Colour Me English

Colour Me English
Caryl Phillips
Harvill Secker, 352pp, £14.99

Oddly enough for a book called Colour Me English, the first 100 pages of this collection of Caryl Phillips's non-fiction focus on the United States. The first group of essays, "Homeland Security", deals with the fallout from the September 2001 attacks, while the second, "American Despatches", considers cultural issues. Phillips's British background does come into it: he describes how he moved to the US, lured by a "more inclusive American identity" and an emergent, unapologetic black middle class, unlike the UK, where "diversity of any kind is not encouraged". Gradually, this idealised view is undermined as he starts to find that race and identity are problematic there, too.

He is especially concerned with the turn that US policy takes after 9/11, which further complicates national identity. Phillips offers a fine analysis of the complexities - how should Muslim Americans identify, when they are so persecuted by the state? - but he is also disturbed by the direction in which things are heading. His discomfort is all the more powerful given the optimism with which he came to America.

In an introductory essay, "Colour Me English", Phillips, who was born in St Kitts in 1958, describes his childhood in Leeds, where he and his brothers were the only black boys at their school. Race aside, he realises he is culturally similar to the English, while his Asian schoolmate Ali "had the worlds of religion and language into which he might retreat and hide". This awareness of the differences between immigrant groups is reflected in the discussion of post-9/11 racial politics, when suddenly Arabs and Muslims are at the bottom of the US pecking order for the first time.

This book is as much about writing as it is about race. Phillips explores his own development as a writer and the struggle of negotiating identities. Seen through this prism, travel is both part of a "long tradition" of British writers and an attempt to work out where his identity should be placed. He feels he cannot do this in England, a country that "seemed to revel in its ability to reduce identity to clichés".Phillips had it tough growing up in Leeds in the 1960s and 1970s and undeniably life was hard for the first wave of immigrants to the UK, yet I can't help but feel that he is sometimes too harsh on Britain. Too often, he writes as if little has changed - perhaps because he has lived abroad for many years.

It's not unusual to read about the conflicting emotions of black or Asian Britons, but Phillips is thoughtful on the differences between first-generation immigrants and their children. At a restaurant, his father is mortified when Phillips complains that the waitress has brought the wrong wine: early immigrants avoid making themselves conspicuous, while their children are more confident in their surroundings.

These essays sometimes feel like an odd fit in a single volume. All bear traces of themes of identity, belonging and migration, yet the link is tenuous and there seems to be no unifying theme: an obituary of the R'n'B singer Luther Vandross touches on race and slavery, but still feels out of place. Nonetheless, this is a thought-provoking collection by an accomplished author whose subtle, unobtrusive style allows him to explore familiar subjects in an original way.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy