BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS, MAY 2nd 2013 (CUOPM) – St. Kitts-born British novelist and playwright Caryl Phillips has had a long fascination with the communication gaps between first-generation immigrants and their children.
Phillips, a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Crossing the River, has plenty of first-hand knowledge: he’s the son of parents who moved from St. Kitts in the West Indies to the British city of Leeds in 1958, when he was just a baby.
“Most people don’t realize how courageous it is to be an immigrant,” Phillips tells the Georgia Straight on the line from New York, where he now lives.
“I think people miss the courageous aspect of immigrating and tend to see it in a more parasitical light. But I also think they miss the generosity – the notion of a major contribution of one’s intellectual, emotional, and other capacities. Plus, in 90 percent of the cases, you’re handing over your children to that society as well,” he told Charlie Smith of Straight.com – Vancouver’s online source.
When asked what people in cities can do to acknowledge the courage of immigrants, he replies: “I think the principal thing is pretty straightforward. It’s to talk to them. It just begins with a simple thing of recognizing that people who don’t look like you or who don’t eat the same food as you or who don’t necessarily speak the language that you speak with the same degree of fluency are not necessarily less than you. And you might actually have some things in common with them. That’s the beginning of breaking down these prejudices and stereotypes about the other.”
Phillips, who teaches English at Yale University, will give a free public lecture in *Vancouver next week highlighting immigrants’ experiences in cities. He also plans to discuss some of the reasons why the relationship between generations of immigrant families can sometimes get a little frosty.
For example, his parents, who are still alive, wouldn’t talk much about the glass ceiling they encountered in the workplace – he only discerned this later in life. And he believes that many immigrant parents hide a great deal from their kids because they don’t want to open up questions about why they moved to a new country when the integration process can be such a “hellish experience.”
But Phillips emphasizes that his father didn’t conceal his frustration over his son taking up rugby.
“My dad looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t bring you all the way across the Atlantic for you to have a bunch of people jumping on your head,’ ” Phillips recalls. “As far as he was concerned, the only civilized sport was cricket. This notion of my integration into British life – wanted to play rugby – immediately opened up a kind of chasm between us. This is what I mean by the silences that punctuate the first-second generation conversation.”
Phillips was the first person in his family to attend university, and he remembers how proud his parents were at the time.
“They say, ‘What are you going to do?’ They’re secretly hoping doctor, lawyer,” he mentions with a laugh. “I said, ‘I’m actually going to sign on and claim unemployment benefits for a couple of years and try and write a book.’ They thought I was bonkers. Certainly, initially, it was as stupid as the day I came back and told them I was playing rugby for the school team.”
*The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies presents a lecture by Caryl Phillips at 6 p.m. next Thursday (May9) at the Supreme Court Building (800 Smithe Street).