Tides and tributaries
Caryl Phillips talks to Sue Wilson about his new novel.
The ramiforrn legacy of slavery and the hidden history of its descendants are subjects that black writers have, unsurprisingly, returned to again and again, but rarely has this vast literary territory been explored with the economy and grace displayed in Caryl Phillips‘ fifth novel. Crossing the River. Opening with the agonised words of an 18th century African farmer — ‘A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. 1 sold my children’ — the narrative follows the divergent fortunes of three such children, one freed and sent back to Africa as a missionary. one who becomes caught up in the great US westward
his subjects. in the passages on the American pioneers, for instance. he not only drarnatises ex- slaves' historically-neglected role in westward expansion. but in one line, where this section’s protagonist. Martha. is talking about her lover — ‘this man has made me forget — and that’s a gift from
above’ — he points up the shift in African-Americans'
he says. on hard, factual research. ‘There were a lot of pubs in England which put up signs saying “We don’t serve Americans unless they’re black” — in general, if it was a choice between them and the arrogance of their white compatriots. most people here were far more accommodating towards the black soldiers.’ he says. ‘Although one shouldn’t be too romantic about it; people knew the soldiers were going to bugger off after the war. Ten or ﬁfteen years later you had people like my parents coming from the West indies as British citizens. who thought they
' were helping out the mother country. the poor
suckers. and of course they got shit heaped on them.’ At its broadest level. Crossing the River afﬁrms and salutes the achievements of African-descended people the world over in surviving. in refusing to be overcome by slavery’s long and terrible shadow. At its close, theAfrican farmer speaks again, lovingly acknowledging all his ‘children’. downtrodden or thriving. from London to Stockholm to Sao Paulo to Harlem. ‘Any view ofthe African diaspora, post- slave-trade. as entirely a terrible thing ﬂies in the face of the evidence. of the lives of people like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali and Pele and John Barnes - you
migration of the last century, and one who is stationed as a World War Two CI in a small Yorkshire village. Much of the story is told obliquely, through letters between the missionary and his former owner, the journal of a slave-ship’s captain and the voice of the woman who becomes the soldier’s lover; using these varied brushstrokes Phillips builds up a picture encompassing not only the breadth and complexity of the African diasporan experience, but the ways in which large historical movements impinge on each other and on individual
Through the three main strands of the novel. Phillips continually unpicks received notions about
consciousness over the last century. ‘The notion of memory is very central to the way pe0ple like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker write. but that’s something which has really come about post-Roots.‘ Phillips says. ‘Roots is a lousy book, but it has made black Americans unashamed to remember, to peer back into the genealogical undergrowth of their own history. Martha lived in a time when what l’ve called in another book the process of murdering the memory in order to survive, was very central to her
Also unexpected is Phillips’ depiction, in the World War Two chapters. of the villagers' tolerant. even friendly, attitude towards the black soldiers — based,
name it,’ Phillips says. ‘Yes. l do think that snapping of our history by slavery is a traumatic thing. but at the same time so many people have not only survived but ﬂourished, have made deﬁning contributions to their own art-fonn or sport or intellectual pursuit — the West would be a sadder place without that diasporan contribution, and i think we have to understand that, rather than looking on it as a
' Crossing the River is published by Bloomsbury at Caryl Phillips will be reading from and talking about
his work at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow on 1 June — see E vents listings for details.
:— Slip stream
Vlhen Gite idehta uttered the words, ‘llanna isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,’ to a publisher In the late 10s in law York, she was quickly launched into the literary rat race. lier satirical novel, Karma Cola, written about India’s reaction to the hordes oi American hippies who poured into their country searching ior an escape irom reality, took three weeks to write and was an immediate hit. Mehta then spent nine years on her next work, ital, a historical novel, which was equally enlightening on the eiiects oi imperialism on lndla’s culture.
In her poetic new novel, A lliver Sutra, the enemy she conironts is the ignorance and shallowness oi the contemporary world. ‘l thought that so much one reads in iiction is near as damn it to lournaiism,’ she says. ‘lt’s social realism on a very domestic scale and it doesn’t allow the imagination to work. Writers in the 19th century could give you that same
kind oi detail and still leave enough room ior the imagination to have places to go. i ieel that now we’re being bombarded by inionnation all the time, so where is the space to dream, or daydream even? So whatl did to try and rid myseli oi all this inionnation and empty my mind, I tried to remember the earliest sounds oi my childhood and I realised they were the sounds oi stories being told.’
Sutra means a thread or string in Iiindu. Set on the banks oi the llannada, the holiest river in lndia, the
water acts as the iluid link ior a collection oi stories which hang like beads irom the narrative.
When a middle-aged bureaucrat retires and withdraws irom the world to the peaceiui banks oi the river, he iinds himseli continually enraptured by the stories oi the pilgrims, priests, tribals and others who come to the river and the jungle which surrounds it. lie meets a young monk who has sacriiiced his wealthy background ior a begging bowl, a man bewitched by his own desire, an ugly woman who understands the real beauty oi music and a woman who has iallen in love with her kidnapper only to live in an acute state oi suiiering when he is killed. The bureaucrat is made aware at a whole range oi pain and other emotions which he has never experienced and he is made to realise he has a long way to go beiore he achieves personal sanctity. ‘l think oi this book as an lndian lload movie,’ Gita says. ‘Yet Instead oi being in a Cadillac on lloute 66, it’s completely static; the river is moving in iront oi you. You’re static but what passes in iront oi you educates or moves you in
hiehta writes beautiiully, with a light, plnprick touch. She paints a cast oi colouriul and oiten sympathetic characters who wrestle with philosophy, tradition, desire and love, amid the colours, aromas and glorious vistas oi lndla. Each story is like a door opening onto another llie uttering a diiierent perspective oi
lndia, but all are steeped in myth. ‘l think mythology is terribly importatt. There was a time when writers like liacine and Shakespeare didn’t have any trouble with mythological reierences, they assumed their audience would know what they meant. Mythology today has become a shorthand ior discussing the subconscious. i think that is damaging, it makes people seli- consclous oi the big emotions.’
A iiiver Sutra is a spiritual book but one which concentrates on our own inherent lwmanity. like any great road movie, it’s not the arriving that’s importat, it’s the journey, coqried with the will to reach the destination. ll iiiver Sutra is published by iielnemann at £9.99.
The List 2] May—3 June 1993 67