Caryl Phillips: 'I prefer not to raise my head above the parapet'

Though he and his books cross oceans, Caryl Phillips stays close to his roots. Anita Sethi meets a returning traveller

It was such a cloudy day when Caryl Phillips rode the London Eye that he could barely see his own hand. Yet the journey clarified his vision of In the Falling Snow (Harvill Secker, £17.99), his new novel. A father, Keith, tries to talk to his 17-year-old son, Laurie, as they revolve on the Eye, but their conversation spirals to a dead end. Laurie has set his sights not on the fog of his father's words or the "vast panoramic sprawl" of the city, but on Wembley Stadium. At the core of this compelling novel is communication - attempted and failed - across the chasm of the generations.

In prose that moves elegantly from panoramas to meticulous details, Phillips captures life's most difficult conversations; between parents and children, spouses and ex-spouses, bosses and employees, and between younger versions of the self. For these characters bump into old ghosts at every turn.

The hotel restaurant in which Caryl Phillips – "Caz" – and I are sipping still water is haunted by younger selves, for here we met two years ago, author and interviewer, to converse about Phillips's previous book, Foreigners: three English lives, on the fate of three black British men between the 18th and 20th centuries. Phillips, dressed in black tie and shirt, is a composed conversationalist, painting vivid scenes of his life and literature. "To understand where you are now you have to understand the back story", he explains. "I've been playing with the idea of what constitutes the end and the beginning, how things keep coming back round, since my very first novel, The Final Passage".

Complex geographical as well as temporal journeys fill his work, but while his earliest novel (in 1985) concerned the journey from the Caribbean to England in the 1950s, it is now the journeys within England itself which are most painful. Faced with turmoil both professionally and personally, social worker Keith, who heads a race equality unit, flees to his father in the north - and finds himself lying in his childhood bedroom, contemplating, as a confused middle-aged man, the same black sky he gazed upon as a confused boy.

"Everybody in life likes to think that they are moving along a path which is taking them away from and towards something; away from ignorance and towards experience," explains Phillips, but "There are these crossroads in life where you must encounter the past and realise it's not necessarily a straight line but circular. Things that you thought you've left behind can come back and haunt you." Indeed, as his characters try to escape, they realise that they have "got a noose around the ankle and are making very small, circular peregrinations".

If the novel thrives in those liminal places between here and there; between earth and sky; at train stations, the characters also find themselves at moral crossroads. A key moment in Keith's mid-life crisis is choosing to confess his infidelity with a colleague to his wife while she does the ironing; but they are unable to smooth out this rupture, and their marriage frays further. Is it a selfish or honourable confession? "Our lives are steeped in ambiguities," says Phillips. "For all our supposed intelligence we sometimes get derailed by acts we have to take some responsibility for - and don't know what to do."

The island of St Kitts is where Caryl Phillips's own journey began in 1958. It continued to Leeds, at four months old, where he grew up in a working-class family. "I was a deeply annoying, anti-authority child. I was freed at a very early age from the tyranny of actually believing anything that anyone in authority said. That's carried on into my life and writing. My approach has always been: let's examine the lives of these people who purport to be in charge of our lives, because ultimately they're no different from us; they're struggling, full of contradictions and hypocrisy... Life is a messy bag of fear and secrets but we try and keep it together; to keep ourselves and loved ones on the straight and narrow".

The anti-authoritarianism of the young Phillips manifested itself mostly in his attitude to his teachers, some of whom were "out-and-out racist". But Phillips points out that all migrant kids are in conflict with their parents, since generations have different notions of England; of safety; of society. Indeed an influential work for him is Ibsen's drama Ghosts, which explores "the terrible rupture of the generation gap".

"My own parents were absolutely straightforward," says Phillips. "Like most immigrants they came here to work hard and to make life good for their kids; they saw that England had to offer the possibility of an education... Kids don't like to do their homework; I wanted to go out and play football. They won". Phillips did his homework thoroughly enough to study English at Oxford. His decision to pursue his dream of becoming a writer was made, aged 20, by moonlight on the Californian coast, whilst reading Native Son by Richard Wright, moved by its "deeply felt sense of social indignation".

Phillips's work, from novels such as Cambridge, Crossing the River, A Distant Shore and Dancing in the Dark to the travel narratives The European Tribe and The Atlantic Sound, has since won or been shortlisted for many prizes. The arc of his career has come full circle as he is doing a stint as visiting professor at Oxford. He recalls his younger self: "When I was a student I never changed my accent; those who did used to annoy me. I never felt I wanted to exchange the north for the south of England. The north has always been in me." His characters hubristically try to abandon things, the moral being: "You can't leave anything behind".

What does Phillips make of the dredging up of Derek Walcott's supposed past in the battle for Oxford's professorship of poetry? "I think it's a disgraceful episode. I think the losers... ... are the students who will lose the opportunity to hear one of the greatest poets of the 20th century talk about poetry in the autumn of his life: about what poetry's meant to him, about great poets. It's a missed opportunity." For Phillips, "The politics of it are infantile and leave a horrible taste in your mouth. To be subject to an anonymous campaign is just horrible, really horrible".

"I personally prefer not to raise my head above the parapet in terms of competitiveness and backbiting and going to literary parties," he adds. "I don't read my reviews." It was travelling far from literary London to teach in India and the US which was to "open him up" as a writer: after holding posts at Amherst and Columbia, he is now professor of English at Yale. It shaped the world-view of his books: that in spite of all the particularities of race, age and class, "human beings all over the world are the same". Accepting a label as a writer, whether of ethnicity or gender, can be a "noose around the neck". He has proved a versatile, gifted ventriloquist. He also mentions the crucial supportive backbone provided by his editor Sonny Mehta over 20 years.

Friendship plays an important role in his life, and he recently caught up with an old friend, "Swiftie" (Graham Swift). "Last night Graham and I were talking about how things have changed for us as writers, as we first met 23 years ago in Canada. We were both saying, if you can imagine you're looking up, back then it was difficult to see the sky as there was a lot of tall foliage above you." But, these days, "It's like something's clearing and thinning out... All this dancing around is trying to avoid saying I've entered the middle-aged, older generation of writers", he laughs. "But it doesn't feel uncomfortable. It feels a bit brighter, a bit clearer".

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