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Caryl Phillips, Author of the Day at the 2019 London Book Fair
The author talks to us about Transatlantic culture
Thank you for talking with us Caryl. You've lived a particularly Transatlantic life - born in St Kitts, moved to England when young, and you're currently a Professor of English at Yale University in the States. How important have your experiences in countries on both sides of the Atlantic been to your life and work?
My experiences on both sides of the Atlantic have shaped my life and my work. Of course, they continue to do so.
The role of diaspora in the human experience plays a key part in your works - what was it about this aspect of history, particularly the African slave trade, that stood out to you as an important matter to explore?
Well, this was a subject (or issue) that was not discussed at school, or explored in the media, when I as at school in Britain. I knew it was important because it had not only contributed to the shape of my life, but it had shaped Britain and informed the history of the country. Luckily, things have now changed and questions about the diaspora and the Atlantic Slave Trade are now explored in schools and the media.
In exploring the subject, you've written non-fiction and fiction works - how do you relate to the subject as a writer when working on a fictional or non-fiction basis, and do you feel one style is more accessible than the other as a way of exploring the Transatlantic slave trade and its impact?
When I write fiction I'm absent - off-stage, if you like. Obviously, in non-fiction it's a little more difficult to hide in the wings.
Many of our readers are Transatlantically mobile, and so questions of identity are really important - would you recommend writing as a way of negotiating with one's sense of self?
People write for a variety of reasons, including trying to come to terms with their own history - in both a personal and broader social sense. However, I wouldn't recommend writing to anybody. If a person feels compelled to write then they are going to do so irrespective of what I might say.
In 2011 in an interview with the New Statesman, you mentioned that you "take more interest in British politics" - a lot has changed since 2011! How do you feel the big events since 2011 have affected our sense of culture and identity in the UK and US?
A lot has changed since 2011, and I'm interested in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Many policies are having a powerful, and not always advantageous, effect on culture and identity. This is true in both the UK and the US.
In both the UK and the US, there have been lots of debates on how we negotiate with the history of the slave trade - for example how appropriate statues of and buildings named after historical figures are. What is your view?
I don't think it's helpful to have a 'position' on an issue this complex. Each case has to be approached individually. How we shape and define our history is one of the great challenges going forward, and the naming of statues and buildings plays an important role in how we see ourselves.
How do you feel society should reflect on the history of issues like the slave trade?
In as many ways as possible. A full, and honest, engagement with history is evidence of a healthy society.
You'll be in the UK this March as part of the London Book Fair - how does it feel to be an "Author of the Day" at the fair?
I don't know; I've never been to the London Book Fair. This will be my first time there.
What's next on the horizon for you - are you working on any new books or projects?
No, I'm reading and thinking. Perhaps some characters will emerge who might require a voice.
Caryl Phillips is Author of the Day at The London Book Fair 2019. He is author of sixteen works of fiction and non-fiction, including his latest novel A View of the Empire at Sunset (Vintage).