Caryl Phillips: “the arts are the window through which we see ourselves”

The reflections of British-Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips, as told to Lisa Allen-Agostini

Caryl Philips. Photograph by Laurent Denimal

I was born in St Kitts in 1958, at a time when Caribbean people were migrating to Britain in terrific numbers. My parents were very young, in their early 20s, and they decided to go to England for all those opportunities: education, the possibility of more money, better economic prospects. I left as a piece of portable luggage in their arms and wound up in Britain as a four-month-old kid. I grew up in Britain without any visual memory of the Caribbean. What I had was a notion of the cooking, the accent in the house, a total obsession with cricket on the radio and the TV as a kid.

Basically, I was growing up as an ordinary English kid with an extraordinary background, being an immigrant. Leeds did have a significant West Indian population, but the dominant ethos of Leeds was a bonding around working-class identity. Obviously that embraces most – not all, but most – West Indian people, but it doesn’t include the whole nature of their identity.

I went to normal state schools in England, always with a sense, larger and larger as a child, that I didn’t really fit in. I think all youngsters develop anxieties about identity, but if you’re an immigrant from the Caribbean but you’ve never seen the Caribbean, who feels British in some ways but doesn’t feel British in many other ways, it’s not always an easy passage.

All of which eventually contributed to the most important decision I made, which was, after going to university in England, to save up and come and actually physically see the Caribbean, visit St Kitts, in 1980. I’d decided I wanted to be a writer, but something told me that until I could understand it in a much more visceral and visual way, something about my own past…until I understood that place, I was never going to fully understand myself. And if you don’t understand yourself you can’t really write properly.

People often say, “You’re quite productive”, because I am publishing a book every couple of years; three years don’t usually go by without a book. I don’t consider myself productive, I consider myself a) lucky that I have something to say, and b) lucky that somebody’s willing to publish what I have to say. I don’t take those things for granted, I don’t take the imagination for granted, because everybody has their season. I feel very lucky that my imagination hasn’t run dry yet. Perhaps it will, and I hope if that happens, I will – with some dignity – hang up the pen and do something else.

The only reason I write is because I have something to say. If I didn’t have something to say I wouldn’t do it, because it’s too difficult. You have to construct your life around it, it’s not a part-time job, it’s not something you do as a hobby. It’s very frustrating, it’s very lonely. It’s certainly not a team sport. You spend unhealthy amounts of time sitting in a room by yourself, scratching your head, wondering how on earth you’re going to cover this sheet of paper and cognisant of the fact that other people are doing much more interesting things, even if it’s only down in the bar watching the game.

I’m not sure if the process of writing has led me to any place of real knowledge and understanding. I think if that had happened then perhaps I’d stop writing. I’d like to think that with every book I’ve finished, I’ve reached a place where I’ve figured something out about the human condition or the complexity of who we are in particular social situations. And inevitably, soon after I’ll see something, or I’ll read something, or I’ll watch a news story on TV, and I’ll realise that it’s happening again, a new version of the same old problem.

The development of the arts in general is incredibly important to people’s sense of who they are, it’s the window through which we see ourselves and through which the world is going to peer at us. I see all the arts in the Caribbean and I see the same problem across all of them, which is the tremendous amount of talent throughout the region and underfunding or mismanaged funding to support and nurture that talent. It’s too late to be arguing we’re a developing part of the world, therefore our capital needs to go to schools, hospitals, roads, bridges. Yes, it does, but the arts are also a vital part of our society and some of those tax dollars should be put to support the arts and the artist, because if they’re not, two things happen: first, the artists will leave and they will become adjuncts of other people’s national culture; secondly, we’re not going to look critically at ourselves. The politicians are not going to hold up a window for us to see ourselves closely.

There’s a slow decay which begins to burrow into the soul of the society if we lose artists. I’m worried because the society then really doesn’t have a critical mirror through which to look at itself. I saw the new performing arts centre [the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port of Spain] and I think, as some people have already discovered, the arts are not nourished by buildings. The arts are based on artists. Throw the money at the artist, not the building.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips is the author of ten novels, the latest of which, In the Falling Snow, was published in 2009. He is also the author of two non-fiction books and editor of two anthologies.

Phillips won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for A Distant Shore, and his book Crossing the River won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. He wrote screenplays for the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur and for Playing Away.

He is Professor of English at Yale University and his honours include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Martin Luther King Memorial Prize.