Interview: Songmaster of the diaspora

John Walsh meets... Caryl Phillips
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Caryl Phillips is a soul in transit. He seems to exist in a state of chronic flight and restless travel. He spent Christmas cruising the Caribbean researching locations for his next book, Atlantic Sound, about the 18th- century slave trade. Earlier, he was in Singapore chairing something for the British Council. He talks with animation about his recent trip to the Amazon with the poet Glyn Maxwell. He flew in from New York to Holland last week, to see his Dutch publishers, and landed in London on Monday, to perform the publicity dance routine for his new novel The Nature of Blood.

Becalmed briefly in the bar at the Russell Hotel, round the corner from his publishers, Faber & Faber, he extends a languid hand to his glass of indifferent Cotes de Roussillon. He is a very cool operator, dramatically dressed from collar to toe in layers of dark black, if there is such a thing. His shirt collar is buttoned to the neck but tieless in the best Versace style. His hair is cropped like a bouncer's, and he has long abandoned the professorial specs he once wore. Now that he is a professor - of English and Creative Writing at Amherst College, Massachussetts - he looks like a model for Paul Smith tailoring. It is no wonder he has an awesome reputation as a boudoir swordsman. The only false note is struck by his accent, which remains flatly and defiantly stuck in Yorkshire, in all its Geoffrey Boycott splendour.

All his whizzing around the globe is quite appropriate for a writer whose big themes are displacement, diaspora, the quality of being a stranger, the unfamiliarity of the concept of home. Although his writing career began in the millpond of naturalism, with The Final Passage (1985), an autobiographical account of his parents' emigration from the West Indes to England in the late Fifties, he gradually outgrew the image of the bookish immigrant and became instead the songmaster of the diaspora. With Cambridge (1991) he delved into the past and filled it with voices: principally those of a spinsterish Victorian governess travelling to a Caribbean plantation, and of Cambridge, the slave who becomes an English gentleman before reverting to slavery at the hands of Fate, pirates and history. It was a dazzling act of historical reclamation, trumped by Crossing the River (1993), an epic lament for the children of slavery, which crosses continents and generations to tell how the lost blacks turned up in obscure corners of Western history over two centuries. The quality of the writing - the haunted, floating voices from an unknown oral history - carried it on to the Booker shortlist. Now comes The Nature of Blood, in which Phillips forsakes his chosen territory of black deracination, and chooses instead to write about the Jews.

"Yeah, I know, writing fiction about the Holocaust is a minefield," he said, "not because I happen not to be Jewish, but because of the subject itself. Cynthia Ozick wrote a marvellous essay saying there are so many revisionist historians around - so many arseholes - claiming the Holocaust was a fiction, that to write fiction about it is playing into their hands."

But why was he taking on the subject at all? What was he doing writing about death camps and gas chambers? He smiled at such PC fastidiousness. "I get a lot of those questions from audiences in Canada and America. But I just don't believe in what the Americans call `cultural appropriation'. My response to it is rather aloof and snotty. I just say, Where do we stop? Do we tell Thomas Hardy he shouldn't write about Tess because he's a bloke? Or tell William Styron he shouldn't write The Confessions of Nat Turner because he isn't a slave?"

The Nature of Blood is bound to provoke raised eyebrows, raised hackles and a lot of bewilderment. It tells, in parallel and criss-crossing narratives, the stories of Eva, a young Jewish girl in an unnamed European country, as the noose of Nazi threat gradually tightens round her every day; of the Jews of 15th-century Portobuffole, near Venice, an apparently assimilated community of races where the disappearance of a young boy is barbarically punished behind a veneer of logic, legality and common propriety; of the great Othello, Shakespeare's black Moorish soldier who commands the Venetian army and courts the lovely Desdemona; of a straggle of Zionist Europeans camped under British arms in Cyprus, dreaming of Palestine; and of other, unintegrated voices. Phillips's intention is clear enough - to suggest links between the barbarities of different eras - but there's a perfunctory quality about the Euro-Jewish sections, and a wildly expressionistic treatment of the final horrors of the camps that seems an ill-judged literary exercise. Phillips himself talks a lot about "thematic structures" and "character bridges" but concedes: "It's all about how somebody wakes up one morning to find their world has been turned completely upside down, for reasons that are out of their control. I'm interested in how people respond to historical events - whether it's to do with religion or political instability or economic migration - that arrive to screw them up. And what enables them to survive."

For an accomplished writer, Phillips can seem oddly naive about the motivation behind his writing. He claims that the Victorian spinster in Cambridge, for instance, the voice of the sceptical English establishment inspecting an outpost of empire, apparently changed her whole essence in hindsight. "I couldn't tell at the time why this woman's voice started taking over the novel," Phillips said. "It was only a year later that I realised. When I was writing it, I was 30, the same age as the woman. She'd grown up feeling an outsider, feeling valueless, and had to make a self-defining journey across the Caribbean in order to find herself. Well, that was my life. It just happened that I was able to see those elements in the life of a 30-year-old white middle-class spinster". And the correspondences hadn't occurred to him while he was writing the book? "I'd no idea," he said, disingenuously. "I'm never conscious of what I'm doing when I'm writing. I just focus on getting the language and the characterisation right."

Phillips's identification with his characters suggests a vastly solipsistic nature. As you talk to this guarded, proud, stubbornly self-made and self- motivating man (you can see how it was that Michael Grade could hand over pounds 2.7m to him to co-produce a TV film of The Final Passage, and how Peter Hall could have been persuaded to direct it), it seems, for a moment, quite in order that he should put large historical concerns at the service of his own personal obsessions. Take the genesis of The Nature of Blood: "I'm perfectly conscious of what my relationship with the Holocaust is," said Phillips. "It was the first story I wrote, at 14 or 15. I came home from school one day and watched The World at War on television. The series had just reached the concentration camps, and I can remember being terribly shocked - and I also remember the clean impulse to write a story. I wrote about a little Dutch boy, who couldn't understand why his parents made him wear a yellow star, when he felt he was the same as other kids. Then he and his parents are rounded up in cattle trucks, they're on their way to the camp, and the boy jumps out, banging his head as he falls. He lies there, unconscious, bleeding to death - but the sun catches the yellow star on his shirt, a farmer sees the reflection and comes and saves him. So paradoxically, he's saved by the very thing that makes him a victim.

"Well the impulse behind that is, of course, that I was the kid - the kid at school who felt different, the only black kid in the class, with that horror that you could be ostracised just like that. One day, you're playing football with friends, the next day, something would happen and you'd be shunned. Or people would tell racist jokes and you couldn't understand how exactly to orientate yourself. I felt an affinity to this horror - not the larger one of the gas chambers, obviously, but the smaller horror of what it'd be like for the kid to feel the rug pulled from beneath his feet."

Phillips was born on St Kitts in the Caribbean in 1958. When he was four months old, his parents emigrated to England, part of the mass recruiting of West Indians as British citizens to help alleviate the post-war labour shortage. The family fetched up in Leeds, and the young Phillips set about turning into a working-class Northern kid.

"It was a horrible white working-class council estate," he recalls, "and we were the only black family on it. Basically, you learned to do two things - fight and run. The first thing people did to you at school was to come up and say, `Oi you, nigger', and if you didn't whack them in the face, you were fucked. It sounds very crude, but you just had to."

This induction into Hard Knocks College was accompanied by a gradual recognition that the canon of available literature didn't seem to have much to do with him. "I used to buy books that told me about me, so I'd read John Braine and David Storey. It was only when I was older that I realised I wasn't only a northern working-class kid, I was a black northern working-class kid. I had to look for books that would tell me about the other side of me that wasn't satisfied by reading Room at the Top." He turned, by necessity, to American literature and the thriving black radical tradition of James Baldwin, Ralph (Invisible Man) Ellison and Richard (Native Son) Wright. The experience of poor Stateside blacks in New York and the bigoted South had little relevance for the Leeds scholar, but as Phillips eloquently puts it: "You saw yourself in the prism of what you could find. I knew there was going to have to be a new literature, a synthesis of being black and being British."

So he proceeded to supply it. In barely three years, he produced three novels, a brace of plays and a slightly paranoid study of Continental racism entitled The European Tribe. This burst of energy left him, however, with an emptiness that prompted a long-delayed search for a home.

"There's a point at which you have to decide why you're writing. For certain writers, ambition takes you a certain way, through your first couple of books, and then it becomes just the thing you do. I felt I had a bee in my bonnet about something. I had to find out what my subject was." To this end, he decided to leave the glamorous metropolis at the height of his fame, and embrace his island background. "It was the time to spend some time in the Caribbean, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. I felt I'd been writing out of an energy pack that was all ambition and cunningly-disguised autobiography."

The St Kitts bigwigs were proud to have their home-grown published novelist back in town; everyone else left him alone with his clearly absurd delusions of genius. "I was regarded with great detachment," he said. "It was a little different from the Groucho Club..."

From it emerged Cambridge and all that followed - a trilogy of works passionately (but so detachedly passionate) looking for links between Africa, the old world of Europe and the new world of the Americas, and inventing voices that make these voyages the reader's own. "Yeah of course there's a continuity between the three books," says Phillips. "They're all to do with journeys. It's the way my life has been for the last five years - but it also reflects the nature of my concerns."

Hardly drawing breath from arguing with the Jewish lobby over The Nature of Blood, Phillips is also about to publish Extravagant Strangers, an anthology of pieces by British authors born outside the UK. It's been called A Literature of Belonging (a subtitle to wrench the heartstrings) because of its implicit search by writers to find a home, or at least a cultural accommodation, with the United Kingdom, just as Phillips's parents did in 1958; just as he himself does with his books. "I've never had a problem about `joining in' with English literature, once I perceived that Eng Lit has a strong tradition of being reinvigorated by outsiders," he says. So did he mind being thought a "post-colonial" writer, a black writer, a Caribbean writer, an English writer? Which?

"As a writer you can't do a damn thing about the categories people put you in. Do I look for VS Naipaul under `Colonial Literature'? Do I look for Salman Rushdie under `Indian and Pakistani Literature'? I don't know, and I don't bother." As an academic, it's beyond question that writing in English in the last 20 years had been massively influenced by what they call "the margins" - the old colonies, the Commonwealth, the Empire, India, Australia. But when you look at people like Michael Ondaatje, the Dutch / Sri Lankan extraction author of The English Patient, or Peter Carey, the Australian author of Oscar and Lucinda, or Derek Walcott, the St Lucian Nobel poet, they don't live in the margins any more. They live in the centre now. Ondaatje in Toronto. Carey and Walcott in New York.

"It's not that the centre has co-opted the margins. It's that the margins have made it to the centre." With that, the voice of the marginal, the dispossessed and the home-forlorn seized his black coat and set off on his restless travels once more.

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