The Books Interview: Caryl Phillips

Your collection of essays Colour Me English reads in part like a memoir. Was that the intention?
I'm one of those people who want to avoid ever writing a memoir. Inevitably, collecting evidence that covers over a decade of your life, you are going to make it possible for the reader to see transformations. It's hard to write about what you're seeing and feeling without giving away some details about the journey that you've taken yourself.

You've talked about a caution that's haunted your writing life. Do you still feel it?
It's always uncomfortable. My natural impulse is to be a novelist, which means I can hide offstage, behind the characters. At school, I was involved in theatre but I was a stagehand of some kind: I was out of sight, and that has carried over into my writing. The difficulty with writing non-fiction is where to place the personal pronoun - the "I". You can come up with various strategies but you will reveal yourself in non-fiction.

The title essay describes the isolation you felt as a child. How did that shape you?
There's a strange ambivalence, because my desire was always to be more social than I am. I wanted to be in the football team but I think my natural inclination was to play chess. My interest in isolation comes from inside, but I used to look with great envy on the kids who were picked first for games and wish I could be one of them.

Travel is important to you. Do you need to be away to write about home?
There is something liberating about being in a place where I don't know anybody and nobody knows me. It's the lack of expectation. The flip side of that coin is that you often feel unmoored.

I got back yesterday from being abroad and got a letter from a friend's husband who told me that she'd died while I was away. It was someone I'd met while I was inter-railing, and never saw again apart from having a drink once. How is it that, after 30 years, a friendship could be maintained?

I think there's a heightened awareness when you're travelling. It's lonely, but you see places and people with a greater purity.

You write about politics. Are you now more immersed in the US political scene?
I take more interest in British politics. I live and work in the US for most of the year, but that's just my job. If I couldn't see Britain, if I didn't feel Britain, I would have to come back immediately, because the society I'm interested in interacting with is the society that produced me.

I'm disappointed by some of the things the government seems to be putting in place, principally in education. I wouldn't have been able to go to university if there hadn't been grants. So it depresses me to see a situation where kids are having to pay up to £9,000 a year to achieve something that is their birthright. We will know in a generation how disastrous this policy has been.

You say that literature is a form of plurality in action. What do you mean by that?
One of the roles that writers have to take on board is not only to explain themselves, but to see themselves in a social context. The novel in particular is a very social form. If you don't know a society, you can't write well about it. As somebody who grew up in Britain, I think my conception of the world we live in is that societies have become more plural, more hybrid, and questions of identity have become more urgent.

I see it as part of my job to explain who I am in society, in the hope that people who have some of the same anxieties might better see themselves. That's the hope. I don't want anybody else who grew up in Britain feeling quite as confused as I did.

How did you overcome that confusion?
I'm stubborn and from Leeds. Often when I look squarely at myself, I realise how much of me was formed by growing up in the north of England. Whoever you are, if you're going to get on, you have to be able to not listen and not see the way in which people are looking at you. I mean that not just in terms of race, but in terms of gender too, and class.

I don't know any woman who hasn't felt that somebody is talking or looking at her in a reductive way. I don't know many working-class people who went to university and didn't have that experience. I don't know many non-white people in Britain who haven't had that experience.

"Colour Me English" is published by Harvill Secker (14.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?