divendres, 28 d’agost de 2009


Arguably his most popular novel to date, Crossing the River exemplifies the restlessness with which its author is concerned. The novel dramatises the experience of diasporic dislocation by evoking a black Atlantic contact zone at which Africa, America and Europe uneasily encounter one another. Framed by the narrative of an African ancestor, Crossing the River details a series of 'crossings' or journeys. The opening section follows Nash, an emancipated slave, as he travels from America to Liberia and from 'The Pagan Coast to the interior. The second section centres on Martha, whose journey across America has come to a stand still, but whose memories of the past and dreams of the future evoke a series of arrivals and departures. The penultimate section conjures the trade routes of Captain James Hamilton, while in the final section a provincial Yorkshire landscape becomes the unlikely setting for a transatlantic black/white encounter during the war. In its serial accounts of journeying, (not to mention the journeying between journeys that the move from section to section of the novel inaugurate), Crossing the River shares certain similarities with the work of other key diasporic writers of the 1990s, including David Dabydeen and Salman Rushdie. Like Dabydeen, Phillips is interested in how narratives of slavery inform the contemporary migrant condition. Like Rushdie, Phillips is preoccupied by the rhetoric and narrative structure of migration, from the formal dislocations of Crossing the River, to the recurring images of vegetation roots and rootlessness running through his fiction as a whole.

The allegorical qualities of Phillips's carefully crafted prose are most tellingly present in recent fiction, such as The Nature of Blood. This novel centres on the survivor of a Nazi death camp, an enigmatic figure whose tale is entangled with those of others in a narrative that ranges from fifteenth century Venice to present day Israel. Beneath this dark tale of personal suffering and exile is a larger narrative of borderlands, crossings, movements and migrations. In the introduction to his recent selection of essays and journalism, A New World Order, there is a refrain which is reiterated through the collection as a whole: 'I am of, and not of, this place'. This ambivalent sentence captures the essence of Phillips's work, which is concerned with the tensions between home and the unhomely; between migration and settlement; strangeness and familiarity; arrival and departure. Phillips is a writer who appears most at home when he is away, journeying between places. Born in St. Kitts before moving to England, Phillips is a child of the Diaspora who has remarked that he wishes to be 'buried' in the Atlantic, at the crossroads between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean.

Finally, and as the historical range of his writing would seem to suggest, Phillips is a writer who refuses the idea that migration is merely a contemporary condition. In his brilliant edited collection, Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging, Phillips brings together 200 years of writing by 'outsiders' to Britain in a way that reveals the extent to which English literature has been 'shaped and influenced' by those beyond its shores for centuries.