Five things you need to know about Caryl Phillips

As we prepare to open a contemporary revival of his seminal play Strange Fruit, we’ve put together some essential facts you really should know about Caryl Phillips. 

1. His work remembers what the West wants to forget

Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts and brought to England when he was four months old, so it’s no surprise to find that alienation, identity and colonialism are familiar themes in his work. He has also tackled themes on the African slave trade from many angles J. M. Coetzee stated that Phillips’s body of work had “a single aim: remembering what the West would like to forget.”

Strange Fruit explores these same themes through brothers Alvin and Errol, who have been brought to England from the Caribbean by their mother. Feeling equally alienated from both countries and communities, the two brothers find themselves caught in a desperate struggle to unearth the truth about their existence.

Original Playtext of Strange Fruit

Original Playtext of Strange Fruit

2. The New York Times called him “the father of Afro-British fiction”

Hailed as “the father of Afro-British fiction” by The New York Times, Caryl’s back catalogue comprises of  eleven fictional novels, four stage plays, five non fiction books and two anthologies. Since his third novel, Phillips has used a widely acclaimed and unconventional approach to narrative. Rather than tell one linear story, his later novels bring together several independent narratives set at different places on the globe and at different moments in time. The stories are linked by theme and situation as opposed to setting and plot.

His stage plays include Strange Fruit (1981), Where There is Darkness (1982), The Shelter (1984) and Rough Crossings (2007). Some of his other work includes The Final Passage (1985), A State of Independence (1986), Higher Ground (1989) Cambridge (1991), Crossing the River (1993), In the Falling Snow (2009), The Lost Child (2011), and A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018). In 2011, he published Colour Me English, a collection of essays and other non-fiction writing.

3. Strange Fruit was Caryl’s first play

Caryl writing Strange Fruit in 1979

Caryl writing Strange Fruit in 1979

Having graduated from The Queen’s College, Oxford University with a degree in English Literature, Caryl found himself living in Edinburgh for a year whilst on Job Seekers Allowance. It was during this time that Caryl first wrote Strange Fruit which premiered at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield in 1980. The production had subsequent runs in London and Liverpool and was widely acclaimed. The Bush Theatre revival will be it’s first professional production since 1982.

“My mornings were spent in my girlfriend’s cramped one-bedroom flat hammering away on an old manual typewriter”

Caryl took the title of the play from the Billie Holiday song of the same name. He found new meanings in the song’s title, admitting “at the time I knew very little about the full history of “Strange Fruit”. I understood that the name of the song made reference to racially motivated American violence, but “Strange Fruit” also seemed to me to be evocative of the puzzling situation that many parents unwittingly find themselves in with their children and, this being the case, it seemed to me to be an apt title.” Read the rest of the Guardian article on his relationship with the song here.

4. He has won fourteen awards for his writing

Throughout his career Phillips’s work has been recognised by numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, which he won for A Distant Shore in 2003.

Other awards include: Giles Cooper Award (1984), Malcolm X Prize for Literature (1985), Martin Luther King Memorial Prize (1987), Guggenheim Fellowship (1992), James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) (1993), Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) (1993), Lannan Literary Award (Fiction) (1994), PEN/Beyond Margins Award (2006), Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book) (2006), Essence Literary Award (2007), Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (2011), ‘The Best of the Best’ of the James Tait Black Prize (2012).

5. He is a Professor of English at Yale

Caryl is currently Professor of English at Yale University where he has been since 2005, having taught in universities across the world, including Ghana, Barbados, Sweden, Singapore and India.

Strange Fruit plays in the Theatre from 12 Jun- 27 Jul