Tag Archives: Caryl Phillips

‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Caryl Phillips

dancingdark

2005, 214 p

W. C. Field described Bert Williams, the real-life subject of this novel, as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew”, and this paradox is just one of many in this book.  Bert Williams was a light-skinned West Indian but adopted as his stage persona a black-faced “coon” character.  He consciously adopted this stage identity as he applied his cork makeup, and scrupulously removed both after the performance: something that his fellow negro performers could not do.  Despite the increasing discomfort of his colleagues with his depiction of a shuffling, feebleminded “coon” , he responded to the acclaim of white audiences by continuing to play the character, eventually as the only “blackface” amongst Ziegfield’s Follies.  And yet, his act raised the profile of Negro performers, heading Booker T. Washington to note that “He has done more for our race than I have.  He has smiled his way into people’s hearts, I have been obliged to fight my way”.  And yet, this “smile” is so ambiguous and shallow: white audiences boycotted his attempts to move beyond the “nigger” stereotype, and he was trapped into continuing to play the character in order to maintain his popularity.

This book is told from multiple points of view, particularly from the middle of the book onwards.  I’m not sure if this narrative style was as prominent at the start, but I certainly noticed it as the book went on, and it seemed to mirror the increasing disintegration of his inner personality, marriage and stage success as it was perceived more and more by others.  The narrative is interspersed with film scripts, newspaper reports etc (that I assume are fictional, but I wouldn’t know) in a sort of papier-mache, constructed effect that emphasizes the emptiness of the man underneath.

The tone of the book is fairly simple and direct.  It raises big issues, though, about race, identity, performance and popular acclaim through the story of one man.

‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

1993, 237 p.

This is a very post-modern novel of the African diaspora, written by a West Indian author, raised in England. There are multiple narratives, bookended by an opening lament of a father forced to sell his children into slavery in Africa, and closed by a lament about diaspora and dispossession which ties together the four stories in between.

The four stories are those of the sold children, but untethered in time and place.  The first voice is that of a slave liberated by his master to move to Liberia, writing letters back to his master. The letters are unanswered, and he is unaware that his master is travelling to Liberia to meet him.  The narrative shifts between an epistolatory form, and the ‘straight’ narrative of the master’s journey from America to Liberia in search of his former slave.

The second voice is that of Martha, the second sold child, an old Negro woman, travelling for the West Coast in the post civil-war era.  She is abandoned because she is too old and slow.

The third voice comes through the journal of the slave trader, moored off the African coast for an inordinate amount of time while he collects more cargo. He reports on the deaths and escapes of his cargo as the boat waits in humid waters until there are sufficient bodies for the trip to be profitable.  The author captures the tone of the journal well, couched in the language of late 18th century piety and commercialism, and it is chilling in its banality at times.

Finally, the fourth story is a long one, taking up about one third of the book.  This voice belongs to Joyce, the white wife of a man arrested for black market activities during WWII who starts up a relationship with a black GI, who represents the third ‘sold’ child.  This section is told in very short (1-2 page) discontinuous entries; weaving back and forth over the war years.

So- the three sold children, but told at different jumps in the unfolding history and in different countries (Liberia, US, UK), and interwoven with the stories of the grief-striken African father, the slave-trader, and an omniscient narrator intoning rather academically on diaspora as a phenomenon.  I really wondered how the author was going to carry this off- how on earth was he going to draw all these disparate bits into a whole? But he did, deftly, cleverly and succinctly in the last few pages.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I feel deep admiration for the sheer virtuoisity and intent of the book, but I found myself rather distanced from the stories: it was almost as if the technical cleverness of the author’s intention and execution overshadowed the human aspects.  And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if this is what the author intended all along.