“The Narrative Is Not Written in Stone,” Part I

December 2011

A Conversation with Caryl Phillips

“Belonging is a contested state. Home is a place riddled with vexing questions,”Caryl Phillips claimed in A New World Order (2001). These thoughts encapsulate the core of Phillips’s oeuvre. In the course of his extraordinary career, Phillips, who was born on St. Kitts, raised in Leeds, and educated at Oxford, has published nine novels, five works of non-fiction, and numerous plays for both the stage and the screen. He has received the 2004 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for A Distant Shore, the 2006 Pen/Beyond the Margins Prize for Dancing in the Dark, and his novel Crossing the River was shortlisted for the 1993 Man Booker Prize. Although the subjects of his books range widely in terms of time and space, the themes of displacement, migration, and journey run like a thread through his work. 

I met Caryl Phillips on 20 June 2011 to discuss the publication of his latest collection of essays, titled Color Me English. The interview took place in Midtown Manhattan, in Phillips’s apartment that overlooks Central Park. As attested by other scholars who have interviewed him over the years, Phillips’s personal courtesy and generosity, coupled with the depth and unusual candor of his thoughts, make him a rare interviewee.


Bastian Balthazar Becker: As a collection of critical essays, reviews, biographical sketches, and autobiographical reminiscences, Color Me English [2011] seems be a sequel of your last collection of essays, A New World Order [2001]. And once more your scope has broadened. What issues or events have particularly influenced your work within the past decade?

Caryl Phillips: First of all it seems to me to be a kind of logical ten-year successor to the last collection. As soon as one starts to look at it dispassionately, the main thing, or one of the main things, that changed is my feeling, or desire, to want to write about America. Ten years ago I still felt like I was participating in American life and trying to learn at the same time. I didn’t feel that I had a position from which to comment with any authority. But I think September 11 [2001] changed that. I think it made me, like many other people, feel much more outraged about what happened in the wake of September 11, in terms of American domestic and foreign policy.

And I think another element which made me want to write about America is that I got somewhat fed up listening to people in Britain, and perhaps Europe in general, giving America a hard time, using the policies of George Bush, which were admittedly pretty disgusting and disturbing policies, as a stick to beat America as a larger concept, America as an idea. It seemed to me they were missing the point. So I wanted to write not so much in defense of America, but I wanted to write back to that kind of European notion that America had lost its way.

BB: Repeatedly in Color Me English you describe 9/11 as a moment of personal arrival. Can belonging, this precariously fragile and yet strikingly resilient sensation, around which many of your works revolve, accrue from trauma? And if so, can this feeling of belonging transcend the trauma? Or will it always be contingent on a wound?

CP: Good questions. Well, for me, certainly, September 11 represents some kind of a trauma. A kind of personal, almost minute-by-minute trauma throughout that day, which has left a wound. But it certainly made me feel that I had to examine my belonging or detachment to this society. I wouldn’t want to broaden that out into a more general statement. Maybe that’s something to come in the future. But certainly, trauma can produce a certain change in one’s sense of belonging and of one’s sense of participation in society. It definitely happened to me on September 11.

BB: Could one say that this trauma, then, revealed a sense of belonging, which you had already created before 9/11

CP: I think so. I think that’s not a bad way of putting it. I am very suspicious of affiliations of any kind, particularly national affiliations. The United States of America is a country which, it seems to me, increasingly so, has imposed upon its people over the years this notion of having to advertise one’s sense of allegiance. I am thinking about things like the little lapel badge that the president seems to always wear. I am talking about the pledge of allegiance. I am talking about that rather weird glazed look that American athletes and sportspeople get when the national anthem is played. An almost kind of holier-than-thou display of “We are Americans.” One is very suspicious of such nationalism generally, but I am also very suspicious of it in the American context.

But perhaps the events of September 11 did in fact make me feel that I understood something about America, perhaps on a more visceral level than I had allowed myself to deal with or engage with. I think I had absorbed more of America than I had realized.

BB: Writing in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, you describe “the sounds of a city screaming in pain.”2 What is the city saying, mumbling, stammering, whispering, coughing, or screaming, in the summer of 2011?

CP: I’ve only ever lived in Manhattan. And if I was to characterize the noise that Manhattan makes now, it’s a kind of ugly, collective, raucous noise that those Wall Street traders, all in their late twenties, waiting for their bonuses, making a lot of money, rather self-satisfied, make. Manhattan has become this ugly gated community, increasingly “us and them,” increasingly satisfied to be less and less cosmopolitan, pushing all the interesting people and all the artists out to Brooklyn, to Queens, and to the Bronx. Obviously it began with [mayor Rudy] Giuliani, but there is a space that has been opened up for those who already have. And the thing about New York is that there was always a space for “those who have” and “those who don’t have” to live side by side.

The noise of current Manhattan is the noise you get when you go to a bar in the financial district at about five o’clock. It’s just full of people with briefcases who are getting drinks before they go back to TriBeCa or before they get on a train to Westchester. That is the noise. And that is not, to me, the noise I signed up for.

BB: Ironically, September 11 seems to mark both a moment of arrival but also a turning point in your ways to think about the United States. While your writings in the aftermath do reflect a sense of membership and belonging, they also express a growing disenchantment with a particular mythology of this country.

Is criticism thus an expression of a sense of belonging? Does it express your heightened concern for the place for which you have developed a sense of home?

CP: I don’t think of it as home in that sense. But certainly the first point you make about the sense of belonging I think is true. You can only really work up passionate juices and flow and bite about expressing how you feel about a certain thing if you care. If I felt detached about the United States of America and if I actually was tiptoeing my way through the society, looking left, looking right, but not really feeling any sense of investment, I don’t think I would have been quite as indignant as I was about some policies, particularly the domestic policies—the Patriot Act, for instance.

The fact that I am so critical seems to me to suggest a belonging. It surprised me that I actually wanted to write in so many different essays about how annoyed I was. One might have imagined it to be possible to work it out in one piece and then move on. I feel similarly indignant about things that are happening in Britain. It has taken me a long time to get to the stage where I read about something that’s happening in the United States and feel that I want to write about it. For many years I was quite happy to sit here in the United States and have my blood boiling about what’s happening in Europe but I think in the last few years I have been sitting here, seeing things that are happening here, and then picking up the pen to write about these issues.

BB: You said that you would not call New York home. Generations of interviewers have asked you about your personal definition of home. Following this tradition, I would like to ask you, Where is home for you in 2011? And how has this notion changed within the past ten years?

CP: Well I think the only change is a growing embracing of the United States as part of that notion of home. If you had asked me that question ten years ago, I would have definitely said Britain and St. Kitts (or a sense of the Caribbean) are places that I recognize, understand, feel confident enough to write about, and care about. But I think you could add now, in 2011, the United States to that list. I would not want to make a choice between any of them. They are not places that are unfamiliar to me and they are not places that I would reside in as a singular place of residence and imagine that I am fully fulfilled. All three places are important to me.

BB: If one regards your work throughout the past thirty years—and Color Me English seems to confirm this impression—one notices that within your geographical focus, the Caribbean, compared to Europe, North America, and Africa, has slowly lost some of its centrality. Do you feel that you speak with a greater authority on both North America and Europe? And is there a more urgent need for people in the global North to hear the stories you like to tell?

CP: Good point. The thing about the Caribbean is that a lot the concerns that are there—social, political concerns, if you like, artistic, aesthetic concerns—seem to be increasingly falling under the shadow of the United States of America. There was a period initially, if you turn the clock back thirty years, when I would look at the Caribbean and definitely see it in a British context, a kind of colonial context, an old-fashioned British colonial context

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I don’t think I’ve changed so much. I think the Caribbean has changed in the last thirty years, so that now if one looks at the modern Caribbean, you’re not really seeing it in a colonial context of Britain so much as in a kind of neocolonial context of the United States of America. It’s really not a static place. It is changing.

I think my notion of it has changed because I am now seeing it from a different vantage point. I am not seeing it through the old British colonial viewpoint; I am looking at it from an American colonial viewpoint. That means I can’t write about it in the same way. Or I don’t feel the urge to write about it in the same way. I still write about it, but I write about it differently, I think, because of its different geographical relationship to me but also because of its relationship now to what one might call a new colonial master.

BB: The relationship of British colonialism and US neocolonialism is a complex subject. In your essay “A Familial Conversation” [in Color Me English] you outline the continuing conversation about African diasporic identity from the encounter between Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire to the exchanges between James Baldwin and Richard Wright. You suggest that African writers and African American writers have disparate historical experiences because of their different involvement in British colonialism on the one hand and US imperialism on the other.

What does the towering figure of Barack Obama—whose personae merges the African and the African American, and fuses the themes of European colonialism and US imperialism—mean for the ongoing project of negotiating African diasporic identities?

CP: He is fascinating and he goes even beyond that. You look at his mother and her relationship with Indonesia and then his relationship with Hawaii. Everywhere you turn with Obama you are looking at something that is heterogeneous in terms of identity. He falls slightly outside of, and I know he has been criticized for this, he falls outside of that usual notion of African American essentialist identity that comes from slavery. But I think he more accurately, if you like, represents that kind of cultural fluidity and plurality that is part of the global picture now, for any of us living in the West, whether we are living in Europe or whether we live in North America.

Obama is part of that, but he has begun to engage with and embrace old essentialist notions of the African American world. It definitely makes some commentators and some people feel uncomfortable. There are those who still insist that he does not represent in that way, but it seems to me that he represents a very interesting and complex movement, which is hinted at, I suppose, in the essay you are referring to. In our modern world, clinging onto a very essentialist and narrow notion of African American identity is not going to get you very far. It’s an identity which has been a source of resistance against a lot of prejudice, but going forward, even African American identity will have to accept a kind of plurality which seems to be washing over all of us. I think it’s actually astonishing that Obama should have so many connections to, you just outlined them, British colonial past, etc., etc.

One of the things I am working on at the moment is a play for the BBC which is about the relationship between Richard Wright and C. L. R. James during the Second World War. They used to meet in a restaurant in the Village, in Washington Square. I am writing a play about the two of them and the dinners they used to have together. They used to talk, this guy from Mississippi and this guy from Trinidad. And I am still trying to explore this strange relationship between the African American world and the African diaspora and how complicated it is. It is reflected in the figure of the president, exactly.

BB: Black intellectuals from abroad—I am thinking of Bert Williams and Claude McKay, both of whom you have written about—have often had difficulties upon their arrival in the United States, and in New York in particular, as their sense of who they were and how to position themselves in terms of race was often very different from that of both Americans at large and African Americans in particular. As you state, James Baldwin detected “a broad gulf of unease”3 between African Americans and black people from other countries. Could you describe your transition—the comforts and the trials—into American society?

CP: Very quickly after I came to this country, I remember going to a tennis club in a place near Amherst, Massachusetts, called Sunderland. This white American lady said to me, “It’s really easy to talk to you. You don’t seem to be as angry as other black people in this country.” And I remember thinking, “What exactly does she mean by this?” Because the black people I knew did not seem angry.

And then slowly I began to realize that, of course, that it is not just African Americans, who are making distinctions between themselves and new arrivals, be they from Africa or the Caribbean. That has always been an area of some contention. For instance, West Indians were always known, throughout much of the twentieth century in the United States, as the “black Jews.” And they were called that because apparently racial slights or indignities kind of washed off them because they were just determined to knuckle down and make money and then go back to where they came from. It was a pejorative and not very pleasant way of saying that they are not like us. African Americans would call them that. Within the African American community, I’ve been aware of the fact that there’s been a slight schism. And racial politics in the Caribbean have always been slightly different from up here. Sure, there was slavery, but there was also a kind of creolizing process, which comes about when you are on a small island where people are intermarrying, people are interbreeding, and doing so in a much more open way than they are doing in this country.

So I was aware that there was unease in the black community, but I wasn’t aware of the extent to which those of the white community were also perceiving differences, even though they were articulating them clumsily. The lady didn’t mean it in any nasty way. She was just trying to express her own level of comfort. But what does that leave you feeling? It left me feeling, to what extent am I ever going to fit into American society? Because I certainly do not want to fit in as some honorary, not-angry white guy. And I wasn’t going to pretend to be an African American. How do you pretend? Does this mean that I have to like hip hop, and I have to affect a particular accent? It left me feeling that you just have to be yourself and it’s going to baffle some people, it’s going to confuse some people, it’s going to make some people feel uncomfortable.

So I think that’s one of the reasons why it took me a long time to feel confident to write anything, because I was aware of the fact that there was a huge African American tradition that wasn’t always friendly. It wasn’t always oppositional, but it wasn’t always friendly. I was also aware that on the other hand there were eyes looking at you to try to get you to be something other than an African American. I am very suspicious of that too.

That’s a sort of general overview. How did this play out on a day-to-day level? Moments of confusion, for most people who look at me think that I am an African American, until I start to speak. And then they don’t know what they are dealing with. Accusations, certainly, from some African Americans. Colleagues prefer to work with you because they like the British accent. It has played itself out in all sorts of weird ways, but the overall problem has always been one of weird suspicion. Weird suspicion on both sides.

BB: I am also thinking about issues of readership. I remember an interview with Stephen Clingman in which you related an anecdote of an African American woman who had objected to your inclusion of Joyce, a white woman, in the strings of names of people in the diasporic song at the end of Crossing the River [1993].

CP: She was actually essentially saying it is a betrayal. That’s the kind of clumsy identity politics that come sometimes with an essentially racialized sense of self. It can create a few awkward moments. But you can only be what you are. And to be honest, if you subscribe to that notion of feeding an identity, then you’re not really writing literature. You’re writing politics. You are writing something else. It’s tough.

Way back, Langston Hughes in the twenties, Ellison in the forties and fifties, all of them were writing very good essays about the difficulty as African Americans who are trying to become artists and slip the noose of identity politics. If somebody tries to lean on you and push you back into that once you’ve jumped out of it is frustrating and problematic, and I guess that’s what was happening with that woman, challenging me. She was basically saying, “You’ve jumped out of the box and need to get back in there.”

BB: Would it be fair to say that you’ve channeled some of these experiences in the role of Bert Williams, an Afro-Caribbean man who carefully has to negotiate his identity in face of the demands which both an African American and a white American audience exert upon him, in your novel Dancing in the Dark [2005]? Are there some connections?

CP: Obviously there must have been. When I was writing the novel I was just fascinated with him, fascinated with the process of the performance, both on and off stage. I don’t think I ever suffered. To be perfectly frank with you, I can’t remember a single moment where I have had any sort of anxiety that even approaches anything as intense as he had to deal with. I had a very, very easy ride, compared to, say, the doorman, Mario, the guy that let you in, and the other ones, most of whom are Caribbean. I talk to those guys. Those guys are on the cutting edge because day after day they are having to deal with hard, serious decisions about who they are, who they are mixing with, what church they are going to, where they are going to live, and it’s all coming back to their identities, to what extent they want to drift toward embracing a kind of African American identity or to what extent they want to stay in their own small community and be Dominican, or Puerto Rican.

If you teach in the academic world, if you are writing books, you are kind of living in a Mickey Mouse world, not having to make some of these tough decisions. So I’ve not really had to face those real hard serious decisions about what face to present. I’ve been able to present my own face all the time without too much performative anxiety, if you like. That’s just a by-product of vocational luck. I don’t think that’s the case with other people who are, day in, day out, doing a nine-to-five job and having to interface with people and know these people, and have to make decisions about their future based on how they speak or where they are socializing.

(Read part 2 of the interview here.)


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 Caryl Phillips, A New World Order (New York: Vintage, 2001), 6.

2 Caryl Phillips, Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11 (New York: New Press, 2011), 25.

3 Ibid., 234.


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