Caryl Phillips was born on 13 March 1958 on the Caribbean island of St Kitts.
He grew up in Leeds, England, and read English at Queen's College, Oxford. He is the author of six novels, several books of non-fiction and has written for film, theatre, radio and television. Much of his writing - both fiction and non-fiction - has focused on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora. The Final Passage (1985), his first novel, won the Malcolm X Prize for Literature. It tells the story of a young woman who leaves her home in the Caribbean to start a new life with her husband and baby in 1950s London. His second novel, A State of Independence (1986), is set in the Caribbean and explores the islands' growing dependency on America. Higher Ground (1989) consists of three narratives linking the lives of a West African slave, a member of the Black Panther movement and a Polish immigrant living in post-war Britain. Cambridge (1991), his fourth novel, is set in the first half of the nineteenth century and centres on the experiences of a young Englishwoman visiting her father's plantation in the Caribbean. The book won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Crossing the River (1993) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. It follows the separate stories of two brothers and a sister from slavery to a dislocated emancipation. The Nature of Blood (1997), draws parallels between the persecution of Jews in Europe and the black victims of slavery.
Caryl Phillips' non-fiction includes a travel narrative, The European Tribe (1987), winner of the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and The Atlantic Sound (2000), an account of a journey he made to three vital hubs of the Atlantic slave trade: Liverpool in England, Elmina on the west coast of Ghana, and Charleston in the American South. A New World Order: Selected Essays was published in 2001, and A Distant Shore in 2003, the latter being an exploration of isolation and consolation in an English village.He is also the editor of Extravagant Strangers (1997), a collection of writings by British writers born outside Britain, including work by Ignatius Sancho, Rudyard Kipling, Samuel Selvon and Salman Rushdie, and he wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of V. S. Naipaul's novel The Mystic Masseur, first screened in 2001. His work also includes stage and radio drama, most recently the play Rough Crossings (2007).He was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1992 and a Lannan Literary Award in 1994. He has taught at universities in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States, where he was Professor of English at Amherst College, Massachusetts (1994-8). Since 1998 he has been Professor of English and Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2000.
Caryl Phillips' book, Dancing in the Dark (2005), a novelisation of the life of Bert Williams, the American entertainer was shortlisted for a 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize. His book Foreigners: Three English Lives (2007), is about the lives of three black men - Francis Barber, Randolph Turpin and David Oluwale.
His most recent novels are In the Falling Snow (2009), The Lost Child (2011), and A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018). In 2011, he published Colour Me English, a further collection of essays and other non-fiction writing.
There is a refrain that runs through the introduction to Phillips’s selected essays and journalism, A New World Order (2001): 'I am of, and not of, this place'.
It is a phrase that captures a core concern of Phillips's work, which is frequently preoccupied with the tensions between belonging and exclusion; between migration and settlement; strangeness and familiarity; arrival and departure. Phillips is a writer who often appears most at home when he is away, journeying between places. Accordingly, he has remarked that he wishes to be 'buried' in the Atlantic, at the crossroads between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean.
Phillips’s work offers an ongoing departure from ideas of national insularity, and his non-fictional travel books (see The European Tribe, 1987; The Atlantic Sound, 2000) reveal a particular preoccupation with what Phillips has diagnosed at different moments 'the gift of displacement' and 'the high anxiety of belonging'. However, Phillips’s vision of diaspora is not simply footloose and fancy-free. It is firmly grounded in the material inequalities, and lived experiences of race, racism, and multi-culturalism. His writing thus retains an ongoing commitment to the nuances of national and regional identity and identification.
In his selection of essays, Colour Me English, Phillips explores the production and performance of the nationhood from both within and outside. Turning Englishness inside-out, this substantial volume moves from experiences of growing up in the northern city of Leeds in the 1970s, to America, West Africa and Europe. Gathering over forty pieces, the book was reviewed in The Independent as ‘a polymorphous delight that always retains at its core the notion of identity: how it is constructed, how it is thrust upon us, how we can change it. It is about our sense of self, how we fit within society – and how both society and individuals must adapt to each other in order for both to thrive.’
Although Phillips is best known today as a novelist, his initial artistic leanings were towards drama. Phillips's first play, Strange Fruit (1981), an allusion to the song by Billie Holliday, centres on a Caribbean family that has lived in Britain for the past twenty years. Followed by Where There is Darkness (1982) and The Shelter (1984), these plays reveal an early preoccupation with many of the key themes within Phillips's fiction, most notably perhaps, the transatlantic slave trade. It is a theme Phillips returned to recently in the stage adaptation of Simon Schama's Rough Crossings (2005), a history of slavery.
As the title of his first novel suggests, slavery is also a tangential theme in The Final Passage (1985). The book follows the story of Leila and her selfish, unsupportive husband Michael as they travel from the Caribbean to England in the 1950s. At the time of its publication in 1985, the novel broke new ground as the first 'second generation' black British novel to return to the experience of the so-called 'Windrush generation' (the first post-war West Indians to arrive in England on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948).
Although Leila's lack of agency in the novel has been regarded as a weakness by some critics, it is by placing a female character at the centre of his narrative, that Phillips manages to disturb the male-centred narratives associated with early settler fictions by the likes of Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V.S. Naipaul. Beyond the surface realism of this deceptively simple story the reader is confronted with the kind of formal and linguistic experimentation of later work such as Crossing the River (1993). Structured around five sections ('The End', 'Home', 'England', 'The Passage' and 'Winter'), The Final Passage is a disorienting, discontinuous narrative where the beginning is 'The End' and the end suggests a new kind of beginning (for Leila and her child).
Where The Final Passage closes with Leila poised between England and the Caribbean, Phillips’s next novel, A State of Independence ends with Bertram poised between the Caribbean and England. One of his most acclaimed (Booker shortlisted) novels to date, Crossing the River exemplifies the kind of restlessness witnessed in Phillips’s non-fiction. The novel dramatises the experience of diasporic dislocation by evoking a black Atlantic contact zone where Africa, America and Europe uneasily encounter one another. Framed by the narrative of an African ancestor, Crossing the River details a series of 'crossings' or journeys. The opening section follows Nash, an emancipated slave, as he travels from America to Liberia and from The Pagan Coast to the interior. The second section centres on Martha, whose journey across America has come to a stand still, but whose memories of the past and dreams of the future evoke a series of arrivals and departures. The penultimate section conjures the trade routes of Captain James Hamilton, while in the final section a provincial Yorkshire landscape becomes the unlikely setting for a transatlantic black/white encounter during the war.
In its serial accounts of journeying, Crossing the River shares certain similarities with the work of other key writers of the 1990s, including David Dabydeen and Salman Rushdie. Like Dabydeen, Phillips is interested in how narratives of slavery (also see Higher Ground, 1989 and Cambridge, 1991) inform the contemporary migrant condition. Like Rushdie, Phillips is preoccupied by the rhetoric and narrative structure of migration, from the formal dislocations of Crossing the River, to the recurring images of roots and rootlessness running through his fiction as a whole.
The allegorical qualities of Phillips's carefully crafted prose are most tellingly present in the more recent fiction, and novels such as The Nature of Blood (1997). The book centres on the survivor of a Nazi death camp, an enigmatic and entangled figure in a narrative that ranges from15th-century Venice to present day Israel. Beneath its dark narrative of personal suffering and exile, The Nature of Blood is a wider articulation of borderlands, crossings, movements and migrations.
A Distant Shore (2003) is Phillips’s first novel set firmly in the present, and is in some ways reminiscent of the final section of Crossing the River (see above). The plot, which unfolds in a village in northern England, revolves around the unlikely, enigmatic friendship of a retired white schoolteacher (Dorothy) and an African refugee (Solomon). Solomon’s tragic trajectory in the novel, from the war torn country he flees to his death at the hands of English racists, may at first sight appear unremittingly bleak, a fact which has both disturbed and divided readers. However, this is to neglect what John McLeod has rightly described as the ‘progressively utopian vision of contemporary realities’ in this and other works.
There is a journalistic quality to the sections tracing Solomon’s past, and A Distant Shore appears to mark the beginning of a stylistic shift in Phillips’s writing, which increasingly works at the border between fiction and non-fiction, imagination and documentary. Phillips’s next novel, Dancing in the Dark, 2005 (based on the black African American entertainer Bert Williams, 1974-1922) incorporates newspaper reports. Meanwhile his recent book, Foreigners (2007), blends fiction, reportage and historical fact to produce a moving account of three black Britons: Francis Barber (a ‘gift’ to Samuel Johnson), Randolph Turpin (a boxing world champion) and David Oluwale (a drifter murdered by the police). Ironically subtitled ‘Three English Lives’, Foreigners was reviewed in The Guardian in the following glowing terms:
'Each character bears the unmistakable imprint of a misfit. Through Phillips's inspired blend of fact, fiction and citation emerge the voices of three men who refused to compromise their own value system. Each, for good or ill, was zealous in defence of their particular modus operandi. Through them, Phillips explores the very concept of the foreigner, masterfully illustrating the complexity of successfully existing as "other" within a majority culture determined to remain unaffected by the presence of difference.'
In his latest novel, In the Falling Snow (2009), Phillips deals with the figure of the misfit from a very different angle. Keith Gordon, the novel’s protagonist, is divorced, jobless, and drinking to excess. He aspires to be a writer, but the reader should be wary of confusing his perspective with that of Phillips (as some of the reviews have done), despite and because of the fact the novel rarely departs from Keith’s point of view. It is only in the superbly observed monologue, delivered by Keith’s dying father at the close of the novel, that we are, like Keith, shaken out of our complacency, as the narrative shifts into a very different gear. Earl Gordon’s story is so sustained, so remote, from what has come before that any consoling fictional unity is destroyed. As with all of his most innovative work to date, Phillips’s complex rendering of memory through formal experimentation and flashback is key to the novel’s success.
Dr James Procter, 2013
For an in-depth critical review see Caryl Phillips by Helen Thomas (Northcote House, 2003: Writers and their Work Series).
'Why do I write? Because it is a way of organizing my feelings about myself and the world around me. Without writing I fear I may metamorphose into something unpleasant. Writing feeds me literally and metaphorically. Writing provides a means by which I can sit in judgement upon myself and reach conclusions (however temporary) that enable me to shuffle towards the next day and another crisis. And then, of course, there is the technical challenge of writing. To say what I have to say, and to hope to say it in the most incisive manner. To strive towards this goal, and fail honestly, yet continue to strive. To aspire to purify the language; to desire to sharpen the blade of narrative clarity, and then strike quick unseen blows. For me, writing is all of this. And when (if) the writing no longer comes perhaps the journey will have showered me with enough knowledge so that my spirit can rest peacefully. But I doubt it.'