Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Cosmopolitanism and Subversion of 'Home' in Caryl Phillips's A Distant Shore

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Cosmopolitanism and Subversion of 'Home' in Caryl Phillips's A Distant Shore

Article excerpt

The works of Caryl Phillips have largely been approached from post-colonial theoretical perspectives, a trend which appears entirely appropriate given their recurrent themes of immigration, ethnic discrimination and the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, in some of Phillips's more recent work, such as A Distant Shore (2003), one can observe preoccupations with issues that strongly resonate with the modern cosmopolitan literary tradition. The analysis below contends that A Distant Shore represents a change of direction in Phillips's oeuvre towards a formally less experimental but thematically more cosmopolitan form of writing that sets out to subvert and redefine the idea of 'home'. In the novels that precede it - Higher Ground (1989), Crossing the River (1993) and The Nature of Blood (1997) - Phillips employs experimental narrative structures that interweave disparate voices from different places and historical periods. While each voice in these works relates a separate set of experiences caused by different historical circumstances, they echo each other in their themes of exile, displacement and emotional trauma. In Higher Ground we hear the stories of a West African ex-slave, an incarcerated African American convict, and a young Jewish Holocaust survivor. In Crossing the River we observe an emancipated slave on a doomed 'civilizing' mission to Liberia, an elderly African American woman fleeing slavery, and an ill-fated love affair between an African American Serviceman and a British woman during World War II. With The Nature of Blood, Phillips more controversially juxtaposes the experiences of, among others, an emancipated African slave and a Jewish Holocaust survivor, both of whom struggle to adjust to life in societies in which they are considered outsiders.

A salient effect of these juxtapositions is to draw attention to familiar patterns in history that cause human suffering: prejudice, xenophobia and a reactionary fear of the other. In an excellent comparative essay on Higher Ground and The Nature of Blood, Stef Craps notes that the narratives of both novels exude humanist and cosmopolitan principles because they 'invite the reader to recognize a common human essence that persists across space and time'.1 Although Craps does not examine A Distant Shore in his essay, these arguments are equally applicable to the latter novel, which also juxtaposes stories of human isolation and trauma. However, it is a much more formally conventional piece of work, with the two chief narrative threads converging largely on a single historical moment, mostly within the same geographical space. Furthermore, the novel is predominantly concerned with depicting a particular type of suffering resulting from static and reactionary conceptions of belonging at the individual, familial, and national levels. Indeed, the discussion that follows contends that an important effect of this focus is to critique the various scales of place-based loyalty in order to promote a critical cosmopolitan conception of home - what Phillips himself has called a 'more fluid' idea of human identity.2 This is achieved by undermining the very impulses that inform all exclusive notions of community, from the national to the regional and tribal levels.

Before the manner in which the novel achieves this is explained, the capacity in which the term 'cosmopolitan' will be used is first discussed. Although work in the field of cosmopolitan thought has gained force in recent years, it has been embraced and applied in a broad variety of disciplines, from sociology and political philosophy to cultural theory and literary criticism. The term therefore remains somewhat nebulous and at times frustratingly elusive. What is more, this elusiveness appears to be not just a bewildering concomitant of cosmopolitan thought, but an integral component of the theory itself. We can, of course, identify a number of traits and preoccupations that distinguish cosmopolitanism from other fields of thought. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.