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

February 2012

A Conversation with Caryl Phillips

(This is the second half of an extended interview with Caryl Phillips. For Part I of the interview, click here.)

Bastian Balthazar Becker: Pico Iyer has called you a “connoisseur of displacement.”1 Several of the essays in Color Me English, most of all “Belonging in Israel,” seem to imply that the feeling of displacement, especially if it is historical, is produced, determined, and altered by the ways in which individuals and groups situate themselves within greater narratives of origin. You do point out in several of your works that the actual going back to the geographical point of origin does little to alleviate the pain of exile. The feeling of “wholeness” seems to be out of reach. Can trauma be healed if we change the narrative?

Caryl Phillips: You’re right. I’ve seen too many examples of people trying to go to a place to become whole. Instead, they realize that they have just complicated the issue and made it worse. You can adjust the narrative to fit. The narrative is not written in stone. There is no master narrative that you have to follow, unless you have to believe in a particularly rigid form of some belief system, of some faith. For me there is no master narrative. But people seem to subscribe to these master narratives which are set up to include some people and exclude others. I would argue that instead of giving up your life, giving up your job, traveling across waters or land, one could just adjust the narrative. And I think that is what writers do. They just change the narrative. Make it slightly less hostile.

BB: When you write about the Middle Passage, you render the event as an experience in the first-person singular, as your personal memory. You call it the one journey you wish you would not have had to undertake. You further write that subjecting a people to a forced migration is to cause “decades or centuries of heartache.”2 Since the writer, as you argue, is the person who tells the tribe who they are and where they are from, can the writer be a healer?

CP: That’s the journey that seems to me to be the most difficult, the most problematic, because it is the involuntary one. It has consequences, not just for the people who made the journey; it has huge consequences for the continent of Africa. It essentially caused a brain drain that the continent is still trying to recover from. If you have any affection for Africa, which I do, and you’re spending time in Africa, then you can feel a sense of loss. You are in a sense a representative of loss. There is the idea that in the end all journeys are positive. The Middle Passage is the one that still leaves me with a question mark.

Every narrative I write about Africa, every time I am in Africa, I try to get my head around the fact that between 8 or 11 million people left this place involuntarily, and what does that means. Yes, it means Mohammed Ali, it means James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Dizzy Gillespie, and Michael Jordan. But what does it mean for Africa? What are the consequences? It seems to be ongoing.

BB: Let’s talk about Mohammed Ali. You used to work with a poster of Anne Frank above your desk, and you have expressed that her story inspired you to write a novel about the Holocaust. More recently, however, the poster next to your writing desk was one from “Rumble in the Jungle”—the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasha, Zaïre. What do you associate with this moment and what inspiration do you gain from it?

CP: Ali is the great American sportsman of the twentieth century. I don’t think that anybody combines such social activism, political principle, and courage along with his sporting excellence. He is a towering example of moral responsibility. One does not necessarily have to believe in everything he said or believed in, but when we talk about changing the narrative and making the country adjust to your narrative, he is the great example of that.

BB: Interestingly, Ali managed to merge a Muslim identity with that of an American star. Foremost among the concerns which strike me as new are your reflections on the nature and rise of Islamophobia. For someone who has hitherto focused primarily on the trials of people of the African diaspora and on anti-Semitism, what are the challenges in trying to scrutinize and analyze this particular form of xenophobia? You seem to imply that Islamophobia is based on a different set of anxieties than, for instance, Negrophobia.

CP: Well, actually, what I think that comes from is, again, 9/11. I was extremely aware of the fact, immediately after September 11, of how people started to talk about Muslims in this city. And I found it absolutely offensive. I remember playing golf up in the Bronx with a guy who is a very well-respected journalist in this city and he made some comments about the Muslim guys in the corner shop in Brooklyn and how they were laughing at him, he thinks, behind his back. And I remember just stopping and looking at him and thinking, “You know what? I don’t really need to hear this shit.” Obviously I’ve heard anti-Muslim sentiment before and it was framed in a way that reminded me of things that I’d heard when I was growing up in England about blacks, about the Irish, about Jewish people.

So I guess it got me thinking about my own response over the years to Islam, to Muslims, looking closer again at Europe. This whole question of faith, of discrimination based upon one’s faith, which I do think is different from discrimination based upon one’s skin color. Because as we know, Islam rises up above skin color. Islamophobia is a slightly more sinister way of othering people. I don’t think it is as problematic in this country as it is in Europe. I think in this country it’s a typical kind of knee-jerk, ignorant response. But I have slightly more faith in this country, that it can be worked through. I am much more worried about Europe. In that sense, I took that anxiety from 9/11 here and then began to look at Europe, because I could not figure out what the stumbling block was in Europe. That’s how I began thinking about it.

BB: In your novel The Nature of Blood [1997], various strands of the plot explore conflicts between Christianity and Judaism, yet Islam seems to be conspicuously absent from the narrative. After all, the Venice in which both Othello and the Jewish community exist as internal “other” is at war against the Ottoman Empire. Othello himself is, of course, the “Moor of Venice,” a fact which does not receive a lot of attention in the novel. At the same time, the absence of the Palestinian people from the novel’s references to the establishment of Israel is notable.

I have always been somewhat puzzled by what I thought of as a striking silence, but now, after reading Color Me English, I wonder whether the theme of the West’s relationship to Islam does not actually cry out from the margins of your novel?

CP: That’s on your part a legitimate reading of what’s going on. I think the most honest thing I could say in response to that is that if I was going to write the novel again today, Islam would probably be slightly more in view. The novel was published in 1997, so we are talking about fifteen years ago.

Within these fifteen years Islam’s relationship to Europe and European history has changed. Not just in Britain. France obviously, Spain obviously. But in Britain there are generations of troops now who are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with seriously warped ideas of what Islam is, what Muslims are, and they are bringing these ideas back into British society. They are feeding British society. Spain and France don’t have troops in Afghanistan. True, they’ve got other issues to deal with, historically and in a contemporary sense, with Islam. But Britain concerns me because I’ve seen those soldiers. I’ve sat in pubs and listened to how people talk. I’ve turned on the TV and seen the images and the legitimization of a kind of anti-Islam discourse, which is scary, and which I believe fifteen years ago wasn’t present. In fact, I believe that fifteen years ago it would not have been tolerated in the way it is now.

I think it would be hard for me to write that novel now without at least taking that on board. I think the chief oppositional dialectic in the book would still be Judaism and Christianity, but there is no question that the very term Moor of Venice would have slightly more resonance now than it had in my imagination when I was writing.

BB: To stay in Europe for a moment: Several of the essays in Color Me English express a concern for the health of European civilization. In your essay “Blood” you write that it would only take “one madman somewhere in Europe” to trigger a series of catastrophic events is Europe.3 Why does European history sometimes seem to be eerily circular?

CP: I hate to say it, but it’s tribal. To me it has always appeared to be tribal. I was not long out of college and I was traveling across Europe on trains. I was always struck at the speed with which languages changed as you crossed borders. And how the only way in which people defined themselves was in opposition to people who were not them. Even if it was only a matter of the next village across the valley. It’s tribal.

And if you throw into the mix religion, it has historically always been like throwing a flame onto a pile of dry hay. I don’t think race alone is going to do it. Race has provided rebellions, street uprisings, anxiety, clashes with the police. But if you look at the situation historically, which mercifully Europeans can do a little better than Americans, you see the truth. The worst conflicts in Britain, the most serious conflicts, were not race. I grew up in Britain. I lived through riots. I lived through those uprisings in Notting Hill and Brixton. But it’s the IRA. That’s what happened. The [conflicts] that caused the most deaths, the ones that caused the most civil unrest, that brought the army onto the streets, were when you introduced religion.

That’s my concern about Islam. If you start attacking a people based on their faith it is very different from attacking a people based on the color of their skin. And to be honest with you, I worry that the Madrid train bombing and what happened on July 7, 2005, in London will not be isolated instances that get buried in history. We’ve got more to come.

BB: Your reflections on the 7 July, 2005, London bombings raises the question whether society pushes immigrants into seeking a sense of belonging in radical ideas if it does not open spaces into which the newcomer can integrate her- or himself. Rather than merely expecting the arrival to subject his sense of self to the narrative of the nation, you seem to suggest, national identity needs to be mutable enough to offer the newcomer a space within which she or he can exist comfortably. How can the writer assist to unbolt these spaces within the nation’s history, memory, and identity?

CP: I think the United States is more mutable as a society than most European societies. Most European societies are flexible and they are open to change, but are they open to transformation? Social changes are outstripping the patience of a people to see the reality which is in front of them. We’ve got so many examples of this in European history. That’s my worry. That the change is happening very fast in Europe but the societies are not that mutable. They are still staring at the village in the next valley and worrying about them, rather than looking about themselves and who they are and what they need to do.

What can a writer do? Well, you know, you write what you see, you write what you feel, you write what you think is important. What I think I am trying to do, and particularly the work that I am doing right now, is an extension of what I’ve been doing all along. It is most clearly seen in a novel like The Nature of Blood. If you juxtapose narratives that look like they don’t fit together properly, you are trying to force people so see something new by seeing something familiar. And I suppose that’s what I think should be happening, in British society. People should be seeing something new without losing sight of the familiar. Take a novel like A Distant Shore [2003]. I can tell a story about an English woman in a small little town in the north of England, settling into a bungalow. This seems very familiar to a lot of readers. But then introducing the story of an African migrant, who has a whole story, is to introduce the unfamiliar. You juxtapose those two. Or push it even further, as in Crossing the River or The Nature of Blood, where it is in the structure of the piece.

So I am trying to think structurally and formally as well as thinking about the characters and the themes of the piece. The biggest problem I always face when I am sitting down to work is formal: how to tell the story in a way that it is at least suggesting something new, whilst not losing sight of the familiar.

BB: In the autobiographical essay “Color Me English” you remember the arrival of a new student at your school, of Ali, the first Muslim you ever talked to. You suggest that initially you did not see the commonality between your own position as a visible “other” and that of Ali. Yet ultimately you arrived at a moment in which cross-cultural empathy allows you to recognize the similarity of your positions. Missed connections, especially between individuals of different marginalized groups, seem to be a recurring theme in your novels as well. What keeps us from realizing, and what allows us to realize, how much we share with others?

CP: What keeps us from doing that? We’re basically stupid. And we are slightly cowardly, as well. Because all of us were bred to be wary of those who are not like us. It seems to me to be part of how we grow up. If we are lucky we grow up in an environment which encourages mixing across all sorts of lines of gender, class, sexuality, or race. But most of us are encouraged to be suspicious of something. We overhear things that our parents say, we overhear things that kids at school say, we overhear things that teachers are saying or implying, and it breeds in us caution. It takes a lot for us to step out from behind our prejudices.

Obviously, the act of writing a novel is different for each novelist, but certainly for me one of the things that I want to do is to try to encourage people to reach out and meet people who are not like them. I want to try and encourage people to do that in their real life. Can that happen? Do I have any evidence that it has ever happened? No, but that’s my goal. Going back to A Distant Shore, where someone finds the courage to speak to the neighbor that they have not spoken to before. Reading that book and looking through their neighbor’s window, they might think, “Maybe I should go over there and introduce myself.”

Because we are all like this. I am just as guilty as the next person. I looked out of the window this morning . . . and I saw a guy walking his dog, and he took the dog to a tree in the woman’s garden across the street, and he did not clean up after the dog, and then he let the dog walk through the plants. I see this woman come out in her dressing gown every morning and lovingly water the plants. And I looked at this guy, and I just thought, “You complete jack-ass.” And then I looked again at the guy’s face, and he was a really sad, lonely old man, and I see him all the time. And then I thought, “Oh, maybe I should say something to him . . . or maybe I won’t say anything to him.” And I am still thinking about it now, eight hours later. I am thinking, “Maybe I should say something to that guy.” Maybe nobody has ever said to him, “You don’t do that, pal.” You know, in a nice way, and have a conversation. I don’t know. I just think we are all of us bred to retreat to our position of cowardice, or blindness, or prejudice. And the glorious thing about literature is that it digs us out of our ideological burrows. It encourages us to engage with Madame Bovary, who is not like anybody I am likely to meet, or with Anna Karenina, or with Oliver Twist. It should dig us out of these burrows and if it is working properly, it should help us in our day-to-day life, to look with more clarity and more generosity. That is a huge claim, but it seems to me more urgent than ever because we live in this world that seems to be riven by more division than ever before. It is actually remarkable that as the world becomes increasingly plural, heterogeneous, confused—you don’t know who you are going to be sitting next to on an airplane or on a bus, and you are more and more startled by the different languages that you are hearing on the street—while this is occurring we seem to be retreating from each other just at the moment when we have the opportunity to open up. That is why I think that literature is really important now, because it is not only offering us a chance to encounter other people in the books, but it should be making us confident about making that [happen] in our daily life. But as I said, I don’t have any evidence that it is; I just have hope.

BB: You have described Europe’s continued obsession with a mythical homogeneity and purity as a fatal “failure of the imagination.”4 Europe, it seems, still needs images of the “outsider” to define herself. In works like Foreigners (2007), you have undertaken steps to show that those whom Europe defines as “other” have actually for centuries been a part of her. What story would you like Europe to tell herself about herself?

CP: Well, you’ve said it. The African has been there all along. Romans sent black soldiers to Hadrian’s Wall. We know that Henry VII had black trumpeters. You can say that, and historians say that now, and they have been doing so for some years, and that’s terrific. But as a writer, as a writer of the imagination, you’ve got to work that into a narrative in a way that appears to be new and also appears to be disrupting a familiar story. You can’t tear it down completely, because Europe is very resistant to that kind of assault. You get an occasional assault in societies like Columbia with [Gabriel García] Marquez, or Cuba, or in African literature. You get assaults in places where the infrastructure of the societies themselves are subject to rising and falling and collapse, countries that have revolutions, where you wake up in the morning and the country has a different name—the government fled overnight and it’s a new government the next day. In countries like that it is a lot easier to be apocalyptic in terms of narrative, because it kind of matches what is going on in the country.

Solid countries, countries in Europe, sell themselves on their history. You know you go to Versailles, you go to the Tower of London, you go to the Alhambra. It’s a lot more difficult to tear down a narrative. So you are doing work from inside. You are trying to be as radical as you can, formally, structurally, thematically, but you can’t do what [Alejo] Carpentier could do, or Marquez could do, you can’t rip the whole thing down and begin again. Among the novels that have tried to do that in Britain, perhaps the best example is [Salmon Rushdie’s] Midnight’s Children, but that’s not about Britain. That is a British writer using these techniques of deconstruction but not imposing them upon Britain. So I think I am trying to push towards assisting this process of rethinking the narrative, the national narrative, not just in the types of stories I am telling but in trying to think about how to tell them.

BB: Your novels are known for their fragmented narratives. You have expressed in the past that you had long tried to write a book with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but that in the end you always arrived at a point where you deliberately dropped the plot to let it shatter because of your lack of trust in the linearity of time. Interestingly, your latest novel In the Falling Snow (2009) appears to be less “shattered” than some of your earlier works. What happened?

CP: In the Falling Snow has a linear narrative, but within the narrative it frequently moves back and forth. I wanted to see if I could write in that particular way and this story presented itself in a way that it didn’t have as much on the fringes to play with. It had the father’s story to play with, where we could use language and vision, we could use time, and we could go into something that was slightly more formally challenging. But it was a pretty battened down, pretty straight forward, pretty clean, linear narrative. That’s how the story came to me and so I went with it. It would have seemed perverse, in a sense, to have said, “Ah, you know what? People are not used to me doing this. So, having finished the draft I am now going to have to jumble it up or add something.” I just thought, “You know what? That’s what it is.” I have a notion of why I did it, But it won’t be clear until I write something else.

BB: Some of your more recent fiction—A Distant Shore  and In the Falling Snow—has primarily focused on contemporary Britain. The United States, which was the subject of a section of On Higher Ground [1989], of Crossing the River [1993], and of your novel Dancing in the Dark, is dealt with in your fictional work mostly historically. While these bygone eras obviously have great implications for the present day, the urgency of the tone of your reflections on the current developments in the United States in Color Me English seems to call out for a novel set in the contemporary, post-9/11 United States.

CP: Well, that’s not what I am writing at the moment. But that is something that I would quite like to do. I would like to write something about America in the present, as opposed to Dancing in the Dark, which is very much about a bygone age, although obviously I felt that as a novel it was partly about right now.

BB: Writing a new novel always begins for you with an obsession. Are you willing to give us some idea on what kind of story you are obsessed with at the moment?

CP: I’ve been wanting to write something for a long time about Emily Brontë. So that is what I am writing about. I grew up very close to where she did. I mean, ten miles away. I’m writing, thinking about her. And out of Emily Brontë comes a lot of things, not just Wuthering Heights, but Liverpool, Heathcliff, and the moors. That is where I grew up, you know, that West Yorkshire area. The only thing I can tell you is that’s it’s not going to be a narrative that is as tight and as pared down and linear as the last book.

BB: In your essay on James Baldwin [in Color Me English], you suggest that if a writer exposes his private life too much to public scrutiny, he risks that society will try to impose an increasing amount of expectations and restrictions on the author’s identity and writing. How do you deal with your growing fame?

CP: Well, I don’t think of myself as famous in even vaguely the same way that he was. You learn a lot of things from being around other writers. I was very lucky that he was the first writer that I really got to know. I remember walking down the street with him in France and people coming up to him and asking for his autograph. I remember meeting him in a bar in the early eighties on Seventh Avenue by Fifty-Fifth Street, on a wet, snowy Sunday night. There was a woman sitting and drinking at the bar by herself. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head, and she came across to Jimmy. That’s real fame. It didn’t matter what country he was in.

But I also saw what it did to him. And I saw it close up. You have options, and at certain times in your life you have options as to whether to do this or whether not to do this. You can always say no. If you do too many public things you become, as Baldwin once said, you become a “dancing dog.” You can always say no. Sometimes it’s good to say no.

BB: Well, I am very glad you said yes to this interview. Again, thank you very much for your time.


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 Pico Iyer, “Caryl Phillips: Lannan Literary Videos,” in Renée T. Schatteman, ed., Conversations with Caryl Phillips (Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 2009), 41.

2 Caryl Phillips, Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11 (New York: New Press, 2011), 310.

3 Ibid., 172.

4 Ibid., 169.


Related Articles