A rare furrow of exasperation creases the brow of Caryl Phillips. It is the opening morning of a three-day writers' conference that Phillips has helped organize in Paris, and the rain is coming down in buckets. Worse, he has to shepherd a small pantheon of British and French authors from their hotel to the conference site, a converted factory in a mixed-race neighborhood four stops away on the Métro. But the eminences have lost their Métro tickets, so Phillips splashes off to hail some taxis. "It's like herding wild animals," he mutters. "Why is it that writers become helpless when somebody else is thinking for them? It's the last time I'll ever do this."
No, it won't. Phillips has organized conferences, moderated panels and given readings all over the world whenever some earnest outfit asks (in this case the nonprofit British Council). Not only is he one of the most accomplished black novelists writing in English, but he is fast becoming known as one of the most productive all-around men of letters anywhere.
Bénédicte Ledent, a Belgian academic who has produced a book and a website (www.carylphillips.com) about the man, thinks she has him figured out. "When people open a book by Caz, they want to read about race," she says. "What they find is the human condition." To Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican-born poet and performer who inspired a generation of black thinkers, "Caz is one of the greatest writers we have in Britain." Observes Valentine Cunningham, professor of English at Oxford University: "He can write about the most terrifyingly evil situations slavery, the Holocaust with the most incredible calmness."
Those qualities are on display in Phillips' seventh novel, A Distant Shore (Secker & Warburg; 312 pages). It's the story of Dorothy, a 55-year-old white teacher retired to the outskirts of a northern English village, and Solomon, a thirtyish black handyman who has fled there from a war-torn African country. "England has changed," Dorothy observes darkly in the novel's opening line, and the book neatly dissects what she sees as a decline in civility and standards in modern Britain a situation her less punctilious neighbors blame on immigration. When she grudgingly accepts Solomon's offer to drive her to weekly doctor's appointments, the community is scandalized. Though she resists his attempts at a merely platonic friendship, Solomon becomes the target of escalating violence. Dorothy, politely passive until it's too late to help him, drifts into madness.
Sound a little grim? "That's a fair point," concedes Phillips over lunch in a Paris bistro. "Some people say all my books are bleak. I went to Birmingham, Alabama, to make a TV documentary in 1983, 20 years after those little girls were killed in the church bombing. I came back profoundly despondent that so little had really changed. I knew from then on that whatever I wrote or said, the problem of race would linger long after my death." A Distant Shore does, however, move slightly forward: "It seems odd that it's taken me until now to set a novel in the present. The rest have been historical. I had to describe my own roots before I could deal with contemporary events."
Phillips' roots go back to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, where he was born above his grandmother's rumshop. His parents brought him to the British city of Leeds as an infant, and there he gained his accent, his enduring obsession with Leeds United football and his ear for the worries of the white working class. "Growing up in Leeds," he says, "was like every black-and-white British film you ever saw from the '60s, starring Tom Courtenay or Albert Finney and set in these dirty, cobbled northern streets, with the hero ending up on a train platform with a one-way ticket to London."
His ticket was to Oxford, where he studied English literature, discovered black writers notably Richard Wright and for the first time "met people who were confident. I'd grown up among people who were apologetic about themselves." Newly confident, he made his way to London and spent six years freelancing in penury for local magazines and broadcast outlets. He also met the self-exiled American novelist James Baldwin, who inspired him to be a professional author. "I loved his work, but to me it was more impressive that he was a black man in France, maintaining himself with dignity and earning a living as a writer." Phillips' first novel, The Final Passage, won the Malcolm X Prize in 1985. His fifth, Crossing the River, was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1994.
Today Phillips divides his time among Britain, St. Kitts and New York, where he holds a chair in English at Columbia University's Barnard College. He owns an apartment overlooking Central Park, is unmarried and plays a lot of golf. "To Americans I'm a total freak," he says with a chuckle. "I open my mouth, and they think I'm Alistair Cooke in blackface." He prefers teaching undergraduates because too many graduate students "want to be writers more than they want to write." Phillips isn't sure what he'll produce next, "but I'm trying to write about America for the first time, something about race and performance. Maybe fiction, maybe nonfiction."
He can do either, of course, and much else besides. Like his affectionately wicked impersonation of one of those eminent writers, delivered with just the right accent and body language, during a break at the Paris conference when the victim isn't looking. "Nice thing about Caz," says Oxford's Cunningham, "is that there's always a glint of mischief in his eye." That might seem odd to readers of his novels, which groan with squalid details of the slave trade, Nazi death camps, illegal immigration, police brutality and wasted lives. Phillips thinks his tangle of roots in the Caribbean, Leeds, Oxford and now America gives him the equanimity to say unpleasant things without losing perspective. "I have this ability to move on," he says. "My agent and publisher find it very strange." But surely all this shouldering of history's burdens takes a toll? "It gets heavier every year," he confesses. "I've often thought I wanted to stop writing, that it would be a relief not to be compelled to articulate something. I love to travel, and I'd sure be a lot better at golf. But I'm increasingly convinced I have something to say. And these stories must be told." Rain or shine, Caz will deliver.