A Conversation with Caryl Phiullips
Q: 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?
A: 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?
A: There was no specific news story, but one couldn't help but be aware of 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?
A: 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 his character based on people you met on that trip?
A: 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,
Q: Dorothy and Gabriel form an unlikely friendship. What does their relationship signify about cultural shifts in England?
A: 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 uptight about miscegenations 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 England.
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?
A: 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 other.
Q: Early on in 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 that way?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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 problems.
Q: Would these films even have been made when your parents came to England from the West Indies four decades ago?
A: 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?
A: 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 pressures 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.
From the Hardcover edition.