Img

Caryl Phillips

1958

13 March: CP born on St. Kitts.

July: His parents emigrate to Leeds when CP is four months old. They are part of the 125,000 workers of the Windrush generation of West Indians, lured to fill vacant jobs in England.

August-September: The Notting Hill Race Riots occur. White working-class "Teddy Boys" had for years been hostile towards black families in the area, a situation exploited and inflamed by groups such as Oswald Mosley's Union Movement and other far-right groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists, the National Labour Party, and the White Defence League, who urged disaffected white residents to "Keep Britain White."

1966

CP's parents divorce; his mother, Lillian, has custody of CP and his three brothers.

Lillian falls ill, and the four brothers are put into foster care for several years, living with multiple families.

1968

Lillian regains custody of the boys, for four years, until she falls ill again.

1972

CP lives with his father for the next four years. They do not get along.

1973

CP writes his first story, after seeing a documentary about Anne Frank.

1976

Accepted at Queen's College, Oxford, where he reads English. He directs six plays within fifteen months.

30 August: Rioting at the Notting Hill Carnival (which was established in response to the earlier anti-black, anti-immigrant riots). But this time it is sparked by the arbitrary harassment and arrests of young black attendees by police. Over 1,600 police officers were present, which is an overwhelming number for such an event. The actual riots were the fiercest and most protracted street battles on mainland Britain since the 1936 Cable Street riots.

While at Oxford, CP takes a Greyhound bus trip across the US, deciding to become a writer after reading Richard Wright's Native Son by the Pacific.

1976-1979

CP spends his summers as a stagehand at the Edinburgh Festival.

1979

CP is graduated from Oxford.

Margaret Thatcher comes to power in Great Britain.

1980

CP spends a year in Edinburgh, writing a play, Strange Fruit, which is produced at the Sheffield Crucible.

With the royalties from this play, CP visits St. Kitts for the first time.

CP moves to London, where two more plays, Where There is Darkness, and The Shelter, are staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in the early 1980s.

1985

CP's first novel, The Final Passage, is published. It addresses the Caribbean migration to Britain that his parents were a part of.

In her village of St. Patrick's, Leila Preston has no prospects, a young son, and a husband, Michael, who seems to prefer the company of his mistress. So when her ailing mother travels to England for medical care, Leila decides to follow her. The novel follows the Prestons' outward voyage—and their bewildered attempt to find a home in a country whose rooming houses post signs announcing "No vacancies for coloureds"—a portrait of hope and dislocation.

CP wins The Malcolm X Prize for Literature.

1986

A State of Independence is published. It comes out of CP's trip to St. Kitts.

Bertram Francis is a British West Indian who has spent the last twenty years away from the Caribbean. Now Independence is looming and he is going back to see the end of colonial rule. But the visit that Francis expects to be a nostalgic homecoming, and a celebration of Third World nationhood, turns sour. His old friends ignore him; his schoolfellows, now in office, have become corrupted; and in the last days of British rule, Bertram Francis slowly has to come to terms with the fact that he is now an outsider in the island he still considers to be home.
1987

CP wins the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for The European Tribe, a non-fiction account of his travels in Europe, where he discovers that the natural loneliness and confusion inherent in long journeys collide with the bigotry of the "European Tribe"—a global community of whites caught up in an unyielding, Eurocentric history.

1989

Higher Ground is published.

In Africa, a man recounts his days within the grinding machine of the slave trade. Though spared manacles and a hellish ocean crossing by assisting in the degrading business, he is forced finally to confront an inescapable, vicious paradox: in the eyes of both his masters and his own people he is a pariah—less than a man.
     In America, Rudi Williams serves life imprisonment in a Southern jail, brutalized by his guards and isolated from his fellow inmates. Through his letters he writes home to explain himself, and to educate his family in the radical politics of the emerging Black Movement, we come to know a young man whose refusal to bow to the system not only upholds the remnants of his dignity but also seals his fate.
     In Europe, where the wounds of war are still open, a woman finds that she cannot, after all, escape the ghetto. For in England, as formerly in Poland, the world outside is hostile, while inside, in her heart, her life is one of stifling fear and dreadful seclusion.
     A novel in three parts, bound together with passion and sorrow, Higher Ground forms a haunting triptych of the dispossessed and the abandoned—of those whose very humanity is being stripped away.
1990

CP begins as a Writer-in-Residence at Amherst College. By 1997 he will be a Professor of English there.

1991

Cambridge is published.

Two worlds, connected by the insult of slavery, are explored in this powerful novel: the Caribbean plantation hierarchy in its every shade of prejudice; and England, at a time when the abolition of slavery was official, but London "bird and beast shops" still sold African children like pets. It is a shocking and unforgettable account of inhumanity—of a self-pronounced Christian nation resistant to black religious conversion because all people might suddenly recognise that they were equal under God.
1992

CP is named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

1993

Crossing the River is published. It is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and wins the Lannan Literary Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

An evocation of the scattered offspring of Africa. A voice speaking out of a distant past describes the consequences of his desperation: his daughter and two sons condemned to the hold of an English slave ship bound for America in 1753.
     Here are the stories of these children: Nash, Martha, and Travis. Yet as the narrative unfolds, we come to understand that although they are his children, they are also all of slavery's children: Nash, returning to Africa in the 1830s a Christian-educated adult, a missionary to the new territory of Liberia, slowly becoming a part of the world his "masters" intended him to convert... Martha, her own daughter and husband sold away from her, settling in the American "wild west" of the late nineteenth century, freeing herself from slavery but never from the weight of "such misery in one life" ...Travis, an American GI stationed in a small Yorkshire village during the Second World War, finding an acceptance in England that he doesn't know at home and that he may not be able to promise his half-English son...
     These brilliantly resonant stories—along with the slave ship captain's journal and the lamentations of the children's father—become a "many-tongued chorus of common memory" so vivid and powerful that it bridges the gaps between continents and centuries, inextricably linking the many generations of the African diaspora, one to the other.
1997

The Nature of Blood is published.

At the center of The Nature of Blood is a young woman, a Nazi death camp survivor, devastated by the loss of everyone she loves.
     A German Jewish girl whose life and death are shaped by the atrocities of World War II...her uncle, who undermines the sureties of his own life in order to fight for Israeli statehood...the Jews of the sixteenth century Venetian ghetto, trapped both literally and figuratively by rabid prejudice...Othello, newly arrived in Venice...a young Ethiopian Jewish woman resettled in Israel: these are the people whose stories fill The Nature of Blood and who, despite their clear differences, share the weight of memory as burden and sustenance.
     Their individual voices speak out profound depths of feeling about their worlds and their experiences of persecution, courage, and betrayal. But they move beyond the particulars of their stories as well, their voices twining in an intricate narrative fabric that tells the larger story of ethnic hatred and racism; of the power of faith and the shock of its loss; of the cruel patterns of repetition that mar humankind's history, and the crystalline significance of each individual within its sweep.
1998

CP becomes Professor of English and Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order, Barnard College, Columbia University.

2003

A Distant Shore is on the Booker Prize longlist.

The story of an African man and an English woman whose hidden lives, and worlds, are revealed in their fragile, fateful connection.
     The English village is a place where people come to lick their wounds. Dorothy has walked away from a bad thirty-year marriage, an affair gone sour, and a dangerous obsession. Unable to cope with the change from the civility of life as a teacher in a grammar school to the democratic brutishness of a comprehensive, she has taken early retirement. Between her visits to the doctor and the music lessons she gives to bored teenagers, she is trying to rebuild a life.
     Her neighbour seems concerned to conceal his past behind a façade of impeccable manners. It's not immediately clear why Solomon is living in the village, but his African origin suggests a complex history that is at odds with his dull routine of washing the car and making short trips to the local supermarket. Though all he has in common with the English is a shared language, it soon becomes clear that Solomon hopes that his new country will provide him with a safe haven in which he might enjoy the decent behaviour and graciousness that he believes the English habitually practice. Gradually Solomon and Dorothy establish a form of comfort in each other's presence that alleviates the isolation they both feel.
2004

A Distant Shore is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, The Wright/Hurston Legacy Award, and the National Book Circle Critics Award in Fiction. It wins the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book).

2005

CP is a Professor of English at Yale University.

Dancing in the Dark is published.

A re-imagining of the remarkable, tragic, little-known life of Bert Williams (1874-1922), the first black entertainer in the United States to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.
     Even as an eleven-year-old child living in Southern California in the late 1800s—his family had recently emigrated from the Bahamas—Bert Williams understood that he had to "learn the role that America had set aside for him." At the age of twenty-two, after years of struggling for success on the stage, he made the radical decision to do his own "impersonation of a negro": he donned blackface makeup and played the "coon" as a character. Behind this mask, he became a Broadway headliner, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies for eight years and leading his own musical theater company—as influential a comedian as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields.
     Williams was a man of great intelligence, elegance, and dignity, but the barriers he broke down onstage continued to bear heavily on his personal life, and the contradictions between the man he was and the character he played were increasingly irreconcilable for him. W. C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew," and it is this dichotomy at Williams's core that Caryl Phillips illuminates in a richly nuanced, brilliantly written narrative.
     The story of a single life, Dancing in the Dark is also a novel about the tragedies of race and identity, and the perils of self-invention, that have long plagued American culture.
2006

CP is made an Honorary Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford.

2009

In The Falling Snow published.

The story of a man at a turning point in his life and of a society moving from one idea of itself to another.
     Keith—born in the 1960s to immigrant West Indian parents, raised primarily by his white stepmother—is in his forties, a social worker heading a Race Equality unit in London whose life has come undone: separated from his wife of twenty years (her family "let her go" for marrying a black man); kept at arm's length by his seventeen-year-old son; estranged from his father; accused of harassment by a coworker. And beneath it all, a desperate feeling that his work and he himself are no longer relevant.
     Moving between past and present, the narrative uncovers the particulars of class, background, temperament, and desire that have brought Keith to this moment; and reveals how, often unwittingly, his wife, his son, and his father help him grasp the breadth of the changes that have occurred around him—and what those changes will require of him.
2011

CP is named a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.

2015

The Lost Child is published.

A sweeping story of orphans and outcasts haunted by the past and fighting to liberate themselves from it.
     At the center of the novel is Monica Johnson—cut off from her parents after falling in love with a foreigner—and her bitter struggle to raise her sons in the shadow of the wild moors of the north of England. Phillips intertwines Monica's modern narrative with the childhood of one of literature's most enigmatic lost boys as he conjures young Heathcliff, the antihero of Wuthering Heights, and his ragged existence before Mr. Earnshaw brought him home to his family.
     A true literary feat, The Lost Child recovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by transforming a classic into a profound story that is singularly its own.
2016

The Lost Child is a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Fiction.