Interview: Songmaster of the Diaspora

Article excerpt

Caryl Phillips is a soul in transit. He seems to exist in a state of chronic flight and restless travel. He spent Christmas cruising the Caribbean researching locations for his next book, Atlantic Sound, about the 18th- century slave trade. Earlier, he was in Singapore chairing something for the British Council. He talks with animation about his recent trip to the Amazon with the poet Glyn Maxwell. He flew in from New York to Holland last week, to see his Dutch publishers, and landed in London on Monday, to perform the publicity dance routine for his new novel The Nature of Blood.

Becalmed briefly in the bar at the Russell Hotel, round the corner from his publishers, Faber & Faber, he extends a languid hand to his glass of indifferent Cotes de Roussillon. He is a very cool operator, dramatically dressed from collar to toe in layers of dark black, if there is such a thing. His shirt collar is buttoned to the neck but tieless in the best Versace style. His hair is cropped like a bouncer's, and he has long abandoned the professorial specs he once wore. Now that he is a professor - of English and Creative Writing at Amherst College, Massachussetts - he looks like a model for Paul Smith tailoring. It is no wonder he has an awesome reputation as a boudoir swordsman. The only false note is struck by his accent, which remains flatly and defiantly stuck in Yorkshire, in all its Geoffrey Boycott splendour.

All his whizzing around the globe is quite appropriate for a writer whose big themes are displacement, diaspora, the quality of being a stranger, the unfamiliarity of the concept of home. Although his writing career began in the millpond of naturalism, with The Final Passage (1985), an autobiographical account of his parents' emigration from the West Indes to England in the late Fifties, he gradually outgrew the image of the bookish immigrant and became instead the songmaster of the diaspora. With Cambridge (1991) he delved into the past and filled it with voices: principally those of a spinsterish Victorian governess travelling to a Caribbean plantation, and of Cambridge, the slave who becomes an English gentleman before reverting to slavery at the hands of Fate, pirates and history. It was a dazzling act of historical reclamation, trumped by Crossing the River (1993), an epic lament for the children of slavery, which crosses continents and generations to tell how the lost blacks turned up in obscure corners of Western history over two centuries. The quality of the writing - the haunted, floating voices from an unknown oral history - carried it on to the Booker shortlist. Now comes The Nature of Blood, in which Phillips forsakes his chosen territory of black deracination, and chooses instead to write about the Jews. "Yeah, I know, writing fiction about the Holocaust is a minefield," he said, "not because I happen not to be Jewish, but because of the subject itself. Cynthia Ozick wrote a marvellous essay saying there are so many revisionist historians around - so many arseholes - claiming the Holocaust was a fiction, that to write fiction about it is playing into their hands." But why was he taking on the subject at all? What was he doing writing about death camps and gas chambers? He smiled at such PC fastidiousness. "I get a lot of those questions from audiences in Canada and America. But I just don't believe in what the Americans call `cultural appropriation'. My response to it is rather aloof and snotty. I just say, Where do we stop? Do we tell Thomas Hardy he shouldn't write about Tess because he's a bloke? Or tell William Styron he shouldn't write The Confessions of Nat Turner because he isn't a slave?" The Nature of Blood is bound to provoke raised eyebrows, raised hackles and a lot of bewilderment. It tells, in parallel and criss-crossing narratives, the stories of Eva, a young Jewish girl in an unnamed European country, as the noose of Nazi threat gradually tightens round her every day; of the Jews of 15th-century Portobuffole, near Venice, an apparently assimilated community of races where the disappearance of a young boy is barbarically punished behind a veneer of logic, legality and common propriety; of the great Othello, Shakespeare's black Moorish soldier who commands the Venetian army and courts the lovely Desdemona; of a straggle of Zionist Europeans camped under British arms in Cyprus, dreaming of Palestine; and of other, unintegrated voices. …