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Caryl Phillips Biography

Caryl Phillips comments:

Nationality: British. Born: St. Kitts, West Indies, 1958; brought to England in 1958. Education: Schools in Leeds to 1974, and in Birmingham, 1974-76; Queen's College, Oxford, 1976-79, B.A. (honors) 1979. Career: Founding chairman, 1978, and artistic director, 1979, Observer Festival of Theatre, Oxford; resident dramatist, The Factory Arts Centre, London 1981-82; writer-in-residence, Mysore, India, 1987, and Stockholm University, Sweden, 1989. Visiting lecturer, University of Ghana, 1990; visiting lecturer, University of Poznan, Poland, 1991; visiting writer, Humber College, Toronto, 1992-93; visiting professor of English, New York University, 1993; writer-in-residence, National Institute of Education, Singapore, 1994; writing instructor, Arvon Foundation, England, since 1983; visiting writer, 1990-92, professor of English, 1994-98; writer-in-residence, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1992—; Henry R. Luce professor of migration and social order, Barnard College, Columbia University, 1998—. Member of the Board of Directors, Bush Theatre, London, 1985-88; member, British Film Institute Production Board, London, 1985-88; honorary senior member, the University of Kent, England, 1985; board member, The Caribbean Writer, St. Croix, 1989. Consulting editor, Faber, Inc., 1992-94; contributing editor, Bomb Magazine, New York, 1993; consultant editor, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 1994. Lives in London. Awards: Arts Council of Great Britain Bursary in Drama, 1984; British Council Fiftieth Anniversary fellowship, 1984; Malcolm X Prize for Literature, 1985; Martin Luther King Memorial prize, 1987; Guggenheim fellowship, 1992; Sunday Times (London) Young Writer of the Year, 1992; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency, 1994; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1994; Lannan Literary award, 1994. Honorary M.A., Amherst College (Massachusetts), 1995. D. Univ, Leeds Metropolitan University, 1997. Named University of the West Indies Humanities Scholar of the Year, 1999. Agent: Anthony> Harwood, Curtis Brown Ltd., Haymarket House, 28/29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England.



The Final Passage. London, Faber, 1985; New York, Penguin, 1990.

Higher Ground. London, Viking, 1986; New York, Viking, 1989.

A State of Independence. London, Faber, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1986.

Cambridge. London, Bloomsbury, 1991; New York, Knopf, 1992.

Crossing the River. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Knopf, 1994.

The Nature of Blood. New York, Knopf, 1997.


Strange Fruit (produced Sheffield, 1980; London, 1982). Ambergate, Derbyshire, Amber Lane Press, 1981.

Where There Is Darkness (produced London, 1982). Ambergate, Derbyshire, Amber Lane Press, 1982.

The Shelter (produced London, 1983). Oxford, Amber Lane Press, 1984; New York, Applause, 1986.

The Wasted Years (broadcast 1984). In Best Radio Plays of 1984, London, Methuen, 1985.


Playing Away, 1986.

Radio Plays:

The Wasted Years, 1984; Crossing the River, 1986; The Prince of Africa, 1987; Writing Fiction, 1991.

Television Plays:

The Hope and the Glory, 1984; The Record, 1984; Lost in Music, 1985.


The European Tribe (travel). London, Faber, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1987.

The Atlantic Sound. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Editor, Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging. New York, Vintage International, 1999.

Editor, The Right Set: A Tennis Anthology. New York, VintageBooks, 1999.


Critical Studies:

"Caryl Phillips Talks to Linton Kwesi Johnson" in The Race Today Review (London), 1987; "Caryl Phillips: Interview" by Kay Saunders, Kunapipi (Denmark), vol. 9, no. 1, 1987; "Interview with Caryl Phillips" by Frank Birbalsingh, in Displaced Persons edited by Kirsten Holst Peterson and Anna Rutherford, Denmark, Dangeroo Press, 1988; "The Slippery Bounds of Somewhere Else: Caryl Phillips's The European Tribe " by Socorro Suarez in Passage to Somewhere Else edited by D. McDermott and S. Ballyn, Barcelona, PPU, 1988; "Caryl Phillips" by Mario Relich in Contemporary Writers: The British Council, London, 1989; "On Dislocation and Connectedness in Caryl Phillips's Writing" by H. Okazaki, in The Literary Criterion (Mysore, India), vol. 26, no. 3, 1991; "The Fictional Works of Caryl Phillips" by Charles P. Sarvan and Hasan Marhama, in World Literature Today, vol. 65, no. 1, Winter 1991; "An Interview With Caryl Phillips" by Graham Swift, in Kunapipi (Denmark), vol. 13, no. 3, 1991; "Worlds Within: An Interview with Caryl Phillips," in Callaloo, vol. 14, no. 3, Fall 1991; "Voyages into Otherness: Cambridge and Lucy" by Benedicte Ledent, in Kunapipi (Denmark), vol. 14, no. 2, 1992; "Caryl Phillips" by Benedicte Ledent, in Post-War Literatures in English (Belgium, University of Liege), March 1993; "Historical Fiction and Fictional History: Caryl Phillips's Cambridge " by Evelyn O'Callaghan, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 29, no. 2, 1993; "The Unkindness of Strangers" by Nadar Alexander Mousavizadeh, in Transition, issue 61, 1994; "Caryl Phillips," in Current Biography, vol. 55, no. 7, 1994.

My dominant theme has been cultural and social dislocation, most commonly associated with a migratory experience.

* * *

Caryl Phillips writes novels of disinheritance, of rootlessness and impotence. They are works concerned with the human cost of inhumanity and ignorance, and in which the price is largely, but not uniquely, paid by black men and women. Phillips returns consistently to the themes of imposed or motiveless migration, of nostalgia for a homeland which does not exist, of betrayal and emptiness. His early novels depict loveless worlds, where characters are torn from or never know their family, where new loves and friendships stagnate, or die, or never begin. Yet, in Crossing the River of 1994, Phillips explores the possibility of love to redeem even the most desolate life and marks a shift from his earlier despondency.

In Phillips's early novels, rootless and disoriented characters search for or imagine their identities. In The Final Passage, the first and bleakest novel, Leila is a mulatto living on a Caribbean island in the 1950s. Culturally disenfranchised by mixed parentage, she imagines her parents other than they are in order to find her own identity. She dreams of her absent white father, perceiving him a financial benefactor and believing him real in order to discover herself. Yet Leila's mother, herself betrayed in youth by an incestuous rape, knows not nor cares which of her "lovers" fathered Leila, discerning instead that the child "belonged to all of them and none of them." Leila craves her mother's friendship and, although she does not doubt her mother's love, she is in truth "not to know that her mother had never wanted a child." The love this mother eventually gives is begrudging, bestowed as a reward for the direction given to her life by motherhood. It is not a love to cherish nor one from which to build self-knowledge. Leila is eventually granted an identity in London, a dismal place where the rivers "were like dirty brown lines, full of empty bottles and cigarette ends, cardboard boxes and greying suds of pollution." Color is her identity and one which affords her only abuse, misuse or, at best, condescension. It proves an unbearable alternative to her island non-self and Leila finally allows life to dribble away.

In "Heartland," the first chapter in Higher Ground, the narrator loses his identity by betraying his own people. Using his grasp of English, he collaborates with slave traders, acting as interpreter between them and village head men who part with their human future in exchange for a few trinkets. In his effort to evade physical bondage, he feigns assimilation with Englishness, apparently understanding English behavior better than that of his own people. He notices "inner stillness … as a trait" of his native kin but not one with which he now identifies, and announces proudly that he has "finally mastered the art of forgetting—of murdering the memory" in order to leave his former self behind.

But his very language does not ring true. He is certainly clever, using English as a tool for discourse and imagery. Yet it is a disjointed use, clipped and unnatural. During the story's course he perceives reality. He learns that he is indeed "held captive" though his arms and legs move with deceptive freedom. Betrayed by a soldier "friend" for having a forbidden woman in his room, he is thrown into the bonds he had feared, but which ultimately release him to his brotherhood and his identity.

In Phillips's work, identity is also something which may be bestowed, changed, or taken away by the powerful. The powerless are either enticed, like Leila, from their only known home by some nebulous hope of change, or by the false promise of education (A State of Independence). The powerful may rip the impotent from their homes in a callous and cynical bid to perpetuate their own society and at the intentional expense of another. This is the fate of all four characters in Higher Ground and Cambridge. The loss of identity in this way is then compounded by the imposition of new names. In Higher Ground, Irena, an escapee from Nazism's elitist brutality, finds her name stolen by ignorance—an ignorance which is certain of its own precision: "It was now that the Irene-Irina-Irene-Irina-Irene-Irina-Irene problem would begin for English people were too lazy to bend their mouths or twist their tongues into unfamiliar shapes." This ignorance attempts to force her divorce with a past which she cannot, in fact, let go. She is a misfit, and turns in on herself, confused between past and present, and sure only that she has no future. Cambridge suffers three changes to his name. Two of these, Tom and Cambridge, are the products of a smug mid-18th century (by which time slavery has been abolished in law, but not in practice). Cambridge is twice torn from home and family, one African and one English, where he could act as an individual. His naming at these points resembles that of a dog, the single name pointedly affirming a position of inferiority which his masters intend to maintain.

In England, Cambridge finds his true identity. As David Henderson, a name bestowed without cynicism, he embraces Christianity. With a dearly loved white wife at his side, he is accepted, if begrudgingly, into society, and on an evangelical tour of England he encounters a merchant who "was commonly very pleasant to both my wife and myself, directing us with witty turns and fanciful stories, but never to the prejudice of religion or good taste." The merchant, an African trader with a retinue of servants, is surely amusing himself. But there is a glimpse that in time, David Henderson might achieve a social integration that would affirm his own confidence in this identity.

But a loving relationship which might grant security cannot last. David Henderson's wife dies in childbirth, and with her dies Henderson's tenuous credibility. Society will not allow him to perpetuate the myth of equality and, in trying to extend his mission to Africa, he is again taken captive to become the subjugated Cambridge.

Phillips's novel of 1994, Crossing the River, reworks these characteristic themes: slavery, identity, and desolation. But the scope is wider and more ambitious, and it offers a conclusion uncharacteristic of Phillips's previous work. Crossing the River concerns the selling into slavery of three children—Nash, Martha and Travis—by their father, when his crops fail and he is left with nothing. Their journey—the eponymous crossing of the river—takes them across space and time. Nash spends his slavery in America, undergoing a rigorous Christian education, and is returned to Africa by his "father," Edward Williams, under the Auspices of the American Colonisation Society, to assist in the Christian mission. Martha emerges in Virginia as a slave of the Hoffmans. When their financial difficulties make it impossible to keep her, Martha travels westward in search of the daughter from whom she was separated at an auction. Travis appears as an American GI stationed "somewhere in England" during World War II. His relationship with a local girl, Joyce, results in a child that Joyce is forced to give away. Their marriage is cut short by Travis's premature death.

The anomalies in space and time between the characters suggest that Phillips uses them to bear witness to the legacy of slavery, the many generations whose lives were shaped by that initial crossing of the river. Nash, Martha, and Travis are individual figures through whom the experiences of many lives are inferred. Their father is the voice of 18th-century Africa, and we join him in watching how those taken from him survive the fracturing of lives by sinking "hopeful roots into difficult soil." Their legacy is one of pain and desolation, but most important in this novel is the capacity for love and survival in times of immense difficulty. Nash rejects both the values of Christianity and the American dream, but takes what is positive from his education to contend for the rights of "the coloured man" in Liberia. Martha's quest for her lost family is achieved in her mind only, as she dies freezing in a doorway, dreaming of their reunion. But on her journey she has encountered people willing to help her, and in her final moments she is received into the care of a stranger. Although Travis is killed in action, his son, Greer, is emotionally and compellingly reunited with his mother in 1963.

Crossing the River is ultimately about the pain involved in revisiting the past, but also discovering there the persistence of positive values. It searches the centuries for brief moments of altruism and love. They may be exceptional and rare, but to ignore them is to give a distorted account of history. The children's father celebrates in the novel's final sentence how Nash, Martha, and Travis "arrived on the far bank of the river, loved." Such an affirmative ending makes the novel Phillips's bravest to date, and strikes a tentative note of hope absent from Cambridge.

Cambridge and Crossing the River are Phillips's most effective novels by far. While Higher Ground is thematically complete, it is a collection of fragmented stories, and indeed, both The Final Passage and A State of Independence read as long short stories rather than novels. The success of Cambridge is ensured by Phillips's use of narrators, first the mannered daughter of an English landowner and second, Cambridge himself. Crossing the River extends Phillips's skill in modulating between narrative voices across time and space without sacrificing thematic sophistication or becoming unnecessarily convoluted. Less easily comprehensible is his sixth novel, The Nature of Blood, a three-tiered narrative that includes the story of Eva, a Holocaust survivor; the tale of Othello told in first person; and a third-person account of anti-Semitic "blood-libel cult" killings in fifteenth-century Italy.

Also a successful playwright, Phillips writes with ease in this form and certainly to great effect.

Pat Gordon-Smith,

updated by John McLeod

Additional topics

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