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.
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.