Illuminating the Colonial Immigrant Experience

Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, writer Caryl Phillips visited with C. David Frankel's Script Analysis class that had read Phillips' play, The Shelter.

photo: Barbara Melendez | USF News



Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence Caryl Phillips spent a full and rewarding week with USF students and faculty.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 22, 2013) – Accolades are nothing new for writer Caryl Phillips and so it is little wonder that rave reviews are in for his week as the USF Humanities Institute’s Fall Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence.


A very busy schedule brought the novelist, playwright and essayist in touch with a variety of students and faculty around campus as he visited scriptwriting, directing, history and creative writing classes where he shared his distinctive perspectives on what it means to be a working artist concerned with matters of historical and societal significance.


In each case, Phillips drew upon the major themes in his work – identity and the colonial diaspora –sharing his life experiences and thinking processes in a thoughtful and engaging manner always ready with witty comments and observations.


In Professor Rita Ciresi’s class on teaching creative writing, Phillips was a hit.


“He was a joy to have in class,” she said. “He brought an international perspective to the classroom and discussed the differences between the literary world in the U.K. and the U.S. He did not speak just of his success, but of his own personal and professional failures and the long, hard road to publication that faces young authors in today's challenging publishing environment. The students truly appreciated his generosity and great sense of humor."


During Theatre School Assistant Director C. David Frankel’s script analysis class, Phillips introduced the notion of the “reductive gaze.” He said that in his work he aims to speak for those subjected to it when walking into a room or situation where they are thought of as being less than – less complex and less capable than they are – based on gender, race or class. Such is the plight of people trying to find a foothold in whatever alien society they find themselves.


Phillips offered practical advice as well. He explained that a good director has to know what’s going on in society and needs to understand people. Having directed plays himself, he noted that before a play goes into production, he figures out and imagine all sorts of details about each character’s life so that he can fill the actors in, but after developing the back story and rehearsing over time, then it’s up to the actor to inhabit the role. “As the director I know a little bit more about the character but once on stage (before an audience) the actor will know more,” he said.


In his playwright's hat


Approaching the written words as he would music, Phillips said he is always “looking for the beats in a play” and “looking for the collective gasps,” “searching for magical moments of transformation” and so he works to “find and accentuate moments – pauses – to identify the musical qualities.”


Students in Theatre Professor Fanni Green’s directing class staged a reading of his first play, “The Shelter,” for the first of his two public events. A standing room only audience in the Black Box Theatre was treated to a discussion after the performance with the playwright and the actors as well as Humanities Institute Director Elizabeth Bird, chair of the Department of Anthropology and School of Theatre & Dance Director Marc Powers.


At a rehearsal the day before, Green said, “I loved how he told my students that he never wanted to be an author, but rather, always wanted to be a writer, because being an author meant being finished and because a writer never stops writing.”


Green’s words to describe Phillips were “charming, contemplative, precise, gracious and fun.” What she appreciated most was that, “he listened acutely to each student and was clearly intrigued by them. And he really showed my students the importance of living in the world, not off creating in a corner somewhere, and that it’s possible to be thinkers and doers.”


The next night, in the most formal of his presentations, Phillips spoke on the topic “The Burdensome Expectations of the Colonial Migrant.” There he explained, “The thing I’m most interested in is migration, because I’m an immigrant myself. My fiction is about immigration, a particular type of immigration, the type of immigrant I am, the colonial immigrant.” He then moved into “quite a personal talk” where he recounted the story of the murder of a West Indian immigrant, David Oluwale, in the UK, in the city of Leeds, where Phillips grew up.


Oluwale exemplified the plight of all immigrants – lack of acceptance and sometimes outright hostility. His defiant refusal to be ignored and willingly discarded ended in tragedy. Phillips placed both Oluwale and himself in the context of what it means to be an immigrant from Europe’s colonies and told of being haunted by this man’s death. Similarly, in his non-fiction book, The Atlantic Sound, he focused on the city of Liverpool. There he juxtaposed his life experiences with those of immigrants that English city and in in Ghana and South Carolina – in the distant and more recent past – teaching a wealth of rarely explored history in the process, as is his style.


"Professor Phillips' engaging talk illustrates very well one of the many ways we have tried to create a vibrant campus that expands the learning environment, enriches the student experience and, ultimately, raises the value of a USF education," said Provost Ralph Wilcox. "His insights on social and cultural history, displacement and identity, as well as ongoing issues of race, age and class, are the thoughts of someone who has travelled, read and researched extensively in search of both fact and context." 


An exciting time


Laurie Lahey, an instructor in the Department of Africana Studies was very impressed with her students’ response to Phillips in her Introduction to the Black Experience class.


“The students were very excited about the opportunity and took full advantage of it. The experience of spending 50 minutes with someone as accomplished and thoughtful as Caryl Phillips was invaluable for our students,” she said. “In preparation, they read a chapter from his novel Crossing the River and I gave a lecture during the class meeting before that provided the historical context for his story. In class and through these writing assignments, the students made many insightful connections between Phillips’s work and our course.


“The most positive aspect was the students’ opportunity to ask Phillips about how he creates historical fiction. Because our class is interdisciplinary, we often approach a historical moment via literature as well as historical monographs and primary sources. They had recently written a paper evaluating the benefits of learning about the slavery through fiction, so they had many thoughts and questions about that process.”


Always very welcoming, Phillips spoke candidly with all who approached him, offering advice to budding authors. He recommended in one case, not getting bogged down in research too early in the writing process. Write first, he said, then research, which he considers the fun part. “In that way if I’m wrong, I can fix it.”


On his feelings about attempts to pigeonhole him, he said, “If people call me a West Indian writer, or a Black writer or a British writer, there’s nothing I can do about it.” And he’s philosophical about how readers of his books and audiences that see his plays or directors and actors who interpret his screenplays. Once written, “the work doesn’t belong to me anymore,” he said.


On his final day, Phillips attended an informal roundtable over refreshments with the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) Afro-Descendants Working Group where he met with faculty members from Africana Studies and ISLAC, as well as both undergraduate and graduate students.


A pleasure for all concerned


“This was a unique opportunity to ask more personal questions about Dr. Phillips' personal trajectory, tracing his initial fascination with writing about racial inequality in his youth to his current work at Yale,” said Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, from the Department of Sociology and director of USF in Brazil. “Students were most interested in hearing about his personal experiences near the Arctic Circle where Dr. Phillips intentionally travelled to experience living in a community that had never had exposure to a person of African descent. The type of courage and imagination that this projectentailed seemed to inspire students to think more broadly about what they can accomplish with their own research.”


Hordge-Freeman describes Phillips as, “An engaging and personable scholar,” and said, “The conversation with Dr. Phillips served as a wonderful model to students about how to weave their own personal narratives and history into academic production.“


A USF Humanities Institute initiative, the Scholar-in-Residence program introduces intellectuals of world-renowned stature and global significance with support from the Provost’s office and donations.


“Caryl Phillips was the perfect Scholar-in-Residence,” said Bird. “His work speaks to issues that cross disciplinary boundaries and bring people together to think of important human questions. His warmth and generosity with students, faculty, and community members made for a truly memorable week.”


Provost Wilcox added, "He represents to our students and faculty alike an example of academic excellence coupled with intellectual energy and curiosity, and helps underscore the ongoing importance of the humanities to a full understanding of our world and times."


For his part, Phillips said he “welcomed the opportunity to step out of my bunker” and added, "what impressed me most about USF was the enthusiasm of the students and how well they had been prepared by their professors. It really makes a big difference for a guest to be made to feel welcome by a classroom."


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563