Caryl Phillips’s 11th novel nods to Emily Brontë, but its subject is really the Yorkshire landscape of his childhood. Francesca Wade spoke to him for this article in London’s Telegraph.
‘When I walk into a bookshop,” Caryl Phillips tells me with a glint in his eye, “I don’t know if I’m going to be in British Literature, or if there’s going to be a section called Black Literature and I’m going to be there. Or sometimes they have a section called Caribbean Literature. And then, if they don’t look at my picture, they might think I’m a woman, and I might be in Women’s Literature.”
It’s peculiar that a writer whose literary output revolves around themes of identity, belonging and exclusion should be so often misclassified himself. Since his prize-winning debut, The Final Passage, in 1985, Phillips, 57, has been producing lyrical fiction and essays, which continually return to questions of race and migration. His best-known novel, Crossing the River, was shortlisted for the Booker and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1993, the same year Phillips was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, alongside writers such as Jeannette Winterson and Alan Hollinghurst. I meet him in the Bloomsbury basement of his UK publisher – a bland conference room which is in stark contrast to this lively writer who fills the room with his down-to-earth presence.
We are here to talk about his 11th novel, The Lost Child, a richly allusive, elliptical book which, like its author, is difficult to label. It is presented as a recasting of Wuthering Heights focused on the young Heathcliff, in the tradition of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and J M Coetzee’s Foe, intertwined with a modern story about a single mother living on a Yorkshire estate. But the Heathcliff story is only a short framing device for the main narrative: the book’s blurb can be seen as yet another attempt to categorise Phillips, as he acknowledges with a smile. “I think it’s a bit easier if you can say the book is in conversation with a book you’ve heard of. Even if you’ve never read Wuthering Heights, you sort of know who Heathcliff is, you sort of know who Kate Bush is.” In reality, Phillips’s literary dialogue with Wuthering Heights began with the rugged Yorkshire landscape.
“I grew up with the Yorkshire moors around the corner,” he says. “And the thing about the Yorkshire moors when I was growing up [in the Sixties] was that you associated them with the Moors murders, with Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. There was some understanding that it was a really sinister place. And another childhood in the North of England that was very much traumatised by the moors was Heathcliff’s. So I began in the more contemporary story; then I just kept thinking about that landscape and what it has meant historically. And when you’re there, it probably looks exactly, without the motorway, as it did 200 years ago. It’s bleak, it’s beautiful. So, in my mind, visually there’s a perfect connection across a couple of centuries. If you were to plonk those characters from the beginning of the 19th century in that landscape [now], they would recognise it.”
Aside from the Heathcliff sections, there’s a chapter in the middle intriguingly narrated by Emily Brontë, who is being cared for on her deathbed by Charlotte, both yearning for another lost child, their alcoholic brother Branwell. But most of The Lost Child follows the more modern characters – defiant Monica, who dropped out of Oxford to marry an idealistic Caribbean student; her gruff father, who tries to connect with his daughter but can’t bring himself to approve of her marriage; her children Ben and Tommy. As Monica grows estranged from husband and parents, her sons are left to navigate tough schools, foster homes and the advances of Derek Evans, a birdwatching, anorak-wearing reflection of Ian Brady. These characters are, Phillips agrees, in some loose ways refractions of those from the two historical sections. Reverberating traumas connect all three plot strands: the loss (or gain) of a sibling; family illness; and difficult relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters.
“The more I began to scribble on the book,” Phillips says, “the more I realised that what I was really dealing with was my own concern with fractured family. People find it hard to talk to their siblings. Parents find it hard to talk to their kids. And when you throw in questions of migration, or class, or race, or religion, any kind of difference can bump that relationship completely out of sync. A young woman comes home and tells her parents she’s marrying Mohammed; a 25-year-old relationship can go out the window. A guy comes home and says he’s marrying Tommy; whatever love or sense of protectiveness they’ve had is suddenly compromised. There are all sorts of tectonic plates that we walk across thinking that they’re solid, but they can slip.”
Born in St Kitts in 1958, Phillips came to England when he was four months old with his parents, a railway worker and a tax office clerk (his first novel portrayed a young woman leaving the Caribbean to start a new life with her husband and child in Fifties Britain). “The migration that affected me greatly was obviously the one I don’t remember,” says Phillips, who travelled to St Kitts for the first time in 1980, feeling that in order to write about other people’s lives, he ought to know a little more about his own. “But the migration that I do remember, that affected me equally greatly, was my migration from the North [of England] to the South.”
The Lost Child deals subtly with nuances of regional identity, which are strongly linked to class. The Brontës’ father tries to hide his Irish accent; Monica follows Phillips’s own path from Leeds to Oxford, where she feels like “a peculiar northern flower in an ominously arid southern landscape”. Phillips’s own accent betrays hints of both Leeds and New York. “In some ways,” he says, “the biggest shock in my life was going to university at 18 and realising that it hadn’t really occurred to me that I’d had a working-class upbringing. I was reading something by Alan Bennett about going from Leeds to Oxford, and his feeling of being an outsider, and I thought, ’That’s how I felt.’ It’s nothing to do with race; it was a real feeling of class.” Oxford, where he studied English literature, was also the first place Phillips encountered “middle-class black people”, often from overseas, who “felt very comfortable being Ugandan, being American, and couldn’t understand the anxieties that my generation felt about being British.”
After leaving university, Phillips reviewed books and theatre for Time Out, had his own plays produced and wrote radio dramas for the BBC before being picked up by Faber, who also published young writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Hanif Kureishi (“It felt like the youth team with these terrific senior writers like Milan Kundera and Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney”). After a period dividing his time between Britain, St Kitts and the United States, he settled – apparently semi-accidentally – in New York, and is now a professor of English at Yale. But he still listens to Radio 4 and watches the Premier League, and his novels return again and again to Britain, which is, as he puts it, “the country where I learnt to read and write, the country where I was first able to express myself, and the country which bequeathed on me whatever anxieties I’m now trying to transmute into words”.
We’re on to our second pot of coffee when Phillips assures me he’s not planning a stab at writing the Great Novel of Obama’s America: with so many others writing about US society, he doesn’t feel “necessary” there, as a writer. Rather, he feels compelled to address “the confusions that people have around British identity and British belonging”. Phillips laughs as he recalls seeing television footage of the Duke of Cambridge visiting Japan as Britain’s representative. “This isn’t Britain. This really is not what you’re going to find when you get to London. If you’re going to write about what is contemporary Britain, what are the pressures incumbent upon somebody living a life in Britain, whether it’s in 1957 or 2015 or 1817, it’s generally to do with this very powerful mythology we have about ourselves that doesn’t square with reality.
“As long as there’s a gap between what we’re seeing around us and what we know is being exported and advertised,” he says, “there’s plenty of work for writers of all backgrounds to do.”
The Lost Child is published next month by Oneworld. Caryl Phillips will talk to Blake Morrison at Waterstones Piccadilly on April 21; waterstones.com