This is one of the great opportunities that MLF offers with it, introducing a writer as widely acclaimed as Caryl Phillips. He is a Professor of English at Yale University and the author of twelve works of fiction and non-fiction. Caryl Phillips has too many accolades to mention, and it is clear by his reading and presence at MMU why he is a writer of such credibility.
The John Dalton Lecture Theatre lecture theatre at almost full capacity immediately highlights that Phillips is a writer I really should have read by now, and after hearing him speak of his own journey with the pen he definitely will be on my next-to-read pile.
The undergraduate’s of MMU have recently studied Phillip’s novel Cambridge (1991), and this was a suitably fitting place to promote his new venture In the Falling Snow. The delicate cover of his new novel made the autumn chill feel beautifully crisp with the wrapped up students in the room. Although this is Phillips most recent release, he used the time and space to answer a deeper question that he intuitively knew we wanted the answer to:
How did he become a writer?
Phillips tells us of his life in 10 small chapters, which I will attempt to bulldoze for you. They can be read in full here.
The journey starts from his life as a five year old boy who becomes aware of the white line across the playground, separating him as the only black boy in the school from the other children. At seven years old he moves to another school without any girls, he’s made to show a story he’s written to his teacher and isn’t sure if he is being punished or not, “well done, I’ll hold onto this,” the teacher says.
Eight years old with his head in books, he borrows the maximum amount from the library, by Monday he has read them all. He borrows The Famous Five from the boys down the street, but he wonders why the boy’s mother puts them in the oven when he gives them back, he overhears germs. The way Phillips pauses on the word, manages to conjure the absolute sickening feeling he must have felt as an eight year old boy. Consequently, his mother stops him borrowing books off the neighbours.
At nine with recently divorced parents, he begins to realise the difference between his father’s schooling and his own, as a poetic void is drawn.
Jumping to the age of sixteen, with no girlfriend and few friends he locks himself away with 19th Century literature, he loses himself in others. He begins university to study Psychology, however his professor tells him “if you want to know people, study English literature.”
At twenty years old, Phillips goes to America and reads a copy of a book with a man that looks a little like himself, it is there that he realises he could write too. The book is Richard Wright’s Native Son. Phillips reads the book in a single sitting on a deck chair by the sea, it is here that he sees ambition being replaced with purpose.
In chapter ten, he speaks of the difference between him and his great-grandmother through the books he has sent her that have been opened from their brown paper packaging only to be re-wrapped, disclosing the generational gap and how life reveals its history.
Caryl Phillips reads aloud with such a calm pace and poetic manner in the same way his written word is structured on the page. After his reading of Growing Pains the event naturally moves into question and answer, where Phillips discusses his influences and thoughts.
Brian Friel’s play Translations is hailed by Phillips as one of the greatest plays about colonialism, with all the subtleties being resonated through the language barriers.
Falkner is in Phillips rendition an “architect of narrative.” He speaks of a new narrative structure being necessary to answer the question what do we do with our plural selves as we find ourselves in the postmodern world?
Phillips tells us he didn’t realise the possibility of becoming an author because he didn’t recognise himself in the authors that he was reading. It is for that reason that Native Son was a revelation for him because he could emphasise with the gritty deprived urban area, even though the novel was set in Chicago the social fabric reminded him of his own upbringing in Leeds.
Phillips own university studies were filled with conservative literature, so the controversial question arose, how does he feel about being studied on a university syllabus? – the answer: he’s not bothered by it either way. Poignantly Phillips states, “My business is to construct the narrative and yours to deconstruct.”
He jokes that he’s not going to start deconstructing himself, laughing “for that is the route of madness.”
Phillips defies the labelling system, though he can see a use for it - he personally has no need to define himself in this way. He says he can’t police where he is placed in the literature section, and he isn’t crazy enough to start re-arranging the shelves.
“I’ve only ever described myself as writer, it’s up to other people.”
“A writer and old school” are the two ways we hear Phillips define himself. When asked how he creates his narrative voice, the answer is organic. Phillips uses primary research methods, journals, letters and diaries, which are becoming increasingly obsolete. He still writes in long hand “I like to feel . . . a tactile relationship with the material.”
The conversation moves to the crazy world of novel translation, as Phillips jokes and tells us of the ridiculous German translation of his first novel The Final Passage, that was translated to the title Leaving a Tropical Island with a palm tree on the front cover.
Over to music and Phillips speaks about his love for the shared experience brought by gigs. He beautifully muses how he was best friends on Thursday for fifteen minutes with a cabbie from Leicester, through their shared love of music.
Phillips is asked about being at Eric Clapton’s gig in 1976, where Clapton told the crowd to keep England white. I was shocked at the nod of recognition by Phillips as he spoke heartbreakingly of how the worst thing about being the only black kid at that gig was that he had an awkward bus ride home with his best friend who never spoke to him after that.
Phillips manner is so calm that it cuts through any radical activism, he says himself he does not claim to be an activist, but through his presence and his writing it is clear that he makes things happen.
Over to the hot topic of the moment should the state support the arts? Phillips pragmatically says there is a responsibility for the state to support its artists and we pay our taxes. He recognises if he hadn’t been granted an arts award that he still would have continued to write, but stresses that we all have a duty to support the arts.
The big one the one that’s always asked and we always want the secret to, what tips do you have for writers? – In the words of Caryl Phillips “READ” that is his only tip and the only necessity.
We end fittingly on how Phillips comes to end his own novels: does he have destination in mind? He says he does but he doesn’t always get there. Phillips speaks of his love for ambiguity and his feeling that we do not get enough, “I think ambiguity is better.”
I leave the lecture theatre with plenty to think about and a book that I am definitely going to get out of the library, especially because we didn’t really discuss it. So as Phillips says, ambiguity or that which is left unsaid can be so much more powerful.
by Rebecca Guest
Rebecca Guest is a freelance writer and workshop host, she welcomes any collaborative projects. You can find her on twitter @babamonchichi