Caryl Phillips’s A View of the Empire at Sunset is a biographical novel of the life of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which she wrote as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Dominica at the height of the British Empire, Rhys lived in the Caribbean for only sixteen years before going to England. Her dream had always been to one day return home to Dominica, and in 1936, a forty-five-year-old Rhys finally made the journey back to the Caribbean. Six weeks later, she boarded a ship for England, filled with hostility for her home, never to return. Phillips’s gripping novel is about the beginning of the end of the British empire and the ways in which it wreaked havoc on the lives of all who lived in its shadow. It’s also a tale of alienation, exile, and family through the eyes of one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century. Phillips joined author and critic Hilton Als in conversation at Greenlight Bookstore.
Hilton Als: I want to thank Greenlight Books for hosting this occasion and I want to thank Caryl Phillips, or Caz to his friends and admirers, for writing this incredibly beautiful novel A View of the Empire at Sunset. It’s his eleventh work of fiction and the book would inspire envy if it wasn’t so good. So itself and so above many other contemporary novels in the high literary standard it sets for itself and the demands it makes on its readers. It’s a big book based on this sliver of historical fact. In 1936, the then forty-five-year-old Jean Rhys, a brilliant writer herself, returned to her native Dominica with her husband Leslie. We know very little about this trip, but it’s Caz’s commitment to imagining and knowing characters as they brush up against history. All the characters in his books are known and, in some respects, loved by the writer that guides us into Rhys’s interior world and the larger world of fading empire. I’m so glad that we’ll get to talk about this marvel that guides us into Rhys’s interior world and the larger world of fading empire.
Caryl Phillips: Thank you, Hilton. And thank you, Nicholas and everybody at Greenlight Books for this event. And thank you all for coming out for the reading and conversation. There’s nothing that feels more precarious than to read from a book for the first time. But, it’s always good to do it knowing that there’s a friend who’s read it and thought about it who you trust. So, thanks again, Hilton, for making the time to come here.
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, although she always pretended she was born in 1894. She grew up on this small island with a lot of confusion around questions of empire and belonging and identity and race. Her best friend, or one of her best friends when she was a girl, was a young lady, a young girl called Francine. So, the fifth section of sixty-five sections is called “Francine.”
Als: So, this is a tremendous undertaking in this book to not only imagine and re-imagine a writer whose work you love and love, but to really imagine aspects of colonial history that are fading but never go away. And one of the things that I love about your writing in particular is that you deal with the idea of history—and specifically British history—as it rubs up against and transforms characters who are sometimes aware, or sometimes not aware, of how the larger world affects them. I’m thinking of your Emily Cartwright in Cambridge, and Leila and others in your first novel, The Final Passage. In each book, the protagonists live in a kind of fever dream of hope, only to sort of be crushed or made different by the world—the English world—that weighs down on them. And I’m interested in why stories about colonialism, or how colonialism shapes characters, interests you. It’s a long question, but I wanted to fit some titles in there, get some books sold.
Phillips: Well, basically I’m a child of empire—a product, as my aunt in Saint Kitts used to say. I’m not so much a British subject, but a British object. The system produced me, some aspect of me. And history dealt me a hand, which is the only hand I’ve ever had to play with. And that hand involves everything from the most obvious questions surrounding race to the most pressing questions surrounding geography, feeling that you’re always at the periphery if you’re not in London. If you’re in the Francophone world, you’re in the periphery if you’re not in France. And so all of these questions of historical fate play into how we go ahead and comport ourselves in the world. So, I’m interested in people who have had to navigate the hand they were dealt, particularly if it’s a colonial hand. And, you know, your family background is Barbados, which is a particularly resonant corner of the empire because it was known as “Little England.” But I feel the same, Hilton, whether I’m in Sydney, Delhi, Ghana—I feel the same pressure of empire everywhere. Singapore, it’s there. It’s just complicated in different regions by different forces.
I’m not so much a British subject, but a British object. The system produced me, some aspect of me. And history dealt me a hand, which is the only hand I’ve ever had to play with.
Als: And one of the things that you do in the nonfiction books, The European Tribe and so on, is really talk about how it follows you. That, as you say, you’re never free of it, and that you were always ending up in someplace in the world where there’s some version of it that you can recognize as such. And I think that the particular and peculiar attention of your novels is that almost always there’s a kind of love affair that tries to declare itself in this morass. I’m thinking about A Distant Shore and it’s an African man and the white English woman and race is a kind of signifier. But really what it comes down to is how people don’t fit. How do you make a story about people not fitting? And I wondered about you being drawn to Jean Rhys for that reason and her inability really to be an English woman, ultimately.
Phillips: Well, I mean it is that. It’s about not fitting in. It’s about not being—I mean, the cruelest thing that can happen to anybody is to be in a place where you don’t recognize who you are. I’m not talking about indifference, because indifference can be liberating. You know, New York is full of people who came here to be—
Als: —to be left alone.
Phillips: Yes, to be left alone. They wanted indifference. The last thing they needed was to actually be identified. But I’m talking about something more pernicious, of people who tell you “we know who you are” and then you suddenly realize they have no idea who you are. That’s a kind of coruscation of the soul, of the spirit, and eventually that prevents you from being loved.
Als: There’s this remarkable moment in your novel where it just actually makes me tear up because I don’t think there’s a human being who hasn’t had this experience where Rhys is annoyed by her husband’s kindness and his desire to take care of her, and she finds it weak and annoying. And it says so much about intimacy as something that is humanly and intolerable, often. And I think that’s the larger issue that happens in your love story. That she goes all this way—her husband buys the tickets and he’s full of hope—and she can’t bear it. She can’t bear the place and she can’t bear him. Is that something that you find in these misfitting people? You say that love can’t happen.
Phillips: Well, I mean, that’s the greatest damage that can happen to you is if you don’t think you’re worthy of being loved. If you’ve been so corrupted by the rather negative judgmental gaze of others that you begin to actually believe that your value is so little that a person, in this case a man who is trying so hard to love you, can’t find a way to love you. We can talk about the macrosystems of empire—colonization, history—but they’re not my business. They’re not my business as a novelist. My only business as a novelist is—as William Faulkner said—to write about the human heart in conflict with itself. That’s my job and everything else is dressing.
My only business as a novelist is—as William Faulkner said—to write about the human heart in conflict with itself.
Als: In another book that I love of yours, 2005’s Dancing in the Dark, you use another historical figure, Bert Williams, to talk about this idea of self-perception and audience-perception—what he gives the audience and what he is to himself. There’s a different kind of temperature to that character than there is to Jean or Gwen. And I was wondering about your attraction to Bert Williams as one of the first black comedic superstars in blackface.
Phillips: Well, there’s two answers to that. First of all, he is a direct umbilical cord between Bert Williams at the beginning of the twentieth century and Dave Chappelle.
Phillips: Between the comedian who actually begins to wonder if they’re laughing with him or at him.
Als: Dave Chappelle said the most profound thing that I’ve heard recently. He said, “Everything is funny until it happens to you.”
Phillips: Yes. And Bert Williams knew that one hundred years ago because he was black in American society. And the second way of looking at that is what I was saying to you standing at the back before the event. I told you that I was in Paris on Saturday and I was so disorientated by having done three readings in a row that I ended up on Rue Monsieur le Prince—a couple of doors down from where Richard Wright used to live—sitting in a bar, thinking really hard about the difference between being a writer and being a performer and how it blighted so many people’s lives, certainly Richard Wright’s life and certainly James Baldwin’s life. You can’t help but wonder about the navigation between the private act of creation and then the public act of performance. And I think that certainly was deeply a part of Bert Williams’s life, but it was also part of Jean Rhys’s life, who, as you know, that wasn’t her name. She began with this really primary act of reinvention. She gave herself a name so that she wasn’t performing with, wasn’t visible with, her own name.
Als: That’s right. For those of you who don’t know much about her, when she came to England, it was really to perform. She became a showgirl and supported herself. A number of years in her early works are about that life on the road and trying to find a place in London and Jean Rhys is this kind of haunting and haunted writer. And I was wondering about the level of research that you might’ve done to make the novel. Often writers begin with a real thing. Just a fragment, the way that for Beloved, Toni Morrison had a newspaper clipping and she didn’t want to know any more than what she read in the newspaper clipping. Did you feel that you had to do some sort of real clinical research, go to Dominica, or anything for this book?
Phillips: Yes, I went around looking at all the hotels she lived in in Paris and all the places she lived in in London, but it wasn’t until I went to Dominica that the shape of the story came into focus. Until then it was an idea. It was Jean Rhys herself who said that stories are shapes and that’s all they are. Well, they’re more than that because they’re obviously language too, but they’re shapes. An idea has no shape. So, I had an idea about writing about Jean Rhys. But it had no shape until I went to Dominica and I could see that most of the writing about this woman has been through the prism of her as a product of Edwardian London; or post-Edwardian London; or Paris in the 1920s; or modernism, or the beginning of modernism in Paris in the ’20s. Much of the writing about Jean Rhys conveniently slipped the fact that she grew up in the Caribbean until she was sixteen years old. She learned to read there, she learned to write there. She didn’t know what an oak tree was. She didn’t know what a beech tree was. She knew what a mango tree was. She knew all the tropical fruit and she’d never seen an evening like this because it gets dark in the Caribbean at six o’clock. The idea that it’s still light after eight o’clock was alien to her until she was seventeen, effectively. Unless you looked at her through the prism of Dominica, and the Caribbean, you couldn’t see her. And so, that’s when it began to cohere into some kind of a shape. You can research, research, research, and research, and of course one wishes to do that because it’s damn easier than writing . . .
Als: —Clearly, I prefer reading to writing.
Phillips: Well, people say, “What are you working on?” and well, I’m just researching . . .
Als: —It’s going slowly.
Phillips: At a certain point, as I say, an idea becomes a shape and that’s when you know you’re in business.
Als: The shape of this book is remarkable because the chapters are all relatively short and it’s almost as if at the end of each chapter it’s like watching smoke rise or that wonderful line in Derek Walcott’s poem “Hotel Normandie Pool” where he wishes the words would evaporate like the steam off the pool, off the water. And I was wondering about this taking shape and the book taking shape in very sort of compressed poetic spirituality—I call spirituality rigorous chapters—because it takes a lot to not put in everything. How did you work on that idea? Just work?
Phillips: Just work. You get to a stage in a book where—I tell people, “I have to press the down button on the elevator now.” I’m going away. I’m not going to be hanging out. You’re not going to see me. Because it’s the down button. I think we went beneath the basement a couple of times, which surprised me and it was difficult, to be honest. More difficult than I thought. You just go. You’re trying to understand somebody who is extremely adept at hiding their emotions, extremely adept. And her emotions are very bruised and very primary. So, in order to find that person, you’re doing more excavation than perhaps you realized you’d have to do.
Als: She has a masterful short story called “Let Them Call it Jazz” in which the first-person narrator says—I think on the first page—when the landlord says something, she says, “I know now about these soft, treacherous, English voices. I know what they mean.” I wondered, coming from Saint Kitts, your family, you talked about this idea of creation. Were you meant to be yourself because of what your family hoped for, or because of how you were perceived in the English school system?
Phillips: That’s a good question. What I was meant to be? I was meant to be something more respectable than what I am. I was meant to be a doctor or a lawyer. The big hope for an immigrant family is that you are going to anchor yourself in a secure, respectable middle class job. That’s what I was meant to be. I was the hope. My parents came to England. I came, as you know, at four months old. I was hand luggage. They came and my job was to be—fingers crossed—the first one to go to university and to be something respectable. In the end I wasn’t, because I left university and signed on for unemployment benefit because I knew I wanted to write. So yes, there was a pressure to be the anchor. Listen, it’s a migrant story, as you know. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. It’s happening all over. It’s the story of New York City. It’s the child’s job to anchor the family in the new world. The only difference between New York City and London, or New York City or Paris, is that colonial migrants travel with the expectation to be recognized. Migrants to New York City do not expect to be recognized. They’re not thinking that they’re going to arrive in New York and they’re going to say, “Hey, how is the Dublin,” you know? You arrive here to make money. You’re economic migrants, you’re political migrants, you’re religious refugees. But, colonial migrants have been sold a bill of goods. So, the disappointment that you’re not recognized and you’re not valued is particularly bruising to the soul for colonial migrants.
Als: Yes, I remembered Jamaica Kincaid wrote an essay about coming to New York and how if she had gone to England, her whole life would have been completely different because there were no expectations in New York that anyone could sell from that. And I wonder what it would have been like for Jean Rhys to have come here. Do you think she would’ve written at all?
Phillips: Who knows, she may have had a more successful career on the stage because one of the things that hampered her life as a music hall performer in Britain was one of the great signifiers of belonging in British life to this day, which was her accent. American life is full of performers who have accents, who manage to adapt them, transform them, or even partially erase them. But colonial accents or a working-class accent in British society—is not something you are easily forgiven for.
Als: I have one more question, and it is related to Rhys’s theatrical life, and yours. You began writing plays, and can you talk a little bit about what drew you to the theater, then to prose? Making the switch to prose?
Phillips: Well, secretly, I always wanted to write prose, but I didn’t know how to do it because there wasn’t any creative writing classes or anything like that when I was a student and there was no creative work within the framework of the university system. Of course that’s changed now quite radically. And now Britain follows a very American model in which undergraduates and graduates can do creative work. One of the few ways of being creative was to be part of the theater society, where you put plays on. As a result, the only narrative form I understood was the theater because I used to direct plays. So, although I secretly harbored an ambition to write prose, the only narrative form I had access to—the only grammar I had access to—was the grammar of the theater, the grammar of Tennessee Williams, and the grammar of Arthur Miller, or the grammar of Ibsen. All three writers I adored, so I began to write about people who are full of angst and gloom but happened to be in Britain, as opposed to Oslo. I knew something about form and structure in the theatre, but all the time I was doing that, I was doing what all writers do: reading, and reading, and reading. Mainly prose.
I knew something about form and structure in the theatre, but all the time I was doing that, I was doing what all writers do: reading, and reading, and reading. Mainly prose.
Als: There was a wonderful story you told me about Baldwin reading your scripts. Would you care to share that? He read very quickly.
Phillips: Well, yes, he read the first two plays that I wrote when they were published. He asked me to send them to him and he read them. He was, of course, a good reader. He just said, “Yeah, okay, that’s the play about the mother. That’s the play about the father.” And he was right. I mean, that’s the path we all have to go.
Als: Well, Caz, it’s a beautiful book, and I’m so glad that you were able to take the time out so we could hear your voice with the words. Thank you.
Phillips: Thank you, Hilton.
Caryl Phillips is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Lost Child (FSG, 2015), Dancing in the Dark, Crossing the River, and Color Me English. His novel A Distant Shore won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; his other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in New York.
Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a theater critic. The Women (FSG, 1997) was his first book, and his book White Girls was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017. Als is an associate professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan, and Smith College. He lives in New York City.