The Moor's perpetual sigh

Enigmas and Arrivals - Extravagant Strangers
July 18, 1997

 

Shakespeare's Othello provides Caryl Phillips with the title of his anthology of writing about England and Englishness. In his latest novel, The Nature of Blood, Phillips retells the Othello story, emphasising the Moor's bewildered yet perceptive impressions on finding himself in Venice, the heart of another great maritime empire. He is an "extravagant and wheeling stranger". Othello's insecure and ambiguous sense of belonging represents the immigrant's angst through the ages. The connective tissue of Extravagant Strangers is that all of the 39 writers selected were born outside Britain. Phillips sets out to demonstrate his belief that "English literature has, for at least 200 years, been shaped and influenced by outsiders". He has also argued elsewhere that being a stranger or outsider confers a particular sharpness of vision, quoting with approval C. L. R. James's view that, "It is when you are outside, but can take part as a member, that you see differently from the ways they see, and you are able to write independently."

This is a consistently readable and enjoyable collection of chronologically arranged excerpts from novels, short stories, letters, poems and articles, beginning with the Nigerian-born 18th-century autobiographer, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and ending with another Nigerian-born writer, Ben Okri. Phillips rarely sacrifices literary quality for the sake of representation, though the inclusion of a rather dated anti-Thatcher diatribe by Salman Rushdie and querulous letters by Wyndham Lewis about postwar austerity are, in my view, exceptions. There are many fascinating things here - the contrast between V. S. Naipaul's early days in London and his brother Shiva's experience of Earl's Court a generation later; Christopher Hope's pastiche of Conrad's Heart of Darkness set in a London underground carriage packed with football supporters: "With each stop a fresh invasion. The chants went up anew, and I felt as if prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us - who can tell?"; Abdulrazak Gurnah's excoriating account of small town racism; C. L .R. James's surprisingly reverential assessment of a talk given by Edith Sitwell; and much more.

Despite the pleasurable read offered by Extravagant Strangers I found myself wishing that Phillips had not restricted his choice to writers who just happened to be born elsewhere. Does accident of expatriate nativity necessarily make a "stranger" extravagant or otherwise? One could after all, compile an anthology on this basis to include Sir Harold Acton, C. S. Forester, Somerset Maugham, Hilaire Belloc and Sir Maurice Bowra, none of them exactly outsiders. Moreover the criterion excludes a writer like Israel Zangwill, whose novels and short stories of early Jewish ghetto life in London belong, one feels, in an anthology of this nature. Hanif Kureishi's gritty inner-city and run-down suburbia novels would surely have been represented had not their author been born in Britain.

Something rather more than a quibble is involved here. One senses that Phillips is attempting to circumvent the literary apartheid that postcolonial thinking unwillingly yet inevitably creates. By bringing together writers generally considered to be English (Penelope Lively, George Orwell, Doris Lessing) with those felt to be "postcolonial" (Wilson Harris, Romesh Gunesekera, Timothy Mo) an ecumenical dialogue between the erstwhile coloniser and erstwhile colonised is initiated and even broadened to include those relatively unaffected by the colonial process: writers of overseas European provenance such as Eva Figes, George Szirtes or Michael Hofmann. All this is bracing, stimulating and thought-provoking, but there is still a wide gulf between a Rudyard Kipling returning from India to the motherland to be greeted by a chorus of ancestral voices and familial networks, and the grim urban dystopia for which the colonial education of West Indian pioneers such as Sam Selvon or George Lamming could hardly have provided an adequate preparation. The sense of belonging or lack of it is surely influenced by racial hostility. Evidence for this is provided in virtually every extract from black or Asian writers in this anthology. The 18th-century black writer and musician Ignatius Sancho writes to Laurence Sterne: "I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call 'Negurs'". Sancho had no memories of Africa, having been born on a slave ship. He arrived in England at the age of two and was to become very much a part of Augustan literary London. It is Sancho's physical characteristics, even when magnificently painted by Gainsborough, that seemed to be emblematic of alien modes of thought, different cultural affiliations and therefore excited the hostility of the "vulgar and illiberal". Of course Phillips knows this, and one suspects, from so sophisticated a writer, some playful irony at work. Could this have governed his decision to include Orwell? Phillips arrived in Britain from St Kitts at the age of one, while Orwell was the same age when he arrived here from Bengal.

There is yet another sense in which Extravagant Strangers fails entirely to vindicate its compiler's polemical purpose. Far from demonstrating the cultural hybridity of English literature over the past 200 years, its chronological representation confirms that until the second half of the 20th century, the influence of outsiders was minimal. A mere triumvirate represent the whole of the 18th century. For the 19th century only the Indian-born Thackeray and Kipling together with the Polish-born Conrad are included. There are just five extracts of work published during the first half of the 20th century. The remaining 28 pieces were published between 1950 and the present day, of which 21 were published in the past two decades.

Two areas of the world that have abundantly supplied Britain with extravagant strangers of a literary kind seem rather under-represented in this collection, namely America, and the Indian subcontinent. T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis are included, but it is surprising not to find any Henry James. It would, of course, be difficult to discover anything of appropriate brevity, but a well-chosen extract from The Spoils of Poynton would have the virtue of increasing by 25 per cent the anthology's 19th-century coverage. Jack London's The People of the Abyss (1903) would provide an interesting counterpoint to Orwell's excavations of London poverty 30 years on. Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie and Romesh Gunesekera represent modern South Asia. Desai is the only writer here to have been included on the basis of occasional visits to England rather than longer term settlement. A comparable bending of the rules would have accommodated Rabindranath Tagore's observant early letters from England. I was also sorry not to see in this company, the great centenarian chronicler of Indo-British cultural exchange, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, whose Passage to England matches so exactly the concerns of this anthology.

There can have been few writers who have meditated upon the nature of Englishness and the anguished relationship between England and its colonised "others" as deeply as V. S. Naipaul. Phillips draws on Naipaul's highly autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival for his anthology. Perhaps it was in recognition of Naipaul's remarkable intervention in the debate about the postcolonial condition that a recent conference held at London University to mark the first ten years of the Commonwealth Writers' prize was called "Enigmas and Arrivals". The conference lent its title to an accompanying anthology of Commonweath writing edited by Alastair Niven and Michael Schmidt. As the editors discuss in their brief introduction, Commonweath literature has become a disputed and unfashionable term. And yet, one suspects it is a term that will endure, for a limited range of purposes, long after the more favoured "postcolonial" has been discarded. The Commonweath is, after all, a geopolitical entity whose reality is manifested through its collective actions.

Enigmas and Arrivals contains some poetry in the form of extracts from Vikram Seth's "The Humble Administrator's Garden". Seth's skilful linking of traditional Indian imagery with accessible insights into the contemporary world contrast with the vertiginous shape-shifting of the other Indian writer in the collection, Githa Hariharan. Some of the writing included is published here for the first time. This includes work by Ama Ata Aidoo, Louis de Bernieres (both highly entertaining pieces) and Adib Khan, a relatively new writer from Bangladesh, now settled in Australia.

Of course, anthologies based upon literary awards do not provide a conspectus of the type of writing they bring together - the judging process is too dependent on a multiplicity of unpredictable factors, but they do throw into relief writers who are less well known than they deserve to be. I was particularly impressed by Lindsey Collen, a South African born writer living in Mauritius, who has contributed to this collection a chilling futuristic story of great power. Enigmas and Arrivals is a rewarding and wide-ranging anthology in which the writing is never less than good.

Ronald Warwick teaches postcolonial literature at Brunel University College.

Enigmas and Arrivals: An Anthology of Commonweath Writing

Editor - Alastair Niven and Michael Schmidt
ISBN - 1 85754 314 9
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £9.95
Pages - 118

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