A collection of essays on the themes of race, the African diaspora, otherness and identity, from a Caribbean-born, British-raised, and United States–based writer with a sharp eye for the tensions of modern society.
In what could be seen as a sequel to A New World Order: Essays (2001), Phillips, who is better known as a novelist (In the Falling Snow, 2009, etc.), again explores issues of migration and shares his insights into writers and their role in shaping their world. Written over nearly two decades and seemingly for a variety of publications, these highly personal musings open with Phillips’s childhood in Leeds, where for a time he was the only black child in his school. For a Muslim newcomer, Ali, the difference was culture and religion. Though Phillips found he was “being coloured English,” he saw that Ali remained an outsider. “Distant Shores” contains six pieces on his perceptions and experiences in both Europe and Africa. Europe, he writes, is no longer white and no longer Judeo-Christian, and it never will be again. However, with the help of literature as a bulwark against intolerance, societies can make the necessary transition and transform themselves. The longest section, titled “Outside In,” looks at writers in exile—e.g., James Baldwin in France, Ha Jin in the United States and Chinua Achebe in Canada. The four essays in “Homeland Security,” written between 2001 and 2006, show Phillips’ disappointment over the failure of America to live up to its image as a land of freedom and equality, but also his hope that storytelling will restore the spirit of the country. Profiles, movie and book reviews and autobiographical and journalistic sketches complete the collection.
Although linked by the author’s sense of history and his awareness of being an outsider, these pieces seem uncomfortable together, as though forced to migrate from earlier settings to this new home.