A strong gathering of personal and literary essays on identity and authorship, from accomplished novelist Phillips (The Nature of Blood, 1997, etc.).
As he explains in his introduction, Phillips feels “unmoored.” A man of African descent born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, reared in Britain, and writing in America, he has a number of possible homes. Phillips feels “of and not of” each place, he says, and this sense of displacement is the focus of the collection. Each examination ultimately turns on the subject’s reckoning of home. James Baldwin moved to France because he could not write on universal topics in America’s racist climate. J.M. Coetzee works to address and go beyond the problems of his South African homeland. V.S. Naipaul has made a career of distancing himself from his Trinidadian origins. In these cases and others, Phillips sees the relationship with home as inexorably linked to the quality of the art. One cannot write with understanding, he argues, without understanding one’s origins. This is not a flawless formulation—Naipaul’s prose, for example, deserves more praise than Phillips offers—but it serves to illuminate the difficulties of writing in a world eager to affix labels of race, nationality, and ethnicity to works of art. Nadine Gordimer is so intent on exploring the political situation in her native South Africa, Phillips suggests, that her fiction sometimes “scampers to the superficial beat of history” and scants deeper human truths. Derek Walcott, on the other hand, has reconciled place and art in his poetry. The essays vary in both length and quality. Discussing writers he admires, Phillips tends to let indented quotations speak for themselves, when fuller explanation might help. The best pieces present more flawed heroes and engage their complexity incisively and with insight, perhaps most powerfully in his stunning essay on Marvin Gaye.
Overall: perceptive and heartfelt.