Man in black

By Jeremy Taylor

Conversations with Caryl Phillips, ed. Renée T. Schatteman
University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 978-1-60473-210-8, 240 pp

Caryl Phillips. Photo by Georgia Popplewell

Caryl Phillips reading at the Calabash International Literary Festival in 2007. Photo by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo

Caryl Phillips drives a black Mercedes. He dresses in black. He supports Leeds United, has a personal trainer, and was jogging in Battery Park when the first plane hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. He doesn’t take holidays, likes motels, runs two marathons a year, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and counsels detained asylum seekers in New York. He is fifty-two. He doesn’t “take shit from anybody.”

Interesting, what you can learn from literary interviews.

Phillips says he “can’t read most contemporary fiction.” He thinks writers don’t bother with the music that language needs, so their words don’t flow, and get clunky. His favourite writer is Shusaku Endo. He also likes Toni Morrison, Baldwin, Faulkner, Shaw, and Tennessee Williams. Alice Walker is a bit too “new age” for his taste. He doesn’t like writers who “keep their emotions in check.” He doesn’t see himself as part of a Caribbean literary tradition; in fact he hardly thinks there is one.

He doesn’t write every day, as writers are supposed to. He blocks off two or three weeks from his travelling and teaching and retreats to a hotel to work. He doesn’t read reviews.

He has two simultaneous careers. As an academic, he is professor of English at Yale (and previously at Amherst and Columbia). As a writer and man of letters, he has written four plays, ten novels or quasi-novels, two screenplays, three non-fiction books, and has edited two anthologies, one of them about tennis.

A reviewer in the New York Times called Phillips one of the great literary giants of our time. That was in 1992, when he had hardly started. Renée Schatteman, the editor of Conversations with Caryl Phillips, concurs. She cites the “sheer number of novels, collections of essays, plays, screenplays, travel books, anthologies, and radio and television documentaries he has produced in his twenty-nine years as a writer, and . . . the broad scope of his focus on issues concerning belonging, identity, and homelessness.” Quantity as proof of genius.

Phillips’s friends apparently swear he has a great sense of humour and can drink and lime with the best. But his books are not a barrel of laughs. As one interviewer tactfully puts it, “Gravitas is no doubt the most appropriate answer to the serious topics you tackle.” There are a few passages in these interviews that might be jokes, but you’d need to see the face and hear the voice to know for sure.

Phillips thinks writers are territorial about their subject matter. They are “a bit like dogs in a sense. As you go on, you stop at this tree. Then you move on and stop at another tree. You are always marking your territory, but it takes a while, if you are thinking long term, before you’re actually aware of what your territory is.”

Schatteman has sniffed out the territory that Phillips has claimed. It extends from “displacement, home/homelessness, race and identity” through “Eurocentrism, victimisation and complicity . . . slavery, migration, Holocaust, or genocide” to “race, class, and power.”

In Conversations, nineteen brave interrogators line up to ask Phillips about these things. There are no contributor biographies, so it’s hard to know who all these people are, though they include non-academics like Graham Swift and Pico Iyer. The encounters range from 1986 to 2008, and mostly coincide with the publication of a new book. Some of them are real conversations, for radio or video or with a well-liked colleague. Things can get a bit cosy then, as “Caz” is invited to recall ancient boozing sessions.

Two of the pieces are profiles, one of them by Maya Jaggi for the UK Guardian. The others were published in little-known journals with wonderful names like Kunapipi, Culturefront, Moving Worlds, Salmagundi, Canvas, Glimmer Train, and Chickenbones. Some of the pieces are not conversations at all. They read as if a nervous student had turned up with prepared questions on a clipboard. A bit of bio background, check; a bit about the book/s, check; a bit of technical stuff about writing, obligatory questions on race/dislocation, influences, plans for the future, check check check, and thank you very much.

Phillips sensibly remarks that “writers are basically just people who are trying to organise their confusion.” Several of these interviews are annoying in the way they do not grasp this fact of life, the way they want to simplify and codify the writing process. It would be so much easier if the creative writer would just sit down at the desk, select the settings for the next project — theme, message, influences, form, structure, use of characterisation and plot — then receive inspiration from above and get down to work.

But Phillips has the patience of an angel. He sits there explaining things carefully and politely. Another writer might have hurled the clipboard out of the window and chased the interviewer off the premises.

Q: Dr Johnson’s Watch contains a lot of adjectives. Was this a deliberate choice?
A: I try to be very precise with adjectives . . .

Q: Are there words or categories of words which, in your experience, require more of your attention than others? I know this sounds very technical, but I imagine it is part of the writing craft too, isn’t it?
A: I think I pay particular attention to verbs . . .

Q: Your novels are very historically authentic. Did you engage upon research or have you imaginatively reconstructed either parts of your own life and observations or that of your parents?

Some interrogators are a little severe. Bénédicte Ledent, a professor at Liège University in Belgium who has written a book about Phillips, explains to him that “scholars working on your work” disagree as to “whether you should be regarded as an optimist or a pessimist.” That might have made an interesting conversation, but “Caz” is not allowed an opinion. Later, she says: “You might understand that some critics need to classify the writing they discuss. Labels like ‘creative non-fiction’, ‘historical fiction’, and ‘creative biography’ have been used to describe Foreigners . . . How would you define your book?” Phillips helpfully suggests “creative biography”.

Sometimes there is just a hint of testiness. Interviewers want to know what his aim was in writing this book or that book. “You begin writing,” he explains, “because you have something to say. If you don’t have anything to say, then you shouldn’t bother. There are already enough books out there, and it’s a very hard job, so do something else.”

Obvious as this is, it doesn’t always sink in.

Q: Do you see yourself writing as the nexus of postmodernism and postcolonialism?

Q: Why did you decide to use this format?
A: It just seemed the best way to tell the story.

Q: Differences can be very dangerous as they have given rise to sectarian violence or also imperialism . . .

Q: How does structure develop for you?
A: It grows organically.

Q: What is the role played by gender in (these characters’) identity construction?

Q: Why did you choose this particular form [the tripartite structure of Foreigners]?
A: I chose to have three sections because there were three people who interested me.

How clever people in exalted academic positions manage to think like this is one of the mysteries of our time. The problem is partly in the language and partly in the murkiness of the thought behind the language. Schatteman, who teaches postcolonial literature at Georgia State University, writes in her introduction: “Phillips’s interviews also include considerable attention of [sic] his aesthetic choices, particularly in discussions about his use of characterisation and form, both elements that are unique enough [sic] in his work to warrant investigation.”

Sometimes you want to shout, “Hang on! What exactly are you trying to say?”

The basic idea that these conversations/interviews establish is that Phillips is dealing with the question “Where are you from? Where is home?”

Born in St Kitts in 1958, Phillips was allowed only a few weeks in the Caribbean before he was transplanted to northern England as an infant. There he was trundled around from one base to another. At school and at Oxford, he felt himself to be the outsider, marked out by race and walled off by multiple cultures, identities, and values. As a writer and as a human being he was faced with the task of bridging these multiple realities in order to understand who he was and where he belonged. “At this stage, if I were to say what the aim of my work has been,” he tells an interviewer in 1986, “I think it’s increasingly an exploration of the meaning of ‘home’.”

Gradually, “home” ceases to be a single location or culture. The multiplicity of the world becomes home. “I don’t want to live in a world in which the idea of a complex cultural and historical, racial, religious identity is something to be ashamed of,” Phillips says. “And I want people to accept the fact that moving across these old lines in a personal way is the way forward . . . it’s not necessary to have a very concrete sense of home . . . actually, those of us who don’t have a very concrete sense of home are okay.”

In the same way, the focus of his work has gradually shifted, from the pain of transplantation to the experience of enslavement to the displacement of individual human beings of whatever race or culture. He says he wants to understand the sailor on deck as much as the shackled slave below. He refuses to “judge” his characters. He has understood that loss, persecution, transplantation, rootlessness, isolation, have no physical or cultural boundary.

Ideologically, this later phase of his thinking may seem a bit too humanist for the more rigorous post-modern, post-colonial critics. “We’re not really living in a post-colonial age — we’re living in a post-post-colonial age,” Phillips claims, “so what new word do we use . . . ? I really don’t know.”

He’s not too happy with classifications in general: “We’ve got old labels but we’ve got new people. I write for the new people, for whom the old labels don’t fit.” Though he has been an academic almost from the start of his career, “I’m not a great believer in what more rigidly theoretical academics would call the master narrative. It’s an increasingly unfashionable position in which doubt has been replaced by certainty . . .”

It’s a shame that no interrogator tries to find out how Phillips deals with textual analysis in his classes at Yale. That might have made an interesting conversation. Of his own work, he says: “I would like my readers to feel that they are being led to something but they are not being made to drink it. That they can explore, they can walk around, I hope that they can also be emotionally affected by it, but it’s what they do after they finish the book that’s important.”

Is there a faint whiff of heresy here?

Read straight through, a collection of interviews like this is bound to be a conversational rag-bag. Certain questions and ideas are repeated ad nauseam, and no new theme emerges to bind the material together. Its usefulness is obviously as a sourcebook, collecting what Phillips is on record as saying about his own work and experience (though according to Schatteman there are more than thirty other Phillips interviews which have not been collected here).

But that leaves a trail of unasked questions. Perhaps they were considered off-limits by the editor, but Phillips himself raises them by talking about his background and experience. He set out with such a difficult childhood and adolescence, uncertain of everything to do with himself: how did he manage to transform himself into a man and a writer of such remarkable confidence and focus? How does he integrate a Yale professorship with his literary output, how does he bridge the divide between creation and deconstruction — is this the multiple identity harnessed and making itself useful at last?

And the way he fragments his narratives to reflect the experience of his characters, an idea that excites critics but seems common sense to a reader — why does that seem somehow less interesting than that black Mercedes?


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).