Caryl Phillips
(novelist, playwright, essayist)

Contributor: Bénédicte Ledent

Born on 13 March 1958 on the Eastern Caribbean island of St Kitts, Caryl Phillips was taken to England by his parents when he was only a few months old. The family first settled in a white, working-class area of Leeds where he was brought up together with three younger brothers. After moving to Birmingham in the early 1970s, he went to The Queen’s College, Oxford University where, between 1976 and 1979, he read English and was involved in directing plays by such writers as Ibsen and Shakespeare.

Caryl Phillips’s literary career began immediately after his graduation in 1979 when he started writing for the stage and radio. Four of his dramatic texts were produced and published in a row: three theatre plays, Strange Fruit (1981), Where There is Darkness (1982) and The Shelter (1984) and one radio play, The Wasted Years (1985). Testifying to a precocious and talented voice, these pieces focus on the plight of the post-war Caribbean migrants to England and, with the exception of The Shelter, on the difficult relationships that they have with their now British progeny, a topic also at the heart of Phillips’s most recent novel In the Falling Snow (2009). Drama has remained to this day an important facet of Caryl Phillips’s artistic undertaking and over the years he has kept working in this domain, writing several radio plays and screenplays as well as a stage play entitled Rough Crossings (2007), dealing with slavery and its aftermath.

However, it is in the field of fiction and non-fiction that he has produced his best-known and most acclaimed work. Caryl Phillips published his first two novels, The Final Passage (1985) and A State of Independence (1986), in the wake of a visit to his native country in 1980, where he settled for a while some time later. Addressing in a subtle way the existential issues facing Caribbean migrants to England, both in their birthplace and in the so-called ‘Mother Country’, these two texts can be regarded as the preliminary stages in Phillips’s on-going examination of the fraught sense of home – what he has called ‘The High Anxiety of Belonging’ – that characterises the men and women who are part of the African diaspora or who have interacted with it. In the seven novels following these early books Phillips expands his psychological and historical exploration of the lives of displaced characters to include the history of the transatlantic slave trade, mostly in Cambridge (1991) and Crossing the River (1993), that of the Holocaust, in The Nature of Blood (1997), as well as the black presence in Europe and the United States in A Distant Shore (2003) and Dancing in the Dark (2005). This wide-ranging scope – which is crystallised in Higher Ground, a novel in three parts published in 1989 – speaks to Phillips’s thematic audacity but also to his continued interest in dislocated and lonely individuals whose voices have rarely been heard and understood. Such is the case, for example, of Earl Gordon, a character of In The Falling Snow, who, as a West Indian in England, only manages to share his harrowing experience of immigration with his son when he is about to die. Regardless of the originality of their subject matter, Phillips’s novels are also known for their formal innovation, which includes fragmented, polyphonic and non-linear narratives.

The political streak that runs through Caryl Phillips’s fiction is even clearer in his non-fiction, which more openly reminds us of such contentious issues as Britain’s amnesia in relation to slavery, the lack of recognition of the black presence in Western societies and, more generally, the role that history can play in helping us to understand the world in which we live. Caryl Phillips’s diasporic world-vision is expressed in his non-fiction through different forms, whether that of the travelogue, in The European Tribe (1987) and The Atlantic Sound (2000), or that of the biographical narrative, in Foreigners: Three English Lives (2007), a book which imagines the lives of three men of African descent who lived in England at different periods but were never acknowledged as insiders. Since the early 1980s Phillips has also written a great number of shorter texts, many of which were published in two collections entitled A New World Order (2001) and Colour Me English (2011). Composed in the same critical vein as the rest of his work, much of Phillips’s non-fiction is nonetheless quite specific in that it can either have an autobiographical content or contain commentaries on the work of other writers, especially those who, like James Baldwin or Richard Wright, have exerted a substantial influence over his own intellectual trajectory.

Caryl Phillips’s writing has earned him an international reputation and invitations to speak at literary events all over the world. It has also brought him several honours and prestigious prizes on both sides of the Atlantic. To give but a few examples, he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1994 for Crossing the River and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2004 for A Distant Shore.

Caryl Phillips now lives in the United States where he has been teaching in prominent universities since the beginning of the 1990s. Starting his academic career at Amherst College he went on to teach at Columbia University, Barnard College, then at Yale University, where he has been Professor of English since 2005.

As a writer, an intellectual and a teacher, Caryl Phillips has crucially contributed to opening Britain’s eyes to her own heterogeneity, thereby promoting an empathetic understanding of complex identities and more generally raising awareness about multicultural societies. In those different capacities, he has also unstintingly expressed his belief in the ability of literature, and humanities in general, to bring about changes in individuals and to help them cope with a world in perpetual change.

Work by Caryl Phillips

Note: in addition to these published works, Caryl Phillips has published numerous articles, reviews, interviews and essays in many publications including The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman, The New York Review of Books, The Observer, TLS, Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary Writing etc. He has also given many interviews to various media, from radio and television to the press and magazines and his books have been reviewed all around the world in English and other languages.

Fiction

Cambridge. London: Bloomsbury, 1991; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1992.

Crossing the River. London: Bloomsbury, 1993; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994.

Dancing in the Dark. London: Secker & Warburg, 2005; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005.

A Distant Shore. London: Secker & Warburg, 2003; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2003.

The Final Passage. London: Faber & Faber, 1985; New York: Penguin, 1985.

Higher Ground. London: Viking, 1989; New York: Viking, 1989.

In the Falling Snow. London: Harvill Secker, 2009; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009.

The Nature of Blood. London: Faber & Faber, 1997; New York & Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 1997.

A State of Independence. London: Faber & Faber, 1986; New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1986.

Non-Fiction

The Atlantic Sound. London: Faber & Faber, 2000; New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2000.

Colour Me English. London: Harvill Secker, 2011. Published in the USA as Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11. New York: The New Press, 2011.

The European Tribe. London: Faber & Faber, 1987; London: Picador, 1992 with a new foreword by the author; New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1987.

Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging, ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1997; New York: Vintage, 1997.

Foreigners: Three English Lives. London: Harvill Secker, 2007. Published in the USA as Foreigners. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2007.

A New World Order: Selected Essays. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001. Published in the USA as A New World Order: Essays. New York: Vintage, 2001.

The Right Set, ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1999; New York: Vintage, 1999.

Stage Plays

Rough Crossings. London: Oberon, 2007.

The Shelter. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1984.

Strange Fruit. Ambergate: Amber Lane Press, 1981.

Where There Is Darkness. Ambergate: Amber Lane Press, 1982.

Screenplays

The Mystic Masseur. London: Merchant Ivory Productions, 2001. Print version: The Mystic Masseur: Essays and Excerpts from the Screenplay. Trinidad: Paria Publishing Company, 2001.

Playing Away. London: Film on 4 Productions, 1986. Print version: Playing Away. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.

Television Drama

The Final Passage. London: Channel 4, 1996.

The Hope and the Glory. London: BBC, 1984.

Lost in Music. London: BBC, 1984.

The Record. London: Channel 4, 1985.

Radio Plays

Crossing the River. London: BBC Radio 3, 1985.

Dinner in the Village. London: BBC Radio 4, 4 Oct. 2011.

Hotel Cristobel. London: BBC Radio 3, 2005.

A Kind of Home: James Baldwin in Paris. London: BBC Radio 4, 2004.

A Long Way From Home. London: BBC Radio 3, 2008.

The Prince of Africa. London: BBC Radio 3, 1987.

The Wasted Years in Best Radio Plays of 1984. London: Methuen, 1985.

Writing Fiction. London: BBC Radio 4, 1991.

Work on Caryl Phillips

Selected Written Resources

Ledent, Bénédicte. Caryl Phillips. Manchester: Manchester UP Contemporary World Writers Series, 2002.

Ledent, Bénédicte & Daria Tunca, ed. Caryl Phillips: Writing in the Key of Life. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2012.

Schatteman, Renée T, ed. Conversations with Caryl Phillips. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2009.

Thomas, Helen. Caryl Phillips. Writers and their Work Series. London: Northcote, 2006.

Ward, Abigail. Caryl Phillips, David Dabydeen, and Fred D’Aguiar: Representations of Slavery. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2011.