- Introduction:Thinking Caryl Phillips Out of the Box
In 1979, I started to write because I had something to say. I had no desire to be either famous or to become a celebrity. I still have no desire to embrace either fame or celebrity. These are terrible accidents that can destroy the privacy of a writer's life and impair his ability to see clearly.Caryl Phillips, "Preamble" 7–8
This extract from Caryl Phillips' notebooks, which he read at a conference held in his honour in 2006, summarizes some of the major ideas contained in his contribution to this special issue of ARIEL devoted to his wide-ranging body of writing, which includes ten novels, five non-fiction books, and several plays and scripts. Although Phillips' essay in this issue is entitled "Nothing Personal"—a reference to a collaborative book published in the 1960s by writer James Baldwin and his photographer friend Richard Avedon—his piece is eminently personal. It provides indirect yet intimate insight into his status as a writer who seems, in this essay, to be more preoccupied by his artistic integrity than the complex background that has long been his hallmark in the field of postcolonial studies and which comprises his birth in Saint Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean, his early years in the north of England, his residence in the United States, and his interest in his African roots. Phillips' reflections on Baldwin's failure to manage his own celebrity in America following the civil rights movement give us access to the former's questions about the changes that have recently marked the publishing world, in which literary fiction is taken less seriously than it was when his first novel, The Final Passage, came out in 1985. Phillips analyses Baldwin's professional choices while never relinquishing respect for the writer who was [End Page 1] also a literary father figure to him, and he concludes with a refusal to take part in the "circus" (15) that the literary world has become, join the "self-promoting lap dance" that it entails (15), or, to borrow Baldwin's words, play the "dancing dog" (25). Although some readers might wonder about the relevance of this piece to ARIEL's postcolonial agenda, one should insist that it is written by an author who, by virtue of his origins, experiences, and work, definitely has his place in the postcolonial domain and has most often been read as "diasporic" or "migrant." It is also important to keep in mind that, in Phillips' writing, the biographical can often be read performatively as autobiographical (Yelin, "Plural Selves" 58) and what is left unsaid can, in many cases, prove more important than what is openly expressed. His texts, both fictional and non-fictional, therefore deserve to be read for their submerged meaning, a point obliquely raised by Louise Yelin's and Daria Tunca's contributions, which discuss "invisible presences" in Phillips' writing (Yelin 103) and his "poetics of (in)visibility" (Tunca 159), respectively. While "Nothing Personal" visibly tackles the vagaries of Baldwin's career as an artist and the changing face of a publishing world in crisis, it also crucially suggests—as do most of Phillips' texts—that we should learn the lessons of the past. Moreover, it intimates that fame and celebrity tend to make writers forget their origins. Of course, this turns out to be more problematic for artists who, like Baldwin and Phillips, write in a society in which they are viewed by some as outsiders, in terms of both race and class, and are therefore more likely to be discriminated against, even when they have made it to the "centre." Incidentally, this theme is also at the heart of Phillips' fascination with the character of Othello, as shown in two of his essays ("A Black European Success" and "'Rude Am I in My Speech'") and, most notably, his 1997 novel The Nature of Blood.
Like "Nothing Personal," the next two contributions to this special issue—tributes to Phillips by fellow writers Robert Antoni and Johny Pitts—highlight the centrality of literary friendships and intergenerational relationships in Phillips' development as an artist. In "The Enigma of...