Interview with Caryl Phillips

Interview with Caryl Phillips


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




People continue to be upright about miscegenation of all kinds

–sexual, religious, class “transgressions” are still frowned upon




Books by Caryl Phillips

Crossing the River The Atlantic Sound  / The State of Independence / Cambridge / The European Tribe

Extravagant Strangers The Nature of Blood / Final Passage Dancing in the Dark / Forigners /

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A Conversation with Caryl Phillips

author of the novel

A Distant Shore


Q. A Distant Shore is your seventh novel, the latest addition to a body of work that Time Magazine recently called “one of literature’s great meditations on race and identity.” How does this novel further these themes in your work?

Phillips: I think the more you write and publish, the clearer it becomes just what your territory is. I’m more concerned with “identity” than with “race.” The latter is just one component in the former, along with religion, gender, nationality, class, etc. This is obviously a novel about the challenged identity of two individuals, but it’s also a novel about English–or national–identity.

Q: Unlike your previous novels, A Distant Shore is set in the present day. Did specific news events compel you to write a contemporary novel?

Phillips: There was no specific news story, but one couldn’t help but be aware if the debate about asylum seekers in Europe during the past few years. I noticed that a lot of the pejorative language used to describe them was similar to that applied to immigrants of my parents’ generation. I’ve always felt that I would write a contemporary novel when the right subject-matter presented itself. And, of course, the right characters. I am still deeply committed to the notion of “history” being the fundamental window through which we have to peer in order to see ourselves clearly.

Q. One of the book’s main characters, an aging white Englishwoman named Dorothy, seems lost in her own country, like she doesn’t know the rules anymore now that immigrants are so much a part of her daily life. Why did you choose to give her one of the major voices in the book?

Phillips: Well, she demanded attention. The complexity of her life, and the corrosion that she was suffering, drew me in. A supposedly quiet, almost anonymous, life, yet one filled with drama and internal anguish. Like so many people out there.

Q. The other major perspective in the book is that of Gabriel, a black African man who journeys to England to escape horrors in his homeland. You’ve traveled to Sierra Leone, officially the poorest nation in the world and also one of the most violent in Africa. Is this character based on people you met on that trip?

Phillips: No, I went to Sierra Leone after the book was published in England I didn’t base Gabriel’s character, background, or journey on any particular African country. However, I did have in mind, Rwanda, Liberia, the Congo, and Sierra Leone. I have traveled pretty extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, but I’ve (wisely, I think) tried to avoid war-torn zones. But one reads, listens, observes.

Q: Dorothy and Gabriel form an unlikely friendship. What does their relationship signify about cultural shifts in England?

Phillips: Well their friendship is tentative, full of anxiety, riddled with doubt, self-doubt, and conducted under the full and judgmental scrutiny of people who are quick to condemn. This being the case, I don’t think there has been much cultural shift in England. People continue to be upright about miscegenation of all kinds–sexual, religious, class “transgressions” are still frowned upon. It’s still hard to be friendly to the “other” in many parts of England.

Q: The book is structured chronologically backwards so that readers learn immediately of Dorothy and Gabriel’s friendship, and are then taken back in time to learn how their very different lives came to intersect. Why did you decide to use this format?

Phillips: It just seemed to be the best way to tell the story. I wanted to give out the idea that this cautious friendship was actually forged by degrees; painful degrees, as two people from very different backgrounds tip-toed towards each other.

Q: Early on the story, Gabriel is murdered by a group of white teenagers after he settles in their town. Why did you choose to end his life this way?

Phillips: There is still a lot of racial violence in English life–both officially and unofficially. The statistics for racially-motivated murder–or hate crimes–in England are shameful. It seems to me quite likely that a man such as Gabriel, in a village such as the one described in the book, might conceivably meet such a tragic end.

Q: You grew up in northern England, where you were one of the few black people in a white working class town. Have you been back to your hometown to see whether it has changed?

Phillips: I’ve been back to Leeds many times. The city has changed enormously. It’s now economically buoyant, confident, and even trendy. there’s a lot of nightlife, the club scene is good, and there is great shopping. The place is buzzing. however, the part of Leeds where I grew up is still struggling with social problems, including racism. There are still few non-white faces, and those that walk the streets are subjected to much abuse. So, like most cities, the place has a public face and a private face. the public face is certainly rosier than it was when I was a  boy, but the private face is just as sinister.

Q: Films like Bend It Like Beckham and East Is East show an England where kids mix among different cultures more easily. Is this the case?

Phillips: Well, both films didn’t shy away from an albeit tentative exploration of racial problems. However, London (the setting for Bend It Like Beckham) is not a city that you can use as a barometer for the rest of England. (It’s similar here in New York–i.e., it’s difficult to make any judgments about the USA based on NYC.) Kids in the inner-city areas do mix more readily than those from rural or suburban backgrounds, but the vast majority of England is not “inner city.” And even in the inner-city one still sees many problems.

Q: Would these films even have been made when your parents came to England from the West Indies four decades ago?

Phillips: No, they would not have been made. Nobody was interested in the story of people who were “foreign” in that most obvious way–i.e., racially different. These “new” films are about people who are curiosities, i.e., British and “foreign.” The fact that these youngsters are both participating in, AND standing apart from, British life makes them objects of curiosity. Their parents–my parents–were always configured by the politicians and the media as a “problem that might one day go away.

Q: After you graduated from Oxford, you met the writer James Baldwin, who greatly influenced your life. Tell us about your friendship with him. What writer would have the same impact on a young black man today?

Phillips: I was very lucky to get to know a writer as generous as James Baldwin. He was the first writer i knew, and I watched him “handle” the pressure of being a public figure. It’s not something I would wish upon any writer! I very quickly understood how important it is to guard one’s privacy and keep focused on the work. I understood that the literary world is subject to the vagaries of fashion, the poison of money and celebrity, and all of it means nothing when set against the legacy of the work. I’m not sure who would serve such a role in Britain today. There are young women like Zadie Smith who I’m sure are encouraging a new generation to think of literature as an option.

Q: You’ve written about the recent 40th anniversary  of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. What is the significance of this anniversary to you?

Phillips: The anniversary reminds one of how far we’ve fallen in such a short space of time. From the eloquence of that speech to a president who debases his office with utterances such as “Bring them on.” Language is vital and precious. It dignifies us.

Q: In addition to books, you’ve written plays, movies (Merchant-Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur) TV dramas and radio scripts. Are you working on a film project now?

Phillips: I’m not very good at talking about what I’m working on. I am doing a film for the BBC, but who knows if it will come to fruition.

Q: You constantly travel around the globe, have ties in England, St. Kitts, and New York. Getting to your own issues of identity, who do you root for during the Olympics?

Phillips: I root for individual athletes. I’m very suspicious of nationalism of all kinds, including sporting nationalism. However, when it comes to team sports, i suppose I still have a soft spot for England. It’s where I grew up and went to school. But I’ve lived in the United states for nearly fourteen years, and I feel increasingly a part of this society. I can see how I’ve changed and grown here, and I’m happy to have had this opportunity.

Source: A Distant Shore “Knopf Q & A” — Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 212-782-9000, A Distant Shore  

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Caryl Phillips is the author of seven novels that, taken together, Time magazine calls “one of literature’s great meditations on race and identity. . . . Not only is he one of the most accomplished black novelists writing in English, but he is fast becoming known as one of the most productive all-around men of letters anywhere.” He has written plays, movies (Merchant-Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur), TV dramas and radio scripts, edited a tennis anthology and teaches English at Columbia University’s Barnard College.

A Distant Shore, Phillips’ latest novel, is a departure from his earlier books in that it’s the first to be set in the present.

The novel centers on the relationship between a retired white English schoolteacher, Dorothy, and a young black man, Solomon, an African immigrant who moves in next door to her. They form an unlikely friendship based on their feelings of isolation: Dorothy seems a stranger in her own land, the result of a lifetime of loss and betrayal; Solomon truly is an outsider, trying to assimilate in a country that seems lost itself. Through the intersection of their lives, Phillips explores the concept of national identity and its very real, often violent, impact on individual lives.

Phillips, born 1958 in the West Indies, is the child of West Indian parents who settled in England. Raised in Leeds, where he was the only black child in a white working class town, Phillips’ life has revolved around issues of belonging and displacement. He now travels the globe, organizing conferences, giving lectures, and talking with fellow writers. Though infused with issues of race, the themes Phillips explores are universal, placing him among our most talented writers, black or white.

“The author of seven extraordinarily elegant and unflinching novels . . . Phillips is a clarion realist devoted to confronting our capacity for both cruelty and compassion,” writes Booklist in a starred review. “Phillips crafts his novel with great skill, portraying his characters with a faithful eye that reveals their inner beauty as clearly as their defects,” writes Publisher Weekly. 

Phillips lives in New York City. “I’m sort of a migrant,” he said, according to a NYTimes Book Review (1/30/94), noting that any diaspora invariably involves feelings of guilt and loss. But, he stressed, it can also give rise to new traditions. “You have to look at it with the same pair of spectacles and see it as something that does have a positive aspect,” he observed, “not just for those who have survived, but for their children.” Phillips view rootlessness as emblematic of postmodern man. “As I look around, I see many people linking two places in their minds. neither is home, and yet both become home. Reports are that Phillips maintains as well homes in London and St. Kitts.

He is available for interviews. Please call if you would like to arrange one: Jill Morrison, Associate Director of Promotion, 212-572-2091,

Source: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 212-782-9000,

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 2

0 December 2011





Related files: A Distant Shore Reviews   Interview with Caryl Phillips

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