Malaysia Star features Kittitian-born British author

Caryl Phillips

BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS, MARCH 5TH 2012 (CUOPM) – Kittitian-born British author Caryl Phillips is being featured in the Malaysia Star.

Under the caption “Outside, looking in,” Akshita Nanda, penned following his recent visit to Singapore:

As a child growing up in the northern British city of Leeds in the 1960s and later as an adult travelling the world, award-winning writer Caryl Phillips has always felt a little out of place.

Born in St. Kitts in the West Indies, he and his blue-collared parents moved to Britain when he was only four months old. His dark skin clearly marked him as different in his new home and continues to do so even in multicultural South-East Asia, he shares during a recent trip to Singapore.

“In most places I go to, Vietnam, Thailand, I’m usually the darkest-skinned man in the hotel,” says the 54-year-old. “You occasionally see African diplomats, but I’m quite visibly an outsider.”

Yet he loves travelling because it broadens his horizons and because hotels inadvertently supply his writing tools!

“I prefer pen and paper. It basically makes me a dinosaur. The first thing I do when I go to a hotel room is, I collect all the pens and store them in my bag. Because I need a lot of pens!” he says, turning out his pockets to reveal ballpoints embossed with hotel logos.

A serial sojourner, Phillips has held writing residencies and visiting professorships in cities from Stockholm in Sweden to Mysore in India, and is a dual citizen of Britain and the United States.

Themes of race and alienation dominate his published work, from the 1993 Booker-shortlisted novel Crossing The River, which followed three African protagonists at crucial moments in history, to the collection of essays, Color Me English: Thoughts About Migrations And Belonging Before And After 9/11, released last year by New Press.

“It is one-third essays about America, one-third essays about Britain and a third about me wandering the world doing foolish things,” says the engaging writer, whose latest feat is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya for the fourth time.

An account of his climb makes it into the book, as does Rude Am I In Speech, a rumination on Othello, which segues into his railway worker father’s hesitance to complain when he is served the wrong thing at restaurants.

Phillips himself has no problem sending dishes back and says this is a classic difference between first-generation and second-generation immigrants. The first lot tend to keep their heads down and compromise in order to be accepted, but their children are “unapologetic” and make demands their parents would not think of.

His writing is also a statement of belonging: “I went to the pub, supported a football team, I was English but visibly not. I wanted to read books about that but those books didn’t exist.”

He has authored five works of non-fiction and nine novels including the immigrant tale A Distant Shore, which took the 2004 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

Now a professor of English at America’s Yale University, he is the oldest of four children and was very conscious that skin colour set his family apart from the majority, even before race riots rocked Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Like many non-white children growing up in England, I thought, ‘If you could just colour me English …’ I didn’t want to be white, but I did want to belong.”

Pressed by his housewife mother to excel – his parents’ marriage broke up when he was nine – he read neurophysiology, psychology and statistics at Queen’s College, Oxford, hoping to learn to interpret dreams and human beings. Instead, he dealt with laboratory experiments, mice and rats, and after getting his bachelor’s with honours, headed to Edinburgh with a girlfriend. “My mother thought I was a lunatic,” he recalls, though she has since been mollified by his success.

At first, he made a living writing plays for drama troupes and scripts for BBC radio and television before publishing his first novel, The Final Passage, in 1985. The story about impoverished West Indian immigrants to Britain won the Malcolm X Prize for Literature, but it was another 12 years before the Booker nomination of Crossing The River made his name.

“It was great to have affirmation that what you’re doing is of value,” Phillips says, adding: “The next book I wrote got more money. Money is important for a writer because if you have more money, you have more time to write.”

Single and childless, he has two desks in his home office in New York, one very neat, the other a complete mess. “The ordered one is more to do my taxes,” he says. The disordered table strewn with books and paper is where he writes.

After 14 books, four stage plays, two screenplays and more than a dozen scripts for TV and radio, he still finds it hard to talk about what he plans to write next.

It seems he is as uncertain of his identity as a writer as he used to be about where he belonged.

“I’ve never felt that I’ve owned that title of ‘writer’, that it’s set in stone,” he says.

“Being a writer is not something you own. It’s something you rent. It could go away at any time. My imagination is a source of great mystery to me.” – The Straits Times Singapore/Asia News Network.

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