Sunday, February 22, 2004

History from his perspective

Slavery touches all America, says writer chosen for community reading project

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Caryl Phillips is the latest On The Same Page author.
(AP photo)
Not only does Caryl Phillips run two marathons a year, he has climbed Africa's highest peak, 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, three times.

"The first time I did it I vowed I'd never do it again," the 45-year-old author says. "Then I did it again two years ago. And then like a fool I did it again last month."

As a writer, Phillips has chosen an equally challenging path. Racial themes permeate his seven novels, which Time magazine has said "make up one of literature's great meditations on race and identity."

His 1993 novel Crossing the River (Vintage Books; $13) - an exploration of the painful, lingering effects of slavery - has been chosen for Cincinnati's 2004 On the Same Page community-wide reading project. Through discussion groups and meet-the-author forums, the project aims to inspire conversations on race, diversity and issues of freedom.

"It's a great compliment to have a community galvanize to read the book," says Phillips, a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Crossing the River was a finalist for Britain's prestigious annual Booker Prize.

The novel opens in 18th-century Africa with a desperate father selling his three children into slavery. From there, Phillips takes readers on a wrenching journey. In separate narratives, he tracks those children and their descendants across "the river," which refers to the Atlantic.

Phillips' characters in the book include a mid-19th century freed slave who becomes a missionary in Liberia; a post-Civil War pioneer of the American West; and an American GI who meets a white Englishwoman during World War II.

Read more about the book, author on's On the Same Page section
Today is the launch of the third annual On the Same Page community-wide reading project.

This year's selections are Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips; and, for younger readers, Hush, by Jacqueline Woodson. The latter is the story of a young girl who enters a witness protection program and must come to terms with a new life.

The reading project began in spring 2002 when thousands of people read Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. Last year's choice, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, was paired with a book for younger readers, Marika, by Andrea Cheng.

The project's mission has remained the same: To build community and inspire discussion on race, tolerance and diversity through reading together.

• 11 a.m. March 30. Live broadcast from Channel 48 studios, 1223 Central Parkway, West End. Jacqueline Woodson will take questions from the studio audience, viewers at home and in school, and on the Web ( about Hush.

• 7 p.m. May 4, University of Cincinnati, Tangeman University Center, Great Hall. Free lecture by Caryl Phillips. A book signing will follow.

• 8 p.m. May 5. Live broadcast from Channel 48. Phillips will take questions from the studio audience, viewers, and on the Web about his work and Crossing the River.

For more information, call Sandy Bolek, (513) 369-3172.

Phillips, born in the West Indies and raised in England, has written several plays, as well as scripts for radio, television, theater and film. His writing has won numerous awards. He spoke by phone last week from Delray Beach, Fla., where he has a home.

You had a rough childhood you've described as "dysfunctional and traumatic." What's more, you grew up as one of the few blacks in a white working-class town. Do you let anger from those days spill into your writing?

I think anger is a completely useless emotion if you're going to be a writer. You can't afford to make it your predominant emotion because it's a self-immolating emotion. It burns inside of you. It does damage. So yes, one is frustrated and one wants change. But anger has to be transmuted into something positive.

What emotions do you draw on, then?

The primary emotion is an attempt to draw upon deep empathy. You're writing about people and trying to discover what motivates them. Therefore you have to imagine yourself into their shoes and into their lives. It's a sort of deep process of trying to slowly imagine yourself as somebody else.

Talk about how you chose to tell this story about the descendants of slaves.

The idea always was to try to give some idea of the breadth and width of this whole history, a history which is not just African-American history. It's a history of everybody in the West who, to some extent, has been touched by the Atlantic slave trade. It's our story. It's the story of the guy who owns the plantation. It's the story of the woman who falls in love with a black GI. It's the story of a slave ship captain trying to figure out how to reconcile the brutality of what's going on ... with the passions he has in his heart. I was trying to suggest that not only is it a broad story that sweeps across a couple of hundred years, but it weaves in and out between people who, at least on the surface, you wouldn't think have been touched by the ramifications of the Atlantic slave trade.

How does the story apply to today?

If I didn't think there were serious lingering effects from slavery that trouble us to this day, then I wouldn't have written the novel. The truth is that we are still grappling every day when we turn on the news. It's filtered, sometimes vaguely, sometimes very stridently, through the politics of race ... What is it with Janet Jackson (and the breast-baring incident)? Is it because she is black? Why didn't they make Britney (Spears) and Madonna apologize for that kiss? We're left as a society having to grapple with the ambiguities of race, the difficulties of race, and it all comes out of those seeds that were sewn a couple of hundred years ago ...

Why is it important for you to write about racial themes?

It's important for me to write about human themes, first of all. I find it very hard because of who I am and because of the world I live in to write about people without at least factoring in race and class to a certain extent.

In one of the novel's segments, you tell the story from the perspective of a white Englishwoman. Why?

Because I felt I understood her. To be honest, you're just grateful that any character is prepared to speak to you. And if they are, you just listen.

How do you get a character to speak to you?

If I knew that, I'd bottle it, sell it and make a whole bunch of money.

All your novels were historical novels, until "A Distant Shore" published in 2003. Why?

Sitting in history classes in school and watching history programs on television, my history - who I am - was never included ... So I think as a writer, I felt it necessary to almost write myself into history. It's necessary almost to challenge history and present an alternative, albeit it fictional, but nonetheless an alternative version of who and what I am.

Give an example of overlooked history you chose to include in "Crossing the River."

Certainly in the case of the Second World War, I studied history in school, went to university, graduated and read a lot of history books. And I was well into my 20s before I realized that the Americans actually sent two armies to Britain, a black one and a white one. How the hell did I miss that? Writing books is just another way of helping to redress some of the imbalance which has been handed down to us.

A good bit of the story is told through letters, a captain's logbook, and such. Talk about some of your storytelling techniques.

A lot of the techniques I'm using in fiction - switching from one point of view to another, changing narrator, changing point of view - are to suggest that you always have to be vigilant about who is telling the story. I don't really trust those narratives that begin with one voice or one point of view and continue throughout without any sense of restlessness or any sense that the authorial master voice has been challenged.

Is there a difference in the way white readers and black readers have responded to the book?

When I give readings, I haven't really discerned any major difference. The only thing is, toward the end of the novel I include Joyce (a white Englishwoman) as part of the family. I've heard from a couple of black people that they were a bit surprised, which I took as a synonym for disappointed. But as I've explained, it's important to understand that the African diaspora didn't just touch the lives of people of Africa.

What do you hope Cincinnati readers come away with?

First, I hope they come away moved by the plight of the individuals in the book. Second, I'd like people to come away with a fuller understanding of the mythologies of the histories that we just accept. Every day we do it. We have to understand that the history we are taught and the decisions that are made for us by others are not always correct, and they have consequences. And sometimes, as is the case with the individuals in this book, the consequences are not very palatable.


History from his perspective
Selection panel praises book's strong characters, focus on freedom

Top actors sign on for Festival season
Theater aims at love and war
Symphony, Pops invited back to Carnegie Hall
Fine Arts Fund Spotlight: Playhouse in the Park
ABC won't bank on 'Millionaire,' even if ratings hit gold
Super group Complexions makes local debut next Sunday
'Drood' cast has a clue about preparation
Demaline: Arts notes
Rau Collection masterpieces to be displayed in Dayton
800 more film screens get 'Passion'
Pointer Sisters, Lang, Liu headline Riverbend's 20th
Festival tackles tricky 'Rosencrantz'

Greater Cincinnati Benefits and Bashes
Up next

Anything can be used as bread pudding filling
Let the beignets roll

Get to it!