Pow­er­ful es­say col­lec­tion ex­plores no­tions of iden­tity

Caryl Phillips is a Leeds raised writer, nov­el­ist and lec­turer now liv­ing in New York. Nick Ahad on Phillips’ timely new work.

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - BOOKS -

THE first time I met Caryl Phillips, it was 2007 and the writer was a guest of the Ilk­ley Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val.

The St Kitts born writer was back in York­shire, the county where he grew up, and is cel­e­brated as one of our finest writers, but he clearly had a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with one of the many places he calls home.

The Leeds United sup­porter told me: “Leeds is the place I learned to read, write, play foot­ball, the place I was first called a nig­ger, the place I had my first kiss.”

These com­plex emo­tions are brought to bear in Colour Me English, the writer’s lat­est book which is a col­lec­tion of his es­says deal­ing with no­tions of iden­tity and be­long­ing. The es­says are uni­ver­sally as cor­us­cat­ingly bright and emo­tion­ally com­plex as his de­scrip­tion of what Leeds means to him was to me four years ago.

The ti­tle of the es­say col­lec­tion is taken from the open­ing piece in which Phillips emo­tion­ally re­counts sto­ries which tap into the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence as the young boy, des­tined to be­come a pow­er­ful writer, saw them.

The cat­a­lyst for a young Phillips ex­am­in­ing his cul­tural iden­tity was the ar­rival of an­other eth­nic mi­nor­ity boy at Leeds Cen­tral High School.

Ali was “a small moon-faced brown boy in a brand new school blazer that was clearly too big for him, and which served only to ac­cen­tu­ate his diminu­tive stature”.

Ini­tially, Phillips won­ders if the ar­rival of this other brown face might her­ald some sort of sea change. He even­tu­ally de­cides that “we might be en­dur­ing some of the same dif­fi­cul­ties be­cause of our pig­men­ta­tion, there was a clear cul­tural dif­fer­ence which meant that while I was able to find a way to anx­iously par­tic­i­pate in Bri­tish life... Ali was en­dur­ing the type of hos­til­ity that ren­ders any thoughts of par­tic­i­pa­tion a dis­tant and de­cid­edly un­likely dream”.

It is writ­ing like this, brave, bold and with a sear­ing clar­ity, that moved the Mail on Sun­day to call Phillips an al­pha-class writer – and this col­lec­tion proves the phrase over and over. The mus­cu­lar­ity of the writ­ing is per­haps the most last­ing im­pres­sion, which be­gins with his thoughts of grow­ing up black in Eng­land – “as a help­ful teacher once told me, ‘You’ve just been left in the oven a bit longer, that’s all, love’.” It takes in an mov­ing rec­ol­lec­tion of the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks – when Phillips was liv­ing in New York – and me­an­ders around var­i­ous top­ics from trav­els to coun­tries around the world to a cel­e­bra­tion of Luther Van­dross.

Some­how Phillips al­ways comes back to the per­sonal, mak­ing this es­say col­lec­tion a deeply im­pres­sive, in­ti­mate and epic col­lage of work.

CEL­E­BRATED AU­THOR: Caryl Phillips whose new col­lec­tion of es­says, Colour Me English, is out now.

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