain his monologue form, his passive and dissociated poise, his tight control. But the choice encompasses, too, a backing away from the assailable cliché of black man and white woman—that "most explosive of all relationships," the exploration of which Phillips once regarded as part of his "inevitable task" and the responsibility for which he had feared. The image on the postcard that so obsessed the young writer remains one of essential division. Phillips' insistence that we are forever separate in our skins, that every voyage out is a foundering, is manifest in Cambridge—which begins by promising so much more—through the cutting back of dimension in the characters and of freedom in the author. Yet if Cambridge is a smaller book than it might have been, and more self-protective, it leaves one with the conviction that Phillips has it in him to write books that are larger and bolder. One would not require of the artist a different conclusion, or a feigned optimism—or, for that matter, a real optimism—but only the breath of possibility, without which the most meticulous creation is stillborn.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5510
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 there is nothing to reveal but fiction, then fiction, some writers believe, can't tell us about anything but itself. So they give us metafiction: self-conscious fiction which draws attention to the fact that it's fiction. It's no longer enough for the conjurer to perform the trick without declaring that it is a trick.
Despite the rather peevish tone of this reflection on postmodernist literary theory, it raises certain issues which I find useful in approaching Caryl Phillips's latest narrative, Cambridge (1991). Firstly, this work does constitute self-conscious fiction: to a great extent, it is a pastiche of other narratives and, it seems to me, deliberately calls attention to its intertextuality. Secondly, the source narratives for Cambridge have long been considered the proper domain of West Indian historians and have been read as historical reconstructions. However, the particular nature of most of these documents—the slave narrative and the travel journal/diary, with their first-person narrators, their conventions of rhetoric and structure—emphasizes their fictionality. Finally, Cambridge itself is a "novel" that attempts historical reconstruction in order to interrogate and, possibly, rewrite the European record of the West Indies. In a sense, then, Cambridge wears the mask of fiction (as the term is commonly used), but reveals its matrix in historical narratives, which are in turn unmasked by the text's process and shown to be rather insidiously fictional in their claim to "the truth".
If my logic is tortured, this results from attempting to come to terms with a text that does declare itself "as a trick". The title, for example, refers to the eponymous character, whose real name turns out not to be Cambridge after all; neither does he recount the majority of the narrative. Rather, this centres around the experiences of an Englishwoman (Emily Cartwright) in the Caribbean, some time between the abolition of the slave trade and full emancipation. Cambridge consists of three "stories", sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue which foreshadow and echo each other. These latter combine omniscient narration with representation of Emily's thoughts and memories prior to and after the central events of the whole.
The bulk of Cambridge is the travel-journal of Emily, a thirty-year-old spinster sent by her father to survey his plantation in an unnamed West Indian island (obviously based on Phillips's native St. Kitts) before facing her fate, a loveless marriage to an elderly suitor in England. During the course of her stay on the estate and her growing intimacy with the overseer, Mr. Brown, she comes into contact with the Bible-reading slave Cambridge whose grasp of English impresses her. Her account ends with the murder of Brown by Cambridge, and "the negro … hanged from a tree, no longer able to explain or defend his treacherous act". Emily is mysteriously ill, the estate threatened with ruin and her father sent for.
Part Two gives Cambridge the chance to "explain or defend" himself. It purports to be the written testimony of the African Cambridge ("true Guinea name, Olumide"), enslaved as a youth, who, surviving the middle passage, enters into domestic service (as Black Tom) in the household of a retired English captain in London. Here he learns to adopt the English language, dress, customs, Calvinism and his latest appellation, David Henderson. He marries an English servant and after the death of his employer, lectures on the anti-slavery circuit around the country until his wife passes away. Subsequently, en route to Africa as a missionary, he is robbed, re-enslaved and finally, rechristened Cambridge, sold to the West Indian estate where he suffers the bullying of Mr. Brown and Brown's power over his "wife" (the strange Christiania who so threatened Emily in her account). He finally approaches Brown, determined to state his grievances, but a violent confrontation ensues in which Brown's "life left his body" and, as Cambridge understands, his own death will soon follow by law.
Part Three takes the form of another historical document: perhaps an anecdotal account in a report or a newspaper story, judging from the inclusion of rhetorical flourishes and sensationalizing details. It records the premeditated murder of Brown by the "insane" slave Cambridge because of an "innocent amour" between Mr. Brown and Christiania, whom Cambridge held "in bondage, his mind destroyed by fanciful notions of a Christian life of moral and domestic responsibility". Details of the actual ambush and murder are supplied by a "faithful black boy" accompanying Mr. Brown, who hid and observed the event. Emily is not mentioned in this narrative, which concludes with Cambridge's trial, hanging and gibbeting.
And so to the Epilogue, which ties up the loose ends: so much for the absence of plot and character in the postmodernist text! Emily, having lost Brown's child, lives in dereliction off the estate with her faithful slave Stella, supported by the charity of neighbouring blacks, and looks forward to death.
For those who have a nodding acquaintance with West Indian history, this brief summary will no doubt evoke similar "historical" accounts on which Phillips has drawn. In effect, Emily's (fictional) travel journal is a pastiche of similar writings by Monk Lewis, Lady Nugent, Mrs. Carmichael et al. I do not refer simply to the narrative's conventional form and use of nineteenth-century "polite" English, but to specific incidents, phrases, even whole passages in the novel which are deliberately "lifted" from the source documents. Compare, for example, the following passages in (a) Cambridge and (b) Monk Lewis's Journal of a West Indian Proprietor:
a) Sea terms: WINDWARD, whence the wind blows; LEEWARD, to which it blows; STARBOARD, the right of the stern; LARBOARD, the left …
b) Sea Terms.—Windward, from whence the wind blows; leeward, to which it blows; starboard, the right of the stern; larboard, the left …
This shipboard observation is shortly followed in both narratives by an account of a little cabin boy, his friendship with a dog, and his seasickness on this, his debut voyage. Emily's account of her ill-fated maid's illness ("she complained of feeling the motion sickness, of throbbing temples, burning head, freezing limbs, feverish mouth and a nauseous stomach") echoes that of Lewis: "My temples throbbing, my head burning, my limbs freezing, my mouth all fever, my stomach all nausea, my mind all disgust".
Then there is the obligatory storm at sea, and once again, Emily's narrative and that of Lewis are almost word for word:
I was … consulting with the captain, who took the precaution of snuffing out one of his candles and readying himself to affix the other to the table. However … the sudden lurch of the ship throw it from the table-top and for a moment we were plunged into complete darkness. And then the noise!… The cracking of bulkheads! The sawing of ropes! The screeching of the wood! The trampling of the sailors! The clattering of crockery! Everything above and below all in motion at once! Chairs, writing-desks, boxes, books, fire-irons, flying all about … (Cambridge).
The captain snuffed out one of the candles, and both being tied to the table, could not relight it with the other … when a sudden heel of the ship made him extinguish the second candle … and thus we were all left in the dark. Then the intolerable noise! the cracking of bulkheads! the sawing of ropes! the screeching of the tiller! the trampling of the sailors! the clattering of the crockery! Everything above deck and below deck, all in motion at once! Chairs, writing-desks, books, boxes, bundles, fire-irons and fenders, flying to one end of the room … (Journal of a West Indian Proprietor).
Emily's leaking cabin roof mirrors that reported by Monk Lewis; the approaching tropical weather is described as "excessively close" and "sultry" in Cambridge and in Lewis's Journal; the captain of the ship in both narratives becomes "out of patience with the tortoisepace" of progress, and so the voyage and arrival in the Caribbean proceed intertextually, as it were. Once ashore, Emily is warned to beware of the very dangers that Lewis itemizes:
There were three things against which I was particularly cautioned, and which three things I was determined not to do: to take exercise after ten in the day; to be exposed to the dews after sun-down; and to sleep at a Jamaica lodging house. (Journal)
Compare, also, reactions to the extravagance of the planter's table in Lady Nugent's Journal and Emily's account:
Such loads of all sorts of high, rich, and seasoned things, and really gallons of wine and mixed liquors as they drink!… a dish of tea, another of coffee, a bumper of claret, another large one of hocknegus; then Madeira, sangaree, hot and cold meats, stews and fries … [Lady Nugent's Journal of her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805] I have never seen such rich and heavily seasoned food: land-and-sea turtles, quails, snipes and pigeons … Dishes of tea, coffee, bumpers of claret, Madeira, sangaree, were all to be followed … (Cambridge).
Emily's reportage of the hypochondria of the slaves ("a tropical doctor's life is squandered on the bizarre imaginary diseases with which the negro claims to be suffering. Monday morning is a great time for the lazy or ill-disposed …") sounds very much like Mrs. Carmichael's assertion, in Domestic Manners, that "Negroes have more imaginary diseases than any set of people I ever was amongst … Monday morning is always a great day for the sick". Consider also the similarity of the following comments on theft among the slaves in (a) Cambridge and (b) Domestic Manners:
a) His thievishness is more than a match for all the laws that can emanate from any parliament, and even when apprehended in the act the black will invariably fly into a passion if you refuse him the honour of being able to take up the book and swear to the truth of what he knows to be false.
b) Negroes will steal, cheat and deceive in every possible way … what is worse, they invariably get into a passion if you refuse to let them take the book and swear to the truth of what you know to be false.
In the case of Cambridge's story, the echoes are largely from Equiano's Travels. Equiano tells of being captured at the age of ten in Nigeria, enslaved (under various names), schooled in England, freed and converted to Calvinism, travelling as part of the anti-slavery lobby throughout England, married to an Englishwoman and involved in a projected trip to Sierra Leone, where he wished to go as a missionary; Cambridge's narrative, like Emily's, deliberately draws on the earlier autobiography. Equiano's fear that his captors will kill and eat him on the journey to the New World also haunts Olumide/Cambridge. The descriptions of conditions on the slave ship are similar in both texts:
we were to be lodged below deck … Once below our bodies received a salutation of supreme loathsomeness in the form of a fetor (Cambridge)
I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together,… I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. (Equiano's Travels)
Similar treatment is meted out to Olumide/Cambridge ("The white men came below with eatables. Those who found the strength to refuse were lashed, often to death") as to Equiano ("two of the white men offered me eatables, and on my refusing to eat … flogged me severely", p. 26). The two narratives illustrate the brutality of whites, even to each other, with the same example of a sailor being flogged to death with a "mass of rope" and then tossed overboard. Olumide/Cambridge receives instruction aboard ship "to help me smatter a little imperfect English", echoing Equiano's experience: "By this time however I could smatter a little imperfect English". At the sight of England, Equiano relates that "Every heart on board seemed gladdened", in Cambridge, the phrase recurs: "every heart was gladdened when sight of merry England was announced". Compare also the despair of both (a) Cambridge and (b) Equiano at being deceitfully re-enslaved, and at the prospect of another middle passage:
a) I very much feared the horrors that lay ahead. My former passage rose in dreadful review and showed only misery, stripes and chains. In one moment of weakness I called upon God's thunderous avenging power to direct the sudden state of death to myself, rather than permit me to become a slave and be passed from the hand of one man to another …
b) At the sight of this land of bondage, a fresh horror ran through all my frame … My former slavery now rose in dreadful review to my mind, and displayed nothing but misery, stripes, and chains; and, in the first paroxysm of my grief, I called upon God's thunder and his avenging power to direct the stroke of death to me rather than permit me to become a slave, and be sold from lord to lord.
One could continue such collation, but the textual strategy in the first two sections—one which research would doubtless expose in Part Three also—has been sufficiently illustrated. Phillips has gone to great pains to establish the historical "authenticity" of his fiction. Furthermore, the deliberate, even ostentatious, borrowing from and echoing of source material ("the conjurer declaring it is a trick") focuses attention on the connection between the fictional and historical narratives. For what purpose? I will return to this issue shortly, but it is important to note that while the reading of Cambridge is a disconcertingly echoic experience—one constantly, and correctly, feels "I've read this before!"—there is no sense of a stylistic patchwork. Each of its narratives is relatively consistent and suited to its presumed author. At the same time, what Phillips has achieved is a sense of their representative natures, their combined impressions of place and time evoke the feel of the place and period.
Nonetheless, one can empathize with the response of a historian colleague asked to check the novel's historical verisimilitude: "But what is it?" The answer, of course, is a hybrid, a syncretic fabrication. As such, the text conforms to one definition of post-colonial literature, which sees its perspective as having "given explicit confirmation to the perception that genres cannot be described by essential characteristics, but by an interweaving of features, a 'family resemblance' which denies the possibility of either essentialism or limitation" (The Empire Writes Back,) as do the cultures such literature grows out of.
Elsewhere in The Empire Writes Back, the authors postulate that "much of post-colonial literature … is 'about' a void, a psychological abyss between cultures". Certainly, this permeates the structural arrangement of Cambridge. The novel also treats of "gaps" within cultures, significantly between male and female on both sides of the Sargasso Sea. For all the "bond" felt by Cambridge for his "wife" Christiania (whom, even he accepts, is a "heathen"), he tells her nothing about his past for fear of tainting "my Anna's memory by association" and his attempts to convert her fail because "her undeniably spiritual nature was absorbed in an entirely different direction", a direction that finally leads her to mock his Christian beliefs. This angers Cambridge "for, as is well known, a Christian man possesses his wife, and the dutiful wife must obey her Christian husband."
The same perception of woman as innately subservient pervades Emily's world, and the "void" between cold male authority and resentful female obeisance is introduced in the Prologue to Cambridge: "A woman might play upon a delicate keyboard, paint water-colours, or sing. Her father conducted himself as a stern audience"; "she had once overheard her father insisting that sensible men should only trifle with these children of a larger growth. And then he laughed. To reside under the auspices of a 'petticoat government'!" Both Christiania and Emily have "buried feelings", unarticulated thoughts which "unspool in silence". The metropolitan and plantation societies of the nineteenth century confined and silenced women.
To an extent, Cambridge gives them voice. One may ask what prompts a black male West Indian writer—the author's photograph is prominent on the dust-jacket—to reflect on his country's past through the memoirs of a white female English persona? Again, The Empire Writes Back suggests an answer: "In writing out of the condition of 'Otherness' postcolonial texts assert the complex of intersecting 'peripheries' as the actual substance of experience". So, of course, do female-authored texts. In attempting to shed light on the past, Phillips has chosen to explore the voids, gaps between cultures, races and sexes. In terms of gender, then, Emily's account is a useful perspective from the periphery. On the one hand, she does read the West Indian island and its inhabitants according to imperialist and racist discourse; on the other hand, her place within this discourse is clearly established as marginal. The text stresses her ignorance (had not "Stella informed me" on numerous occasions, she would be lost), her frequent mystification ("By now I was so confused that my feverish head had begun to spin anew"), her false conclusions and, above all, her powerlessness at home and in the Caribbean (the estate overseer has her bodily carried off the field by a slave when she annoys him).
So one can perceive, through her narrative, some of the cracks in the edifice of colonialism: its contradictions and inconsistencies, the holes in its "logic" are inadvertently exposed. For example, in the Epilogue, Emily reflects on her position: "They were kind, they journeyed up the hill and brought her food. Cassava bread and bush tea mixed with milk. The mistress. Six months, six weeks, six days, it mattered little for her status was secure". Yet her own narrative has demonstrated the insecurity of her status, the indeterminacy of the title "mistress": the deposed estate manager acknowledged that "the mistress" "lacked the power of either censure or discipline" on her father's estate. Indeed, the irony of the term and her assertion of the identity it confers is explicit in her situation at the end of her tale: deserted by the man whose "mistress" she had become, shunned by white society for her illegitimate pregnancy, alone in a derelict cottage and dependent on her servant and the charity of strange blacks. Even as she has come to recognize the truth of Mr. Brown's assurance that "when I had spent more time among them I might come to understand that everything is not as in England", she clings to the imperialist myth of the natural supremacy of white and English. But her own narrative has exposed this, as it has so many other "truths".
I am suggesting, then, that rather than utilize a symmetrical white male account to balance that of the slave, Cambridge, Phillips's choice of a "mistress" rather than a master-narrative far more tellingly exposes the "complex of intersecting peripheries" that informed nineteenth-century plantation life.
At this point, I would like to return to my earlier suggestion that Cambridge calls attention to its intertextuality, the connection between its fictional narratives and its "historical" source documents. As stated earlier, travel-diaries and planter journals and slave narratives, some of which Cambridge draws upon, have long been used by historians as sources for the reconstruction of social relations in Caribbean plantation societies. Of course, historians have been aware of the danger of bias in such narratives. Witness Elsa Goveia's general warning:
Among the historians of the British West Indies, most of the earlier writers tend to claim authenticity, while the later ones usually lay claim to impartiality as well. The need for a narrative which should be true to the facts was well established as an essential element of historical writing. What varied was the judgement of the nature of the facts …
But what must also be taken into consideration is the essentially "fictional" nature of these texts, particularly in terms of the way conventional formal structures shape the manner in which the "objective" narrator shapes and judges the "facts". Again Goveia's study notes this conventionality:
The diversity of subject and method in British West Indian historical writing is comprehended under a certain regularity of form … the diversity of temperaments, motives and opinions among the historians, was, to a significant extent, overlaid by a regularity of interpretation. (Goveia).
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written about the similarity of content and structure across slave narratives; of the influence on each new writer of "other slave authors who preceded them"; of the apprenticeship in rhetoric and oratory many writers served while on the anti-slavery lecture circuit (evidence of this is explicit in Cambridge); of common rhetorical features such as metaphor, irony, apostrophe, chiasmus and—in the case of Equiano and Cambridge—"the use of two distinct voices". In addition, Gates touches on both the appropriation by the slave narrative of other literary forms (the popular sentimental novel, for example) and the appropriation of the slave narrative by novels such as Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976). In so far as the printed texts of the slave narratives were often "formal revisions of their spoken words organized and promoted by antislavery organizations" (Gates) and that such lectures were organized according to some of the conventions and rhetorical strategies mentioned above, we have come a long way from a perception of the slave narrative as a bald account of historical facts. The narratives were, rather, highly crafted and self-conscious works (sharing many features with other fictional genres) that filter, as it were, "facts".
The same can be said of the travel-journal. Eve-Marie Kröller has recently catalogued some rhetorical strategies in travel-writing by Victorian women, including the use of the "poetic" and "objective" modes to shore each other up, the use of set-pieces of natural description to familiarize the exotic environment, the use of servants' explanations to translate "a foreign epistemology", the advertisement of the partial nature of the account and the mixture of genres (the account may incorporate lyric rhapsody, botanical information, cookery recipes, missionary story and adventure tale!).
My point in emphasizing the constructed, fictional nature of the "source narratives" in Cambridge is that in both Emily's and Cambridge's accounts, the narrating "I" is evasive, as is the "truth" of her/his relation. As Kröller points out, the traveldiarist is doubly self-conscious as protagonist in both an alien geographical environment and a potentially unsettling, even embarrassing narrative environment. Emily's account is self-referential because she must make herself, as narrator/protagonist, an object of consciousness; like Cambridge, her self-consciousness accounts for certain gaps, ambiguities, discreet omissions and self-protective explanations in her text. Thus our attention is drawn to both the fictive nature of the narratives in the novel and, by their faithfulness to the conventions and discursive strategies of the originals, to the storylike quality of these originals.
At the same time, even as we discover that history is yet another fiction, Phillips's deliberate echoing of his "parent narratives" forcibly reminds us of their historical nature: to borrow a term from deconstruction, the fact that the appellation "historical" is "under erasure" does not eliminate the concept of "historical" when we approach the fiction. Accordingly, the informed reader will judge Cambridge, at least in part, according to its faithfulness to the form and tone of the originals, to the "facts" of history. It must be said that the tone of the novel's language is accurate and deftly manipulated to specific purposes. One may query whether any planterclass West Indian newspaper or anecdotal account (the form suggested in Part Three) would consider it necessary to mention that Mr. Brown was a Christian; on the other hand, narrative irony—and symmetry—is facilitated by the adjective, which nicely contrasts with "the Christian Cambridge" later in the account. Again, the apparently random italicization of the earlier nineteenth century lends a "period tone" in this instance as well as serving to underscore the irony of contrasting "Christian" behaviours.
I referred earlier to the sense of familiarity, of déjà vu which the informed reader experiences in Cambridge. This, as noted, is largely due to the deliberate incorporation into the novel of certain conventional narrative and attitudinal features proper to the "parent documents", and results in an acceptance of Emily's and Cambridge's accounts as historically representative. Yet, in drawing attention to the several discursive strategies through which past "facts" have been filtered, and to the evasive, even enigmatic, nature of the first-person narrators of the tale, Phillips lulls us into a sense of familiarity only to jolt us out of it.
As I also suggested earlier, the self-conscious artificiality of the slave narrative and travel diary-forms helps to account for certain holes and silences, certain contradictions and ambiguities in this novel which draws on them. For example, the deliberate evocation of Equiano's classic slave narrative underscores the public, rhetorical, missionary quality of the testimony of black Tom turned free David Henderson: "Truly I was now an Englishman, albeit a little smudgy of complexion! Africa spoke to me only of a history I had cast aside". But, in the next breath—well, paragraph—the narrative is coloured by the voices of the effaced Olumide and the disillusioned, re-enslaved Cambridge, with devastatingly ironic effect: "We who are kidnapped [by Englishmen] from the coast of Africa, and bartered [by Englishmen] on the shores of America, enjoy a superior and free status in England". Likewise, the sentiments of the Christianized Cambridge who thanks God "for granting me powers of self-expression in the English language" are undercut by his reportage of Olumide's fate in the hands of "so-called Christian customers" whose English "resembled nothing more civilized than the manic chatter of baboons"; of course, this also qualifies Emily's reference to "the incoherent slobber of negro speech".
As for Emily's narrative, contradictions and revisions abound. At one moment, she salutes the tropical climate and foliage; at the next, she rails against its strangeness, the heat, the insects. The dualities of England and the unfamiliar Caribbean estate are sometimes reversed, so that their opposition in terms of "home" is dismantled: for example, the creole menu soon becomes one that
gave so much pleasure to the palate that I began to wonder if I should ever again adjust to the fare of England. Was I doomed to become an exotic for the rest of my days? This, it now seemed to me, would be no bad thing …
The slave she admires as "Hercules" is revalued when she discovers that "this Cambridge is lettered, can read his Bible, and even endeavours to teach it to his fellow blacks. which leads me to conclude that … [he] is no ordinary negro"; later he is a "treacherous" villain. And in Part Three, he is an "insane" murderer. Emily's repulsion at the brutal whipping of a slave is followed by her trite assertion, on viewing a negro village, that
If I were to be asked if I should enter life anew as an English labourer or a West Indian slave I should have no hesitation in opting for the latter. It seems to me manifestly worth abandoning the propriety and civility of English life for the pleasant clime of this island and the joyous spirit which abounds upon it.
No wonder a recent review of the novel cites Emily as "one of the most skilfully created unreliable narrators in contemporary fiction"!
The texture of the novel as a whole is that of a web. One can easily identify links (between Christiania and Emily; between Cambridge and Brown, who both lose a "wife", a child and finally their lives) and parallels (the sea voyages of sickness and death, the two arrivals on the island and journeys to the estate, of Emily and Cambridge) and contrasts (Brown's view of Cambridge as a thief, liar and troublemaker, against Cambridge's view of Brown as "a bullying brute of an overseer", a violent rapist determined to crush all spirit in the slaves). Such an interconnected network is fertile ground for irony: Emily comments on the blacks' promiscuity and their difference "from us in their disregard of marriage vows"; ironically, Cambridge's account informs us that "Mr. Brown had taken no interest in … Miss Emily once the details of the latter's condition had been discovered by the physician". Emily mentally admonishes her father's laxity ("Does he have no conception of what would claim us all in the tropics were we to slip an inch below the surface of respectability?") and feels only contempt for the poor whites, "these pale-fleshed niggers"; she ends up in a similar predicament as a result of her own moral turpitude. Throughout, the narrative challenges first impressions: the stock "mammy" figure of Stella turns out to have been Brown's mistress and the mysterious Christiania, his supposed mistress, as only a pawn in his humiliation of Cambridge. The "safe" society of doctor and reverend with whom Emily surrounds herself in fact masks a "clown and his oafish friend … engaged in some manner of feud for my favours".
Without further catalogue, it should be clear that the text's apparent familiarity (of form, of known "facts") is subtly destabilized by strategies such as those outlined above so as to shock the reader into awareness of incongruities and discordance below the conventional surface. In this, of course, Phillips is being true to the dualities of plantation culture. Expectations are frustrated—the virtuous lady becomes a shunned sinner; her "romance" ends in degradation; Cambridge's history of moral upliftment and Christian missionary zeal ends in murder, madness and execution—just as the brutality, debasement and self-deceit hidden behind imperial truisms about plantation life are unmasked. All the facts, the statistics and the explanations are given but the whole "story" of the enigmatic Cambridge remains a mystery.
The incidental image of "Two sorry horses, one perhaps of fourteen hands and white in colour, the other a rough brown beast resembling a Shetland pony,… often to be observed shackled incongruously together" may serve as a metaphor for this text, Incongruity and discordance arise from the "shackling together" of unlike races, genders, cultures, economic and philosophical systems, narratives. And yet, as in Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, the insistence on giving "the other side"—not simply as a mirroring of opposites, but as a demonstration of how the same horror corrupts in different ways—is perhaps the least imperfect methodology a writer can adopt in delivering a glimpse of our chaotic and puzzling past.
Finally, as noted earlier, it is worth situating Cambridge within certain concepts of post-colonial literary theory. In The Empire Writes Back, such theory—of the type practised by Bhabha, Spivak, JanMohammed etc.—is seen as offering "ways of dismantling colonialism's signifying system and exposing its operation in the silencing and oppressing of the colonial subject". According to Bhabha, the authors explain, "the colonized is constructed within a disabling master discourse of colonialism which specifies a degenerate native population to justify its conquest and subsequent rule". Such a "signifying system" or "master discourse" informs most of Parts One and Three of Cambridge and, indeed, a sizable portion of Cambridge's own narrative, particularly after he acknowledges that "Africa spoke to me of a barbarity I had unfortunately fled".
At the same time, in calling attention to the "parent narratives" that inform these sections, texts which intend a particular (Eurocentric) historical construction of the colonized Other; and simultaneously exposing the "fictionality" of such accounts; and enabling both colonized Other (Cambridge) and colonizing Other (the woman, Emily) to speak through such discourses while evading reductive labelling (objectification) by the retention of incongruity, discordance, contradictions, silences in their narratives, Cambridge casts doubt on the very possibility of definitive historical construction. As such, the novel fulfils another criterion of post-colonial literature:
it has been the project of post-colonial writing to interrogate European discourse and discursive strategies from its position within and between two worlds; to investigate the means by which Europe imposed and maintained its codes in its colonial domination of so much of the rest of the world. Thus the rereading and the rewriting of the European historical and fictional record is a vital and inescapable task at the heart of the post-colonial enterprise.
Cambridge enables us to see, with Foucault, that there are no "true" discourses only more or less powerful ones. And while I recognize that the discovery of fictional elements in the type of source narratives utilized in Cambridge does not essentially alter the power of the tradition to which they belong, I would maintain that after careful reading of Cambridge one will never read the other versions (Lewis, Carmichael, Long and the rest) in the same way again.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
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.
A substantial pleasure of Cambridge, Phillips's last book, was the way it enjoyed making obeisance to the orotundities of nineteenth-century prose. Whereas Cambridge encouraged the luxury of slow reading, the prose here is plain to the point of worthiness, and when Nash's story is told through his letters to Williams, it is hard not to look ahead to see when normal narrative service will be resumed. The story proceeds by juxtaposition and compression. The drawbacks to this are evident in the second section, which has the lurid jumpiness of a Western. A slave-auction, a gunfight in Dodge, circled waggons, passing buffalo—these all whizz round an image (used at the end of two previous novels) of a lone woman in falling snow. However, the book's narrative methods are superbly borne out by its second half.
The third part consists of the journal of a slave-ship in West Africa in 1752. These are crowded literary waters—the same coastline and the same year were used in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. Where that, though, was ponderously detailed, this journal is incisively selective, a flying-fish to Unsworth's great whale. The horror of slaving, left to the imagination, is ever-present. "Carpenter began to raise the gratings of the women's room…." This entry like many others, sails very close to the actual Journal of John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace", friend of William Cowper, who is glimpsed in The Prelude as the castaway who teaches himself geometry "With a long stick upon the sand"). Phillips acknowledges his "particular obligation" to Newton for "invaluable research material". His use of this source is direct, if a little abashed (a thermometer reading, for example, is changed from 74 to 78). Technically, it is a fine piece of editing, of seizing potential; in the context of the novel, it is just right.
One of Phillips's gifts is his ability to transform his sources into the felt life of fiction. The last part of Crossing the River, mostly set in Yorkshire during the Second World War, is a triumphant piece of writing, equally confident in evoking the exact sound of bombers, "all out of tune", and the compelling presence of Joyce, the first-person narrator. Joyce falls in love with an American GI who is both emblematic and singular: sharing a name with one of the children sold at the novel's beginning. The colour of his skin is referred to once; the book is often beautifully tacit and brief. Joyce, presumably, is white. At the close of the novel she is at one with the children sold into slavery and mourned at the start. Mourning, though, is now to be transformed.
Phillips's novels derive their structure from the forced relocations of the slave trade and their moral power from a depiction of human goodness surviving degradation. A presiding consciousness, and conscience, found at the beginning and at the end of Crossing the River, takes up one of the burdens of slavery in a repeated sentence: "I sold my children." How can one be virtuous in a world which treats children as goods?
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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 West Indies, and the eponymous slave she encounters there. It won him last year's Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award, and has been a huge seller in the United States, where the author is Visiting Professor of English at Amherst College, Massachusetts.
His new novel, Crossing the River, spans 250 years of the African diaspora. It tracks two brothers and a sister on their separate journeys through different epochs and continents—as a missionary to Liberia in the 1830s, a pioneer on a wagon trail to the American Wild West later that century, and a GI posted to a Yorkshire village in the second world war. Their stories are framed within a haunting "dialogue" between the guilt-wracked African father who, in "a desperate foolishness", sold them into slavery, and the 18th century English captain who traded him "gold coins for warm flesh".
The germ of the novel was an 11-minute radio play, performed on Radio 3 eight years ago, about the anguish of a father who sold his children.
Frankness and a gently dry humour are among the author's salient traits. As is a propensity to keep on the move. When I spoke to him at his house in Shepherd's Bush, he had run the London Marathon the day before, and was set to take off for Cuba. An interest in history is evident on his walls. Alongside old prints is an antiquarian map of St Kitts, the island where Phillips was born 35 years ago, before being brought to the north of England at the "portable age" of 12 weeks.
Billed among the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists, Phillips has been prolific. Much of his output—five novels, a travel book (The European Tribe, 1987), stage and radio plays, screenplays—charts the spectral triangle of Europe, Africa and the Americas. But the focus is on England and the Caribbean—whether linked in the novels by migration (The Final Passage, 1985), the vexed return to West Indian "roots" (A State Of Independence, 1986), or the "peculiar institution" (Cambridge).
With Crossing the River, the axis shifts towards the US, where he has taught since 1990. "You take a period people presume they know about—like the Wild West of John Wayne and Sergio Leone—and make them look again," he says. Many former southern slaves headed west, rather than to the industrial north. "There were black cowboys, settlements in Colorado and California, pioneers. It's seeing history from another angle, from the point of view of people normally written out of it."
In the section set in Liberia, Nash, a black missionary grateful for his Christian upbringing, can only stop disparaging his "pagan" ancestors when freed from an insidious dependency on his former master—and lover—Edward.
Curiously, the tale of the brother Travis is told through the eyes of the Yorkshire woman, Joyce, who falls in love with the GI. Called a "traitor" in England, she is barred from going to the US as Travis's wife by the Jim Crow segregation laws. Yet only half way through her account do we learn the soldier she has fallen for is black.
Her creator is ambivalent. "Joyce is a natural. She has an admirably non-racist view of the world," he says. "But she scares the shit out of me. She's vulnerable in her absolute naivety, because the world isn't like that. You want to hug her and shake her by the shoulders at the same time." Phillips believes there were possibly many Joyces among the English in the 1940s. "When the US army arrived, it was the first time many Britons outside the slaving ports had come into contact with black people."
Phillips had driven around the Deep South "looking" for Travis. "But I couldn't find his voice, and if it's not working, I don't care about balance for its own sake. You simply cut through to whatever gives you the truth, as you understand it."
He hesitates, when asked why he found the truth in the Englishwoman's voice. "The undercurrents that feed your writing can take time to become clear…. Joyce speaks a Yorkshire dialect I grew up speaking. But it's probably the most painful thing I've ever written." In the final pages, Joyce is embraced by the African father as one of his children. "It seemed emotionally correct. She grew up without a dad, and what binds her to the others is that lack."
Phillips was eight when his own parents divorced. While he grew up in Leeds, his father had "shall we say, an on-and-off relationship with the household". The diasporan experience in his work is largely one of painful dislocation, fracture and abandonment. But the final pages of Crossing the River are suffused with a moving, almost jubilant, sense of redemptive love. The children, "hurt but determined", reach the far bank of the river buoyed by their own "many-tongued chorus" and by a father's healing embrace.
"There is an annealing force," Phillips agrees. "I didn't want only to explore the fissures and crevices of migration. There's an underlying passion that informs people's ability to do more than just survive—a love and faith present everywhere I look among the children of the African diaspora, from Jimmy Baldwin to Miles Davis, to Marvin Gaye, that's both triumphant and celebratory."
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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 structure is poetic, built on a single refrain: "Why have you forsaken me?" The voices are richly counterpointed, and the forsakings are as various as the author's extraordinary imagination can make them.
In the prologue, a nameless' African father, his crops having failed, sells his children to the master of a slave ship. Haunted for 250 years by "the chorus of a common memory," he discovers "among the sundry restless voices" those of his lost children: "My Nash. My Martha. My Travis." Gradually, as the stories in the main text unfold, we realize that this father has taken on the mythic proportions of the continent of Africa, that his abandonment represents the irreversible history of entire peoples.
In the first section, set in the early 1840's, we follow Nash Williams, the gifted freed slave of an abolitionist Virginia tobacco planter. Having undergone "a rigorous program of Christian education," Nash is sent as a missionary to the west coast of Africa, under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. His letters back to Virginia, a mélange of stoicism and plaint, are interleaved with narrative concerning his adoptive white father and onetime master, Edward Williams. A bitter former favorite makes his way into the story; it also appears that Edward's prudish wife, now dead, intercepted Nash's letters. Such information comes piecemeal and aslant, but when the sources of the bitterness and the interference reveal themselves the events seem inevitable.
Nash disappears, "lost somewhere on the dismal coastline of Africa," and Edward sets out to find him. In the sort of paradox that persists throughout the book, Nash—who has been "bettered" by his Christian education and thereby become a leader among a group of Liberians—is ultimately demoralized by his life in Africa and in turn demoralizes his new community. When paternalistic Edward appears among them, the Liberians see only a purposeless and strange old man, an emblem of abasement.
Skip to the end of the century. In the next section, an old black woman named Martha Randolph, hired on as a cook but now too weak to travel, is abandoned by a wagon train in the snowy streets of Denver. Sold away from her husband and daughter in Virginia, her second man and her business in Colorado lost to white violence, worn out by long days of washing and ironing, Martha has spent her life creeping westward. She entertains fantasies of her daughter, Eliza Mae, in finery on the California coast.
As she draws toward death, Martha is befriended by a local white woman who takes her home. Martha has throughout her life been "unable to sympathize with the sufferings of the son of God when set against her own private misery," and has fought the arbitrary imposition of identity. Now, ironically, when Martha dies without disclosing who she is, her benefactor reflects that "they would have to choose a name for her if she was going to receive a Christian burial."
Reel back a century. In the most spectacular accomplishment of the novel, Mr. Phillips produces the journal and letters home of one James Hamilton, captain of the slave ship Duke of York on its voyage from Liverpool to "the Windward Coast of Africa" and thence across "the river" that is the Atlantic.
Like Edward Williams, the 26-year-old Hamilton has reason to go searching in Africa: his father died there, and the death is shrouded in mystery. The elder Hamilton was without religion, perceiving that his profession of slave ship captain was incompatible with a profession of faith. There are hints that he "traded not wisely" and that he "cultivated a passionate hatred, instead of a commercial detachment," toward his slaves.
The young Hamilton's log is terse, businesslike, admirably controlled. His letters to his wife are tender and full of delicate devotion, longing. He suffers the intransigence of his first mate and the death of his second; he faces insurrection, rats, rising prices, raging fevers. He is resilient and honorable; he absorbs recurrent hardship with fortitude and grace. But in that stunning myopia that can attend such honorable men, he buys, feeds, punishes, worries about, loses to sickness and washes down the walls after his load of black flesh: "This day buried 2 fine men slaves, Nos. 27 and 43, having been ailing for some time, but not thought in danger. Taken suddenly with a lethargic disorder from which they generally recover."
Throughout, Hamilton is perplexed by the mood of his cargo, who "appeared gloomy and sullen, their heads full of mischief." Just before departing from Africa, he is "approached by a quiet fellow" from whom he buys the "2 strong man-boys, and a proud girl," of the prologue.
Fast-forward two centuries. In the book's final section, a working-class Yorkshire woman named Joyce, whose father died in World War I, makes a bad marriage with a black-lung lager lout on the eve of World War II. He is safe from the draft, but that damages his manhood, which he bolsters by punching her. He is jailed for trafficking in the black market—"a vulture picking at the carcass of his wounded country," as the judge puts it—and Joyce drags through her war, her life, until an invasion of Yank defenders sets in her path a shy black soldier with hair like fine wool, combed shiny from a razor part. Joyce is an image of possibility in the novel. But when her lover, Travis, like her father, abandons her by dying, she in turn forsakes their child, giving him up for adoption in the great machine of British do-goodery.
Identity, in both individuals and peoples, is composed of the story that we tell ourselves of the past. That story is necessarily partial and selective, but if it deliberately omits significant events the resultant self is inauthentic. One of the values of fiction is that it can tell the story anew, can go back and include a neglected truth. Crossing the River does this and is therefore a book with an agenda. Mr. Phillips proposes that the diaspora is permanent, and that blacks throughout the world who look to Africa as a benevolent fatherland tell themselves a stunted story. They need not to trace but to put down roots. The message, however, is neither simply nor stridently conveyed. Mr. Phillips's prologue strikes it as a stately note, and its resonance continues to deepen; only in the epilogue does it become uncomfortably literal. Mr. Phillips's theme sounds throughout, perhaps most poignantly in the laconic notation of Captain Hamilton:
"We have lost sight of Africa."
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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 writers as "basically just people who are trying to organize their confusion," he has opted, it would seem, for the right calling. The rapidly growing list of honours for his prolific output certainly validates his choice. The author of five novels, Phillips was the recipient of the Malcolm X Award for his first novel, The Final Passage (1985), and the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for his travel-commentary The European Tribe (1987). While The Final Passage and A State of Independence (1986) were "written out of a sense of great elation at having 're-discovered' the Caribbean," his third novel, Higher Ground (1989), encompasses everything from Africa in the days of slave trading to post-World War II Europe and the Black Power Movement. With the publication in 1991 of his fourth novel, Cambridge, which chronicles the story of Emily, a nineteenth-century woman who escapes an arranged marriage by travelling to her father's West Indian plantation where she is exposed to the effects of slavery and colonialism, Phillips garnered more serious attention in North America. Back "home" in England, he was subsequently named (London) Sunday Times' Young Writer of the Year in 1992 and listed among GRANTA's Best of Young British Novelists of 1993. He is also a well-established playwright and currently is Visiting Professor of English at Amherst College in Massachusetts, USA.
Phillips's fifth novel, Crossing the River, shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1993 and published in January 1994 by Knopf, Canada, is a sophisticated, sometimes-sorrowful meditation upon the painful dislocations, longings, and "weird" relationships borne of the aptly named "peculiar institution" of slavery. Three years in the making and spanning 250 years of the African diaspora, Crossing the River is a fragmented work plagued by questions of identity, paternalism, and spiritual growth. The novel is framed by an African father's melancholic reflections on his desperate act of selling his three children into slavery following his crop's failure and relates their life stories. In each instance, Phillips conjures up largely unchronicled moments in black history: Nash becomes a Christian missionary repatriated to the new land of Liberia in the 1830s; Martha, at the end of the nineteenth century, accompanies some black pioneers west in search of her beloved daughter; and Travis is stationed as an American GI in a small Yorkshire village during the Second World War.
This interview was conducted by telephone on 14 February 1994, when Phillips was engaged to read from Crossing the River at Harbourtfront, in Toronto, Canada.
[Davison:] Crossing the River has been called your most ambitious work to date. Do you think that's an accurate description?
[Phillips:] Not really. I think they're all pretty ambitious. When you sit down with an idea—to turn it into a novel, it's always a big risk, it's always a danger. So there's an element of ambition always. In the formal sense, however, it probably is my most ambitious work. But it's not in the more specific way of looking at the desire to write a book and the ambition. They're all as hard as each other.
What was the seed of this book?
Originally, I had lots of ideas in my mind, including doing a piece about something in the Second World War. That was the idea to start with and then it just got out of control.
The novel reminded me somewhat of your 1983 play The Shelter. You span a great deal of time there too, moving from Act One, set in the eighteenth century, to Act Two in the 1950s. You also deal there with interracial relationships.
That's interesting. Most people haven't made any references to The Shelter, a play I wrote back in 1982–83, because they don't know of it. It's not as easily accessible as most of the novels, but if I were to look at one piece of work of mine which has the beginning of this structural paranoia and schizophrenia, that would be it. You could say that I've been writing or exploring the way of writing and connecting across centuries for ten years.
What was your principal aim in writing Crossing the River? What did you feel you wanted to do here that you hadn't done in your earlier work?
Well, I wanted to make a connection between the African world which was left behind and the diasporan world which people had entered once they crossed the water. I wanted to make an affirmative connection, not a connection based upon exploitation or suffering or misery, but a connection based upon a kind of survival. This is an unusually optimistic book for me. I don't have a deliberately downbeat feel, but there's never been a redemptive spirit to the things that I've written. There's always been a sense that things have been rough and people have just about managed to limp by and survive, but I don't think there's any reason why one should be "positive." I have never really had a very optimistic view of things.
In some of your earlier interviews, however, you have expressed surprise about being pegged as a pessimist.
I have been surprised because I've never really considered myself to be a pessimist, but I've never really given people any good reason to think otherwise.
As your wonderful portraits of the elderly Western pioneer, Martha, and the restrained British housewife, Joyce, attest in Crossing the River, you have a tremendous ability to do cross-gender writing. By that I am referring to the ability to enter the consciousness of a woman—and in the case of Joyce, here, and Emily in Cambridge, you have the added difficulty of traversing racial difference too. Do you have any thoughts about assuming a female voice? Do you think this involves a special ability at all?
I don't feel it requires any particular strengths. The deal is really that we all play to our own strings, and you find out where you feel most comfortable. Women's position on the edge of society—both central in society, but also marginalized by men—seems to me, in some way, to mirror the rather tenuous and oscillating relationship that all sorts of people, in this case, specifically, black people, have in society, and maybe there is some kind of undercurrent of communicable empathy that's going on. Again, I don't want to make too much of anything because I don't really see it as that much of a mystery. It doesn't appear to be that way to me, and I don't want to find a logical reason in case the ability to do so somehow goes away. I do think that to write only from the point of view of a male is to exclude half of the world and I obviously want to include as many different points of view as I can, so I'm very pleased that I've never really felt a problem doing that.
There are certainly many different literary influences in Crossing the River. Several critics mention the echoes of Toni Morrison's Beloved in the Martha Section. It also seems to me that the father figure here whose voice frames the four narrative segments encompasses the voices of the African diaspora just as Saleem Sinai encompasses the whole of India in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Could you speak a bit about the various literary influences at work here?
I haven't sat down and thought too clearly about what books have perhaps influenced me in putting this novel together, but you have certainly named some authors who are big influences. Beloved has been particularly influential. It's always easier for an author to see these things in retrospect and, looking back, yes, I can see the influences of all of these people. It's a novel which is fragmentary in form and structure, polyphonic in its voices, which means that a lot of my reading and a lot of the people whose work I've enjoyed have made their way in. Obviously there's ample room for echoes of all sorts of people. It's great for me as a writer because it allows me to switch gear or switch direction, shift perspective, and at each new turn I'm able to employ something else which, obviously, I have learned by reading other people's work.
Another book that kept coming to mind while I was reading Crossing the River was Edward Brathwaite's jazzy Caribbean poem-trilogy, The Arrivants. I decided finally to pull it off the shelf and, lo and behold, I discovered that Chapter Five is entitled "Crossing the River."
Is it? I know him. He's going to murder me. Is it really? I'm going to write that down. That's probably where I got the original title because I first thought of this title 10 or 11 years ago.
There is a haunting, reiterated Biblical question throughout this novel, namely, "Father, why hast thou forsaken me?" Nash mentions this about his white "father" Edward; Martha seems to be addressing God when she repeats the same phrase in Section Two. In the larger picture, of course, they are addressing their flesh-and-blood father who has sold them to the slave traders. The connected issues of paternalism and responsibility are often mediated upon here. What exactly fascinates you about these subjects?
It seems to me that the very nature of the relationship between the master and the slave, the colonizer and the colony, Britain and the Caribbean, is paternalistic. The whole question of relationships between black and white historically has tended to be paternalistic and perhaps enshrouded in some air of patronage at times, and so I've always been interested in those kinds of power relationships. It has such Biblical overtones as well because it is also a reference to religious themes. In the immigrant experience in Britain, the father was often pretty absent from the home. There are so many broken families in the black community in general, not just in the migrant community. There tends to be a preponderance of single mothers. I'm very interested in the whole question of how, on the personal level, that has emerged out of the larger development of slavery and all of those kinds of diasporan movements. There is a very commonly held theory that one of the reasons there is such a preponderance of single mothers is because of slavery, an institution which greatly disrupted the black family. There is an idea that if you take away a man's responsibility for his children, which is what happened in slavery when the man was replaced by the master as head of the family, it does something to the psyche of the man of African origin. It induces an irresponsibility. I don't know whether this is true or not. I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist, but all of these issues make me interested in that whole power-father-paternalistic-patronage issue. They all seem to be pretty linked.
I want to ask you about your changing ideas about the writer's responsibilities. In the introduction to your play The Shelter, you speak of the various burdens on the writer; in particular, you state that you were then motivated by the luxury of inexperience and felt that your "only responsibility was to locate the truth in whatever piece I was working on, live with it, sleep with it, and be responsible to that truth, and that truth alone." In The European Tribe , written a few years later, you seem to be more aware of the power the writer has along political lines. You state towards the end of that book: "I had learnt that in a situation in which history is distorted, the literature of a people often becomes its history, its writers the keepers of the past, present, and future. In this situation a writer can infuse a people with their own unique identity and spiritually kindle the fire of resistance." What do you feel today about your responsibility as a writer?
I think that the second piece from The European Tribe is a development from what I thought earlier. It doesn't displace what I thought earlier, because I do think that that remains true—your first responsibility is to locate the truth and to deal with the truth, particularly as it relates specifically to the characters—but I think that by travelling and writing a bit more and becoming hopefully a bit more knowledgeable about writing and the world and about other writers' lives in other communities, I did realize—and I think that I already knew it, but I wasn't able to articulate it—that there is a particular responsibility in certain situations for the writer to take up. He doesn't have to become a politician, but the writer has to be aware of the writer's power, his capacity for good as well as his ability to duck larger social responsibility. I agree with the position I had in The European Tribe, but I would go further than that and say that it seems to me increasingly important since then that one, as a writer, does try to locate the truth in one's work. You do become aware of the possibility of being somebody who can identify a history and perhaps do something about redressing the imbalance of some of the ills and falsehoods that have been perpetrated by others about your own history. But beyond that, I think a writer really has a responsibility to at least acknowledge that he was produced by very specific social circumstances. We weren't, any of us—male, female, black, white, whatever—immaculate conceptions dropped out of nowhere without a history. One shouldn't feel a guilt for one's history and one shouldn't feel ashamed of one's history, one should just take responsibility for it.
Do you ever feel, though, that you have to compromise conveying your own personal "truths" because they clash with your responsibilities as a writer, or is it your primary responsibility to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
The latter. I don't think I could actually write properly if I felt that in any way, even in any small way, that I was somehow in my life as well as in my writing, not tackling issues of injustice and speaking up when they appear. I just don't think I could do it, because I think that eventually those kinds of lies and that kind of self-deception do seep into your work. It has honestly never occurred to me to pull a punch a little bit or change gears. I don't think you can do that. I mean I just don't see how you can. You just have to continually risk coming up against irate people.
As you are certainly aware, today is not only Valentine's Day. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie. Do you have any comments about Rushdie's situation and the issue of censorship and writing in general?
I just got off the phone with him. He and I speak a lot. To tell you the truth, I don't think that I have got anything to say that hasn't already been said and maybe said better by others, but I was talking to somebody earlier today about his situation. It seems to me clearly that one of the most unfortunate things in the fatwa is the way a lot of people in the West have taken it as a convenient excuse to hammer Islam, and it's not Islam that needs to be hammered. It's a particular extreme branch of Islam. It really is like judging the whole of Christianity on the actions of the Spanish Inquisition. It doesn't really make any sense. That has nothing to do with Salman personally. That is just my own discomfort at watching writers and other people, including a lot of people who should know better, who claim to be defending Salman Rushdie making incredibly sweeping and stupid comments about Islam, but not taking into consideration that this isn't Islam. There are many Muslims all over the world who think this is an outrage.
What were your feelings about being nominated for the Booker Prize? Were you surprised?
That's a good question. Was I surprised? Well, I suppose I was a little bit. To tell you the truth, I was more surprised that Cambridge wasn't nominated because everyone kept telling me it would be. So by the time this came around, I was pleased but I just didn't care because I realized how much of a lottery it was. I wondered about it in the days leading up to it when it was Cambridge. This time I didn't even know that it was the day of the announcements or anything. I came into my office and there was a message from Salman on the machine. I was pleased because of the sales.
What were your feelings when Roddy Doyle received it?
Oh, that was fine. I know Roddy. I was sitting right at the next table. I didn't mind you see because it wasn't really about winning it. I was just pleased to be on the shortlist. After a while, you need to get sales because the more sales you get, the more money you get. The more money you get, the more time you have, and that's the deal. I'm not sure that I would want to be like Miss World for a year, which is what you would be if you won. I was pleased that Roddy won because he is a nice guy. At the Booker Prize dinner everybody talked to everybody. The person that I knew the best was David Malouf and, in some ways, I would have liked David Malouf to have won simply because he's 25 years older than Roddy and I who are both 35. I'll get another chance as will Roddy, even though he doesn't really need another chance, but I would have liked David Malouf, whose work I really admire, to have won it and gained this recognition at this stage of his career. As Kazuo Ishiguro, who called me up the morning of it, said: "Just remember, it's an exercise in public humiliation."
Speaking of influences, taking into consideration both their life and their work, who stands out as the most important single literary influence on you?
I would probably have to say, if it's a combination of their life and their work, James Baldwin. I hesitated because there's no other person who I've ever met who is a writer who has been as important to me. I think that this is partly because at the time when I met him I was a sort of "wanna-be" writer. To meet a real and a great writer, I was incredibly lucky. He was also incredibly generous with his time.
The novel seems to have a firm hold on you. Would you ever consider writing another play?
Oh yes, I'm probably going to write another play next year or later this year. I prefer the theatre to film. There are just too many people involved in television and film. I have worked in both mediums, and I don't particularly enjoy them that much.
Have you ever been approached by anyone about adapting one of your novels for the screen?
I have often been approached by people who have wanted to do that. I'm afraid that I'm not usually very good at replying. I get my agent to speak to them, but it's not a world that I feel particularly comfortable in anymore. A number of my friends have had bad experiences having their novels adapted or even adapting them themselves. I'll tell you the truth. I look upon adaptations of my work for the screen as something that I would like to be involved in and I would like to see happen at a time when I don't feel quite so fertile about producing original work. There may be a time down the line, whether it's in 5 or 25 years' time, when I just feel I don't have anything else to say, or I dry up, then it would be fun to go back and look at some of the early work and try to find new ways of saying that stuff and working on the screen. But right now, I'm too keen and eager and hungry to write prose, so I don't want to waste time on screen work.
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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 Passage, through Liberia, across the United States to Colorado, and to World War II Britain. The voices that comprise this chorus bear eloquent witness to the disruption, displacement, and loss of Diaspora—and to the common humanity of the enslaved, the enslavers, and their common descendants.
James Hamilton, slave trader and captain of the Duke of York, records the mundane details of his life in a captain's log: "Thursday 27th August … All day fair weather. A brig informed us of variable winds"; "Monday 5th October … Caught a small dolphin"; "Monday 16th November … Was shown 11 slaves, of whom I picked 5, viz., 4 men, I woman." On January 10th he writes to his wife, "My affection for you goes beyond any words I can find or use, and I simply wish that it were possible for you to travel with me, and strengthen my purpose in fatigue and difficulty, without actually suffering them." Twelve days later he notes in the ship's log, "Bought a pair of man-boys from an African prince." Such juxtapositions underscore the horror of Hamilton's trade. His actions are so frightening because his sensibilities—his concern for the weather, his inexpressible love for his wife, and his sense that "a continued indulgence in this trade and a keen faith cannot reside in one breast"—are so familiar.
Edward Williams, too, is guilt-ridden. At age 29, he inherits his father's estate, including 300 slaves. Concerned to still his conscience, Williams educates them and trains the best and brightest to become missionaries. He also displays an "excess of affection" for his young male slaves, especially Nash Williams who calls Edward "Father," signing letters from Liberia, "Your son."
Nash Williams is the ambivalent diasporic subject in search of "home." His seven years of unanswered letters to Edward—letters intercepted by Edward's jealous wife—trace his growth from a westernized Christian missionary, grateful for his master's benevolence, into the embittered man who has "freely [chosen] to live the life of the African." In a letter dated September 11, 1834, Williams writes, "Liberia, the beautiful land of my forefathers, is a place where persons of color may enjoy their freedom. It is the home for our race, and a country in which industry and perseverance are required to make a man happy and wealthy. Its laws are founded upon justice and equality, and here we may sit under the palm tree and enjoy the same privileges as our white brethren in America. Liberia is the star in the East for the free colored man. It is truly our only home." Nash's final letter to Edward Williams crystallizes his growing distance from his former master and from his role as missionary: "We, the colored man, have been oppressed long enough. We need to contend for our rights, stand our ground, and feel the love of liberty that can never be found in your America. Far from corrupting my soul, this Commonwealth of Liberia has provided me with the opportunity to open up my eyes and cast off the garb of ignorance which has encompassed me all too securely the whole course of my life." Nash Williams emerges from his letters as an assured and defiant descendant of the anonymous African, finally recognizing the need to resist white supremacy, even when it appears in the garb of benevolent paternalism.
While Phillips reveals Hamilton and Williams through the subtle linearity of their own voices, in journal entries and letters, we learn about Martha, the only black woman of the novel, through interior monologue and the observations of an omniscient narrator. An elderly former slave, Martha joins a band of black pioneers traveling west. Having lost first her daughter and then her lover, she is abandoned on the streets of Denver when she becomes too much of a burden on the other travellers. Huddled in a doorway, "curling herself into a light fist against the cold," Martha resembles the street people of our day, lost and abandoned souls who garner our pity or our wrath. Wondering whether a passerby will spit on her, she finally asks, "Father, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Martha's story is rich, nuanced and unfamiliar. She is an elderly black woman, tired, not strong or invincible: victimized but not victim. Both blacks and whites abandon her. And, she is not religious: "Martha could find no solace in religion, and was unable to sympathize with the sufferings of the son of God when set against her own private misery." Her question, "Father, why hast thou forsaken me?" is not a momentary lapse but an emblem of her crisis of faith. Moreover, her story takes place in an unfamiliar territory, the west. Few African American writers have mapped the terrain of those black pioneers who trekked west in search of "a place where things were a little better than bad, and where you weren't always looking over your shoulder and wondering when somebody was going to do you wrong." Although Martha's body moves in a freer space, that tired, broken body cannot take advantage of this freedom, and its mind remains enslaved by memory.
Through Martha we learn the subtle differences between slavery and freedom: life doesn't get easier, one just has the right to claim a momentary happiness. "I was free now, but it was difficult to tell what difference being free was making in my life. I was just doing the same things like before, only I was more contented, not on account of no emancipation proclamation, but on account of my Chester." This freedom is a tenuous thing. When white men kill her independent black lover, the man who "has made [her] happy … made [her] forget—and that's a gift from above," Martha wonders "if love was possible without somebody taking it from her." A daughter of the despondent African father, Martha dies alone, anonymous, on the far bank of the river.
The final section of the novel brings the progeny of slave and enslaver together in an act of passion and love. Travis is an American GI stationed "somewhere in England." His beloved Joyce is a married, white, working-class, English woman. Joyce's sensitive, if cynical, voice dominates her tale. Speaking of Churchill and the war, she says, "I was getting good at learning the difference between the official stories and the evidence before my eyes." She is able, in particular, to see through an American officer's warnings about the black GIs stationed in her town, and she falls in love with Travis. Her defiance and independence allow her to be open to Travis, while distancing her from her provincial and abusive mother and husband. The clear-eyed, unsentimental Joyce speaks one of the major truths of the novel. Looking at her coffee-colored son, Greer, she thinks, "I almost said make yourself at home, but I didn't. At least I avoided that."
Through her love for Travis and the child they share, Joyce joins the Diaspora, and she pays a price for this alliance. In loving Travis, she boldly resists the color line, but she is forced to give up their child—yet another brown baby given away by a loving but desperate parent.
Caryl Phillips gives us a world of abandoned souls, of resistance, and of desperate, momentary love—the world of the African Diaspora and the new culture that is born from it. In the book's final pages, surely among the most powerful and beautiful pages written in contemporary literature, we hear this culture's own song. Phillips's culture of diaspora is not romanticized, rooted in a mythological African past, and the culminating chorus is correspondingly inharmonious. It sounds the voices of all the novel's characters, including that prophetic anonymous narrator who, having initiated the chorus, maps the contours of the African Diaspora in its complex, multicolored pathos and its human beauty.