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."