Caryl Phillips is a professor of English at Yale and the author of three books of nonfiction as well as a number of celebrated plays. Perhaps most significantly, he is the renowned author of 11 novels, ranging from 1985’s The Final Passage to 2018’s A View of the Empire at Sunset.
In my first semester as a lowly assistant professor, my contemporary fiction class ended with Phillips’s 1991 Cambridge. I remember staying up late at night making a list of the words italicized in that novel—italicized as a way of marking their strangeness to one of its narrators, a young Englishwoman visiting her father’s slave plantation. The ensuing discussion with students who were still in their own italicizing phase, learning college lingo for the first time (as I was learning the argot of professordom) remains for me a vivid reminder of Phillips’s brilliance at turning language, and our lives within language, inside out.
I was lucky enough to serve as third wheel during Phillips’s recent conversation with the wonderful comparatist Corina Stan, author of the Art of Distances: Ethical Thinking in 20th-Century Literature and, recently, a delightful series of essays on social distance, past and present. A longer version of this conversation aired recently on Novel Dialogue—a podcast that is partnering with Public Books for a whole season of interviews over Spring 2022, with guests including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Charles Yu, and Colm Tóibín.
Corina Stan (CS): I would like to take us back to the beginning, when you decided to become a writer. You traveled to the US for the first time at 20, after living in the UK from the age of four months. You took the Greyhound to California and spent a long afternoon reading Richard Wright’s Native Son. And in The European Tribe you describe that experience in the following terms: “I felt as if an explosion had taken place inside my head. … [Native Son] provided not so much a model but a possibility of how I might be able to express the conundrum of my own existence.”
What was this conundrum you are referring to? And what aspects of Wright’s work seemed to offer a possibility of expressing it?
Caryl Phillips (CP): It sounds a little pompous now. Another conundrum. I’m not sure I was thinking quite that clinically, although it probably sounded nice and grand to me, a few years later to phrase it in that way. Clearly the big problem that was going on was—it feels slightly embarrassing to say it now—I’d never read a book by a Black person. I’d never been offered a book that was written by somebody who looked like me. You’d have thought I had a reasonably profound affinity with literature. I studied English at Oxford at the time. I was a student, so you’d have thought that I would be a little bit more well-rounded in my reading and some teacher along the way would have spotted some nascent writing or reading talent and offered me a book by a Richard Wright or a James Baldwin or a Ralph Ellison, or a Chinua Achebe? But nobody had.
So, it was both wonderful and quite daunting to realize that people who looked like me could write books and did write books. But then of course there was the subject matter of the book: urban angst. The terrible fear of life being lived in the inner city, which was my life as a working-class kid, immigrant kid in England.
I spent most of my time reading books by people like Jane Austen. Vicar’s tea parties, or other aspects of middle-class existence—that was the norm to me. I thought that’s what books had to be about.
So, there was a double whammy: both the identity politics of not having read a book by a Black person, but then the content as well, which opened up all sorts of possibilities.
CS: Richard Wright was also important to James Baldwin, who also went to Paris. In fact, at the beginning of his stay there, Baldwin received support from Wright, who was already there.
But what I’m actually interested in is your own connection with James Baldwin. You recall, in A Life in Ten Chapters, that at 18 you were “completely overwhelmed by Baldwin’s brutal prose,” by the sheer audacity of the first line in Blues for Mister Charlie. I imagine it must have been really thrilling to meet him in person in Saint-Paul de Vence. How was that, and what was Baldwin like, as a person?
CP: It was very humbling and scary.
We didn’t have writers on campus. I wasn’t going to meet a writer when I was an undergraduate. So, I left. I was living in London, trying to scramble a living in my early 20s. We could aggrandize it with the phrase “freelance.” But it was really no-lance, desperate. I would do anything to make money in order to buy a bit of time to write.
So, one day I had this idea: The BBC made all sorts of documentaries about American writers, but nobody had done one on Baldwin. I’d just seen one called Norman Mailer at 60. So, I wrote to somebody at the BBC, and I just said, “James Baldwin is going to be 60 next year, fancy doing a documentary about him?” And, much to my surprise, they said, “Sure, if you can get his permission.” Which was the right thing to say, throw it back into my court.
I wrote a letter to his publisher in London, thinking, There’s no way I’m going to hear a reply. But then I got a postcard from the South of France from Mr. Baldwin saying, “This is my phone number, call me, and let’s see what we can do.” And, with the naivete of youth, of course, I picked up the phone. I called him, and he said, “Well, why don’t you and your producer come down this weekend?” And I thought, What producer? We don’t really have anything yet. But I got hold of somebody at the BBC who was prepared to sacrifice themselves and fly to Provence for the weekend, and so we went down there. We did as we were told, we called Mr. Baldwin’s number. And he wandered up to the village square.
I was almost looking at it anthropologically: How do writers behave? Do they have senses of humor? Do they drink? Do they make fun of themselves? Are you allowed to talk about their work, or do you steer clear of that? I just didn’t know how it was supposed to go. But he was like a regular guy, and relaxed me into regarding him as such, right from the very beginning. Almost the first thing he said was, “Don’t call me Mr. Baldwin. My name is Jimmy.” I thought, This is ridiculous—at the very least he’s James. I can’t call him Jimmy.
I feel very lucky and very grateful. We weren’t to know that he only had four more years to live. But over those years I got to know him very well, not just in France but in the United States, too, and in Britain. It was a meeting that I would have remembered anyway, without the significance of being a fan. But it was a meeting that had great resonance, because it was the first encounter with somebody who wrote books.
CS: So, in what terms would you describe your relationship with Baldwin’s writing?
CP: Baldwin did have a concern with dignity. But that’s probably more deeply connected to another word: performance. One performs one’s race in societies that are highly racialized and—I hesitate to say the obvious—racist. You are backed into a corner, into performing a certain sense of yourself. Obviously, this performance of identity goes way beyond race. It includes gender. In the US, it begins at Ellis Island, where you change your name to something that is pronounceable. You’re performing.
But Baldwin was greatly interested in the performative: a child preacher, he had a deep love of film and the soap box. I was interested in theater and grew up in a society in which you are expected to perform your identity: as a British colonial subject, you had a somewhat toxic identity thrust upon you that you had to sometimes act out against. And so, for all of these reasons, this notion of dignity/performance—which is at the heart of Baldwin’s work—was inevitably going to be a part of what I wrote.
CS: One of the reasons why I began with these questions about Wright and Baldwin is that they were both Black writers who traveled to Europe and lived there for an extended period. As a European—I’m actually from Romania, so an Eastern European, an internal other—I am really fascinated by this, because both Wright and Baldwin, and so many before them, defamiliarize Europe for me. They see it from a very different vantage point, which relativizes my perceived otherness. And this is something I experienced when I read your travelogue, The European Tribe, a record of your journey through Europe while in your 20s.
I recently came across Johny Pitts, the author of Afropean. He was inspired by your travels through Europe, about which he writes: “Caryl wandered as a young black man in his twenties through white Europe, before the work of his generation had helped the continent even entertain the idea that there were black people taking an active part in its societies.”
“The work is quietly subversive,” Pitts writes of The European Tribe, “playing with the notion of an approach white people often assume when traveling in Africa: as an outsider observing a strange tribe practicing odd rituals. [Phillips] normalized the black gaze, becoming an invisible eye and instead otherized Europeans as something strange and exotic with a nudge and a wink.”
I would love to hear more about this idea of otherizing Europeans, both from the perspective of writers like Wright and Baldwin, but also from your perspective.
CP: Yeah, it’s very interesting. When Wright and Baldwin arrived in Europe in the 1940s, they were effectively exchanging one world for another world. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of synchronicity—bridges and tunnels that had been dug culturally—between Europe and the US. Americans had been to Europe: there was Josephine Baker, there were the jazz musicians in the early 20th century. So, people had arrived; but it was still an escape from America.
It was another world. It was almost a world where you could begin again. And Wright did talk a little bit about it being a nonracialized world, or, at least, less racialized than the US. Now, he soon found out that it was racialized, just in other ways. Still, you could go there and—to a certain extent, in a slightly romantic way—be free of some of the iniquities and the pressures of the US. Some of that motivated their journey across the Atlantic into Europe. And, as you say quite rightly, Wright and Baldwin had a different gaze, not just on Europe, but on themselves when they were there.
I didn’t feel that. I grew up in Europe at a time when there was a lot of communication and travel. Even politically, Thatcher and Reagan were twins. There was a lot more connective tissue. And this was also true for me, whether I got on a plane and went to America, or whether I crossed the channel and went to France and then explored both Eastern and Western Europe.
I don’t think I had that bump, that division, that rupture that Wright and Baldwin had. What I had was something else: I couldn’t believe people couldn’t see that there was a Black presence in Europe that went back centuries. And I couldn’t believe they couldn’t see there was a Black presence in Europe, or a nonwhite presence in Europe, that was deeply present in the mid-1980s, when I wrote the book.
It was not just the colonial arrivals from Suriname, or from northern Africa into France, or from sub-Saharan Africa to France, or the gastarbeiter and various other migrant laborers in Germany. There were the Moors in Spain; there were the Africans on the streets of Spanish cities. It seemed obvious to me, even when I got to Moscow and its Patrice Lumumba University, which is full of students from Africa and Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean.
My intention was to try to stitch some of this reality into a narrative, in a way that made people see Europe in a different way. What Johny Pitts is saying is flattering and nice, of course. But, in my mind, it was perhaps rather simpler than this. I just thought, People have no idea that there was a presence, but they also had no idea how to look at themselves. And this comes to the title of the book. If you can call Africa “tribal,” then, I’m sorry, you can call Europe “tribal,” too.
It is at least tribal in the same ways as when Europeans look at Africa and say, “They’re tribal, they’re always fighting each other.” Well, excuse me: I arrived in Britain less than two decades after the end of the Second World War. If that’s not tribal, what on earth is tribal?
CS: In a review, J. M. Coetzee wrote that your work is about what the West would like to forget. What do you think about this characterization?
CP: There’s some truth in that. You grow up in a world or a society in which you’re constantly having to explain who you are. Then you realize that the clue to who you are, and the reason that others don’t have answers at their fingertips, is because those clues and answers have been swept under the carpet. Or they’ve been conveniently held back, or, even more perniciously, forgotten.
Everything is a way of trying to remind people who I am, and who people like me really are. This could be people who don’t necessarily have a singular sense of their identity, because they have a couple of passports (this bemuses a lot of people). Or people, like me, with an accent (others don’t understand why you have a different accent or a different name). Everything is a way of trying to answer the questions before they come up. And if those questions didn’t bedevil your childhood and your adolescence, then perhaps you wouldn’t be writing.
I think it was Graham Greene who said that most writers are formed by the age of 14. A lot of those anxieties get inculcated in you very early; in my own case, it’s that sense of constantly having to explain who you are. And then realizing ignorance is not necessarily the reason you’re being faced with that question. Instead, it’s a willful collective amnesia, which many people—teachers, social workers, writers, musicians—are trying to correct.
John Plotz (JP): This connects to an earlier Novel Dialogue conversation with Orhan Pamuk. He said something that’s been worrying me. He said that the novel is a middle-class form by its very nature. And earlier, you talked about the Jane Austen frock-and-hat, middle-class existence of the novels that you were subjected to. I am wondering how that question of middle-class life as content relates to Pamuk’s assertion that there’s something inescapably bourgeois about the novel form.
CP: The form itself is middle class, because you need money to buy a novel, or you need to be in a society or have access to a library to get novels out. It’s not like TV. It’s not like comic books. Novels cost money, and you need time to read a novel. A lot of people don’t have time to sit down and sink 15 hours, or however long it takes, to read a novel. So, as a form, as a literary form, the novel was born into the middle classes, and it’s always been a middle-class form. I agree with that.
What I don’t agree with is the idea that because novels are about middle-class people, they’re somehow alien from you. Vicars and middle-class people, after all, they fall in love, too. They get betrayed, they feel let down. They worry about their kids. They worry about the marriage that they’re in. They have a gamut of emotions that’s as wide as anybody else’s.
Reading about a bourgeois life, for me, is as painful and illuminating and as joyful as reading about the lives of blue-collar people, or the lives of people from any other social strata. I never really was too concerned about the fact that the people I was reading about were living lives materially or culturally or otherwise alien to me. Because what mattered to me was the human heart. That’s what mattered. The fact that they loved, they lost, they died. They gave birth and they dreamt. That’s what mattered to me.
CS: What do you do when you’re struggling with writing? What’s your favorite treat? And it doesn’t have to be food. It can be anything, whatever it is that you do.
CP: My favorite treat is to stop writing. I don’t feel obliged to write, I write because I’ve got something to say; as soon as I haven’t got anything to say, I’m quite happy to stop.
I don’t want to get into the habit of feeling like a columnist. I used to write for The Guardian newspaper, and they offered me a column. They said, “Well, we’ll give you a column and you’ll file every two weeks and the contract will be fatter, and you’ll have more renumeration, greater security.” And I said, “No, I don’t want a column—because what’s going to happen is, some weeks, I’m actually going to have nothing to say.” And yet I’d have been contractually obliged to write 2,000 words.
So, I settled for my loose, rather insecure arrangement with them, whereby if I had something to say, I would tell them. And then they could actually keep all the power to themselves and say, “Well, this is boring.” But I prefer that, because I don’t ever want to become the person who writes just because they’re a writer. I began this peasant’s pilgrimage into the heart of the profession with the idea that I have something to say. I made a pledge to myself that, when I didn’t have anything to say, I’d have the good manners to shut up.
When I’m running into trouble, I would much rather open a bottle of beer and watch a football game on the TV. Much rather do that than write. Much rather. There are times when I’d much rather be at my desk. But if I’m at my desk and thinking, Beer, then that’s fine. There’s always soccer on the TV these days and always beer in the fridge.
CS: Let’s play a game. I know you’re very fond of sports. So, if you could pick one of the following, what would you have? You could either have a ticket to travel back in time to 1951 and watch live the boxing match between Randolph Turpin and Sugar Ray Robinson (a match that you invoke in Foreigners), and then have dinner with Turpin. Or you could have the capacity to teleport yourself to see live every Leeds United game in a season. Or the opportunity to play golf with, let’s say, Hideki Matsuyama.
CP: It would be the Leeds. It would be the thing that spoke most clearly to my sense of my own identity.
I golf, I love golf, you’re right. But before I get out of the car, at whatever golf club, I wonder, OK, when is somebody gonna look and wonder, Is that my caddy for the day? So, I’m always aware that golf is always going to be a sport where anybody who doesn’t look like they fit in is gonna have to deal with whatever.
The fight with Sugar Ray Robinson and Turpin: I was fascinated by Turpin enough to write about it, and I do like boxing. But I find boxing uncomfortable. I’ve only ever really been to one live boxing fight. It’s something about the battle royal scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man—the idea of people paying money and putting on dinner jackets to watch two Black guys hitting each other makes me slightly uncomfortable. So, I’d avoid that, even though I do find the social politics around boxing fascinating.
So, just for sheer pleasure: Leeds. I grew up like most working-class kids in England, feeling passionate affiliation to a football team, which becomes a part of your identity in a way that even now, as a guy in his early 60s, I can’t shake. I would never want to. I feel as loyal to that aspect of my class and geographical origins as I do to my racial origins or my gender. It’s all very important to me: the history of that team; the way in which, for many people, it’s basically like church.
People are able to endure a tremendous amount of psychological damage in their life because of the adrenaline boost that they get just for a couple of hours on a weekend. Whether it’s in a church or whether it’s in a football ground, it just allows people to endure.