A Darker World Order

Caryl Phillips, Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11 (New York: New Press, 2011); 339 pages; ISBN 978-1-59558-650-6 (paper).

• December 2011

Called a “chronicler of displacement and precarious belonging”1 by critics, Caryl Phillips—born on St. Kitts, raised in Leeds, and educated at Oxford—moved to the United States in the early 1990s and currently lives in New York City and teaches at Yale University. His literary oeuvre, which primarily consists of ten novels, the latest being In the Falling Snow (2009), has indeed dealt with notions of home and displacement for the past three decades.

In his collection of essays Color Me English, Phillips reflects on the style of his fiction. “I like to hide in the wings and turn the stage over to my characters,” he writes, “an occasional whispered prompt is all that I permit myself” (177). Anxious not to judge the protagonists of his novels, Phillips renders his personal commentary invisible. It is this elusiveness of his authorial voice, which has traditionally prompted readers of Phillips’s novels to search for his more explicit statements elsewhere. Phillips’s critical essays, his reviews of other writers’ works, and the interviews he has granted over the years have always served as a supplement to his fictional texts.

Similar to Phillips’s first collection of essays, A New World Order (2001), Color Me English comprises thirty-eight essays, which were published between 1993 and 2011 (although the overwhelming number represent Phillips’s work within the past decade). While many of the topics and motives are familiar, Phillips’s focus is ever widening. Most notably, in this respect, are his reflections on the fortunes of Muslims in the West. Whereas the Islamic world had hitherto existed seemingly just beyond the margins of his texts—as in The Nature of Blood (1997)—the West’s relationship to Islam is a concern that deeply pervades Color Me English.

Observing the 7 July 2005 London bombings as a moment of social fracture, Phillips’s title essay looks emphatically for the origins of the profound “disaffection with Europe” (8) that has been revealed by this catastrophe. In his quest Phillips reaches back into his own past and compares the discrimination he suffered growing up in Leeds to the exclusion and harassment experienced by his classmate Ali, the first Muslim he encountered. Inferring that Ali “was culturally an outsider in a way that [he] could never be” (12), Phillips sets out to call attention to and understand the various ways in which anti-Muslim sentiments pervade contemporary British society. It is, however, unnerving that  Phillips, albeit in passing, evokes every conceivable nightmarish image that haunts the Western imagination with regard to Muslims, such as suicide bombings, religiously motivated abuse and rape of women, assassinations, female circumcision, public beheadings, and, of course, terrorist attacks.

The latter also serves as a starting point to the section entitled “Homeland Security,” which comprises a number of essays about the United States after September 11. Recalling how he wandered through the streets of Manhattan on that very day, Phillips renders the catastrophe as a moment of personal arrival. It is exactly the “sense of communal trauma” (26) experienced in the aftermath of the event that reveals Phillips’s emerging sense of belonging to America. Yet most interestingly, this new-found feeling of belonging is accompanied by a profound scrutiny of the United States.   His essays on contemporary American culture express a disenchantment with the nation’s political and medial landscape, especially when read against the tone of his early travel memoirs in “1978,” which follows later in the collection and in which the United States features as the site of Phillips artistic self-discovery. As such, “American Tribalism,” for instance, describes Phillips’s growing disillusion with the powerful self-mythologizing of the United States and his gradually emerging sense that today “race and ethnicity have become essentialist boxes into which people have begun to locate themselves” (32). Similarly, in “A Beacon in Hard Times” Phillips focuses on his self-chosen residence, New York City, and identifies 9/11 as a turning point that changed the national mood significantly. Gradually, he argues, a different nation emerged: one whose policies were shaped by hostility towards newcomers. New York City, in Phillips’s words, has become an “immigrant city betrayed” (36). The section is concluded by “American Stories, American Silence,” in which Phillips hauntingly laments the effective killing of “the art of storytelling” (65) in a society that is desperately in need of alternative narratives to oppose the mind-numbing blather of state propaganda and corporate media.

A series of book reviews not only shed light on Phillips’s voice as a critic—a voice that is as astute as it is balanced, and as unabashedly critical as it is genuinely appreciative—but also allow us to follow his own entrance as a black Englishman of Caribbean descent into American popular and academic discourse. In the essay “A Familial Conversation” Phillips notes that James Baldwin once attested to the “discomfort, in fact a broad gulf of unease, that exists between what he termed the American Negro and other men of colour” (234). Traces of these fault lines within the African diaspora are visible throughout Color Me English. Through his critical reviews, Phillips adds a dissenting note and an enrichingly fresh voice to American debates.

Phillips’s autobiographical sketches, in which he revisits his own upbringing as a visible outsider in Britain, delineate the trajectory of his critical perspective. Here, Phillips once more deplores “Europe’s obsession with homogeneity, and her inability to deal with heterogeneity that is—in fact—her natural condition.” Phillips identifies a “failure of the imagination” as the root of this exclusiveness (169). A series of self-reflective essays—“Water,” “Blood,” and “Fire”— outlining Phillips’s own calling as a writer, traces Phillips’s urge to write to the need to come to terms with Europe’s genocidal past and xenophobic present. “I believe passionately,” he proclaims, “in the moral capacity of fiction to wrench us out of our ideological burrows and force us to engage with a world that is clumsily transforming itself, a world that is peopled with individuals we might otherwise never meet in our daily lives” (16).

The theme that emerges most clearly in these essays and vignettes is the crucial position that traveling and migration occupy, not only in Phillips’s own biography but for African diasporic people at large. It is voluntary displacement, which allows many of the personages in Phillips’s essays—as in his fiction—to reinvent themselves, to clarify their position in a complex world, and to share these insights with the tribe. A number of essays in the penultimate section focus on a wide range of intellectuals—from Aimé Césaire to Ha Jin—and on Phillips’s personal meetings with a number of them, such as Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin. Situating his own voice within the greater historic debate on migration and exile, Phillips also builds himself a literary pedigree. Each portrait affirms Phillips’s observation of the “fascinating self-searching literary energy that is generated in these writers by their having suffered the discomforts of temporary literary exile” (230). Biographical sketches on writers from the Caribbean diaspora—E. R. Braithwaite, John La Rose, and Claude McKay—confirm this. Notably, this is also the only section of the compilation that touches upon the Caribbean. Compared the Phillips’s work in the 1980s and 1990s, the Caribbean seems to have lost some of its critical appeal.

The final section encompasses a selection of Phillips’s own travel writings, taking the reader from a French refugee camp near Calais, to the war-torn Sierra Leone, to W. E. B. Du Bois’s final resting place in Ghana, to brothels in Belgium, and to old slave forts on Bunce Island. Unlike the migrant intellectuals from the previous section, the individuals Phillips encounters on his journeys have either been forced to migrate or are being kept from migrating. In contrast to the pleasures of voluntary exile, Phillips argues that “to force a people to migrate is to risk setting in motion decades or centuries of heartache” (310; emphasis in original). Accordingly, the people Phillips encounters in this section are described as unmoored, displaced, and marooned. Seeking a lost “wholeness,” they exist in a painful state of suspension.

But Phillips is also a chameleon. In “Out of Africa” he recounts a conversation with Chinua Achebe, in the course of which Achebe critiques Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for using “Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African as human factor . . . , into which the wandering European enters at his peril” (200). Yet astonishingly, Phillips’s own Hemingwayesque travel narrative, “Kilimanjaro: The Height of Obsession,” also included in Color Me English, likewise reduces the African setting to a mere backdrop for Phillips’s self-reflections, while the porters that make possible Phillips’s ascent remain shadows and are not granted the personal depth that Phillips and his European companion receive in these reminiscences. In light of Achebe’s reading of Conrad, then, Phillips himself appears as a somewhat “disrespectful visitor” (206).

The thirty-eight essays included in Color Me English are at moments very personal in tone, sometimes dark, often provocative, and at times outright cynical, and almost always bespeak a sense of urgency. While these writings, at first glance, deal with a broad spectrum of topics, they all revolve around the themes of displacement and belonging, of membership and exclusion, and of identity and anxiety. “I keep fastening hard on to one word which in itself seems somewhat innocuous, but on closer inspection is often freighted with frustration, confusion, and even despair,” Phillips writes. “That word is, of course, displacement” (303).

 

Bastian Balthazar Becker is a PhD student of English literature at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, and teaches at Brooklyn College. He has pursued studies in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as in Tübingen, Germany, and has lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt; Lima, Peru; and Toulouse, France. His primary academic focus is on postcolonial narratives, comparative approaches, and collective memories. He is the author of Re-Signifying Lynching’s Memory (2009). His work has appeared in the South Atlantic Review and in Social Text, and he contributes on a regular basis to Kritikon Litterarum.

 


1 Maya Jaggi, “Rites of Passage,” in Renée T. Schatteman, ed., Conversations with Caryl Phillips (Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 2009), 78.

 

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