Books by Caryl Phillips
Crossing the River /
The Atlantic Sound
The State of Independence /
The European Tribe
Extravagant Strangers /
The Nature of Blood /
Final Passage /
Dancing in the Dark /
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Conversation with Caryl Phillips
author of the novel
A Distant Shore
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
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
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
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
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.
A Distant Shore "Knopf Q & A" -- Alfred A. Knopf, New
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
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.
He is available for interviews. Please call
if you would like to arrange one: Jill Morrison, Associate
Director of Promotion, 212-572-2091, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 212-782-9000,
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The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
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
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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
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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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
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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