A State of Independence
By Caryl Phillips
Vintage Books, 1986
Knowing that Caryl Phillips was coming to my hometown for Writers Week, I put aside Letters to Burma and picked up Phillips’ A State of Independence. I attended a session on Tuesday night where Caryl or “Caz” as he was introduced, spoke along with Alan Hollinghurst, Dionne Brand and Les Murray. As is often the case, the image I had of the writer of this book while I was reading it was nothing like reality. I had in mind a slightly bedraggled, thinnish man with long curly hair and spectacles and dressed in a causal white shirt and shorts. In reality, Phillips is exceptionally suave looking; he was kitted out in a trendy black suit and v-neck black shirt, is quite well-built, good-looking and has an amazing voice that everyone in the audience found quite mesmerising.
The topic of this Writers Week session was about the sense of place so you can imagine why I was front and centre for this talk. Phillips chose to reflect on the notion of “journeys” and, in particular, how the shortest journeys can sometimes be the most life-changing and profound.
In his case, that short journey was the one he made coming out of his apartment in New York, walking a few steps into the street and witnessing the plane crash into the second tower on the morning of 9/11. Phillips wrote a short piece of non-fiction about this journey (which can be found in his book Colour Me English) and he read this to us during the session. It was a fascinating idea and made me reflect on some of the shorter journeys I have made that impacted on my life, realising there had been many.
A State of Independence is also about a personal journey, the one of an expatriate returning home after many years abroad. Bertram Francis was born and raised in St Kitts before a scholarship sent him to England with promises of a new and fulfilling life…which reality fails to deliver.
After 20 years away from St Kitts he returns to the island hoping, perhaps naively, to pick up where he left of, only to discover that the family, friendships and loves he knew as a boy and teenager have become mere memories and rather than return to the life he had before, he has to confront the necessity of building a new one.
Bertram’s personal journey towards establishing a new sense of identity is mirrored by that of St Kitts itself. Both have been colonised and developed by England and now, having claimed their independence, face the uncertainty of determining what their identity is and how much of that is to be composed of what they began with, what they acquired through colonisation and what they seek to have in the future.
Throughout the book, Phillips languidly evokes a strong sense of place and life in this tiny Caribbean island. The capital – Baytown – is described as a “tropical ghost town” from the movies, one which began its life “as part slave-market and part harbour, primarily designed to facilitate the importation of Africans and the exportation of sugar”. More recently, the capital has developed in three separate directions: a middle class estate; an industrial area and a “hellish and labyrinth-like entanglement of slums”.
Bertram and his brother Dominic were raised by their single mother in the small village of Sandy Bay (their father plays only a minor almost mythic role in the boys’ lives). The two siblings are inseparable, sharing dreams of being professional cricketers and nightmares about what really happened to their father. As Bertram matures, he excels at school, dates the most sought-after girl and is a popular member of his social circle. He then wins the much sought-after scholarship to study abroad and believing this is his ticket to bigger and better things, leaves with little consideration of the impact on his brother and mother, his girlfriend, his best friend and, indeed, himself.
While it might be the case that it is always harder to be left behind, and in Dominic’s case this is tragically true, Bertram is to discover that it is not so easy to be the one that returns either. His girlfriend is now a single mother and no longer the beauty she once was, his best friend is now a successful businessman destined to become a politician and his brother…well, I won’t ruin it for you. Battling to carve out their own identities in an island that has changed as much for those who stayed as those who left, Bertram’s family and friends are unsurprisingly disinterested in expending their energies to help him create his and, of course, the easy answer would be for Bertram to return to England. In order to decide which way to go: stay and fight for a state of independence or run and always be tied to the apron strings of England, Bertram finds he must reconnect with the island, both its joys and sorrows, and reconnect with its people.
A State of Independence is a lulling, lying-in-a-hammock kind of book which like much Caribbean fiction I have read, offers a brief episodic glimpse into an individual’s life – and through them, their country – rather than providing something substantial to say. One reviewer of this book described it as a “calypso” and while I would agree with this, I felt that what I wanted was more like “reggae” – something with more action, life and intent. I am hoping I may find this with other books from the region to come.
The Literary Nomad xx
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Area: 261 km2
Currency: East Caribbean dollar
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