Caryl Phillips at Queen’s

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Ed Dodson

Date: 7 May 2015                                                                

Caryl Phillips at Queen’s

To what extent are expectations put upon black writers to be politically-engaged with race? This question was implicit throughout the reading and discussion with novelist Caryl Phillips, held at his alma mater Queen’s College on Tuesday, 28 April. Born in St. Kitts in 1958, Phillips’ family moved to Leeds when he was just four months old. Since reading English at Queen’s in the late 1970s, Phillips’ various plays, radio plays, novels, and essay collections have earned him a reputation as a leading British writer, one who is often discussed in relation to Black British, Black Atlantic, diasporic, and postcolonial aesthetics.

Indeed, the promotional framework for his latest novel, The Lost Child, has tended to focus on its postcolonial ‘writing back’ to Emily Bronte’s Victorian romantic classic Wuthering Heights (1847). One of its two narratives provides a pre-history for Heathcliff, that enigmatic male orphan described as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” in Bronte’s novel. Mr Earnshaw finds him on the streets of Liverpool, a city that, as Phillips commented on Tuesday, was founded on the wealth of slavery and imperial trade. Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights was the first to cast a black actor, James Howson, as Heathcliff, in a conscious nod to the novel’s imperial and racial subtext.

After the reading, Dr. Rebecca Beasley, Fellow in English at Queen’s, admitted that she had expected to hear Heathcliff’s tale, but in fact Phillips read from what he described as the novel’s main narrative, that of a young Northern girl beginning her studies at Oxford. Phillips read with a very slow and monotone voice, allowing the prose rather than his timbre, to engage the listener, his Leeds accent nicely complementing the subject matter. The passage, which focused on the turmoil of familial relationships, the tension between fatherly and erotic love, clearly chimed with Phillips’ passionately-articulated belief that literature is about creating universal emotional connections, that it is an imaginative rather than a documentary act.

The expectation of racial and postcolonial themes is clearly wearying to Phillips’ ears. However, if this reading is anything to go by, the quality of Phillips’ writing means he is able to engage with historical and political ideas by weaving them into the intimate, domestic, and emotive world of a young girl, her family, and her postwar (“Baby Boom”) aspirations.

Ed Dodson is a DPhil Candidate in English. His thesis is entitled ‘The Occluded Persistence of Empire in Contemporary British Fiction, 1979-present’. He will be speaking at the Race and Resistance Network in fourth week (22nd May).


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