CARYL PHILLIPS

‘Mongrel’ seeker after new self-understandings

by Victoria James

“One day, people will realize they are a mongrel people with a mongrel history.”

The man sitting opposite me isn’t a rightwing politician, a racial purist or a eugenicist. He’s Caryl Phillips — and he believes that “mongrelization” is the best thing that can happen to us.

Phillips doesn’t use words lightly — after all, he’s a prize-winning writer and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and holds professorships in literature and in migration and social order at New York’s Columbia University. For him, “mongrelization” carries only positive connotations: It is the key to a tolerant, mature society in which individuals are “not bound any more by the old essentialisms of race or nationality or language,” but are enabled to “reach a sense of understanding of who they are in the world.”

That quest for individuals’ self-understanding lies at the heart of the novels and nonfiction works of this Caribbean-born, British-raised author whose many awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His writing explores the experiences of the sons and daughters of the African diaspora, but his worldview is larger, encompassing all those whose sense of identity has been complicated by their crossing of oceans, boundaries, and barriers of social class and convention.

Phillips’ own life has been one constant peregrination. His latest book, last year’s collection of essays titled “A New World Order,” charts his progress — its contents are grouped into four sections labeled “Africa” (the land of his ancestry), “The Carribean” (where he was born, on St. Kitts in 1958), “Britain” (where he grew up in the northern industrial city of Leeds), and “America” (where he now lives and teaches).

When the writer visited Japan for the first time last week, he spoke to students at universities in Tokyo and Kyoto about “A New World Order,” about literature and identity, life in Britain and America, and how his own childhood search for a sense of self was frustrated by his inability “to tell the difference between a mango and a papaya.”

This confession came in response to a student’s question during the seminar at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, as Phillips explained how he grew up oriented toward British culture rather than that of his birthplace — which he left when he was just 4 months old. In his youth, he said, he preferred soccer to cricket and The Beatles to calypso — much to his parents’ dismay. “My parents didn’t want me saying ‘it was better where we came from,’ because we weren’t going back,” he said. “We didn’t talk about the Caribbean. Which meant we didn’t really talk.”

His parents wanted Phillips to be a doctor, but success as a writer came to him early. He studied English at Oxford — another boundary to cross for a young man raised in a working-class area (the challenge of fitting in at the elite institution was “more a class thing than a race thing,” he told a bemused student at TUFS) — and published his first novel, “The Final Passage,” just six years after graduating in 1979.

He didn’t look back. After 1989, when a trio of Australian academics published “The Empire Writes Back” — a defining text of “postcolonial” literary theory — Phillips came to be grouped with distinguished writers, including the future Nobel Laureate, St. Lucia-born poet Derek Walcott. Phillips is candid about the benefits such recognition brought: “It was marketing. Publishing is an industry, not a charity. You’re going to promote what sells books; in that particular Thatcherite era, it was ethnicity.”

In truth, the young writer “wasn’t sure if I’d be able to be a part of British literary tradition; I wasn’t sure I’d wanted to be.”

One writer who hoped to belong to the British literary establishment is V.S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. The longest essay in “A New World Order” is devoted to Naipaul, who so desperately wanted to be a member of the Establishment that he refashioned himself as a self-made writer who owed nothing to the cultural heritage of those “two spheres of darkness,” his Indian roots and his birthplace, Trinidad.

Naipaul seems to haunt Phillips, who has lectured and written numerous newspaper articles and essays about “Sir Vidia.” Perhaps this is because Naipaul’s writing and sense of identity are antithetical to everything that Phillips places most value on, both as a writer and an individual. As we walked through early-evening crowds in Shibuya, I asked Phillips if he was shocked at Naipaul’s scoop of the Nobel. “Who could deny any writer recognition?” he said sincerely, before adding: “But he’s a despicable man.”

Phillips is quick to praise — where praise is due. “A New World Order” contains attentive commentary on writers and thinkers he admires, ranging from familiar names such as Walcott, James Baldwin and Richard Wright, to that of ethnologist and novelist Amadou Hampate Ba^, whose picaresque “The Fortunes of Wangrin” should be on anybody’s “to read” list.

Often, though, it is in his criticism that Phillips’ own ideas and ideals emerge most clearly. An essay on South African writer Nadine Gordimer is a sympathetic yet clear-sighted analysis of the way the overt intrusion of political topics gets in the way of Gordimer’s real talent for charting individual lives. “The fuller humanity of her characters,” he writes, “is obscured as the prose scampers to the superficial beat of history.”

For a black writer whose own work returns time and again to the era and aftermath of slavery, Phillips’ refusal to accord much weight to politics at first seems discordant. What’s perhaps more surprising is that race, as a defining issue, also falls by the wayside in his wider social vision. “Race . . . racism: it’s nothing to do with that,” Phillips quotes a friend of the Martiniquan humanist Francis Fanon as saying, seeming to echo the sentiments himself.

To Phillips, expecting a black writer to focus on the black experience is little short of obscene — a word he used when upbraiding me for what he took to be my sloppy understanding of his relationship with race. “People look at you and they think they know who you are, and they’re wrong,” he told me. “Some people have a whole cloud of ignorance around them their whole life. And a lot of it is to do with race; also to do with being a woman. Sometimes to do with sexuality. It’s to do with an individual.”

So only individual experience is authentic — and that authenticity is the only soil in which honest writing can thrive: “The writer, he or she, has enough of a problem trying to understand the conundrum of him or herself. Now if the writer forgets that that’s where they begin, the writer is no longer a writer, they’re chasing something else. That happens very often in American society. Writers become celebrities and celebrity is cheap. . . . American society breaks many writers — Norman Mailer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. You can always justify it by saying ‘I’ll reach an audience’ or ‘I have to explain this,’ but none of it is true — and you lose sight of what it is you have to do inside yourself.”

And so Phillips comes full circle back to his mongrel New World Order. For if the individual matters, then innumerable individual epiphanies can remake a world. “I don’t believe in multicultural society as such,” he says. “I never have done — the kind of multiculturalism that means you can eat out at an Indian restaurant, or a South African play about apartheid you can go see and feel kind of lousy about. A truly multicultural society is one that is made up of multicultural people.

“A multicultural society is one in which the individual is redefining him or herself. That’s the sort of new world order I want.”

Politics doesn’t matter; race, gender and sexuality matter less than we thought they did. All that counts is the individual, and through the individuals emerges the whole. It is a vision as compelling as it is humane.