“I write only when I have something to say” — How should a Caribbean writer of my generation take this? Moreover, Is it a good advice for a teacher to give her writing students?
Caryl Phillips and I share similar stories. We are both writers, teachers, and people of Caribbean ancestry; we are both emigrants to the United States; and, despite our deep discomfort with America’s racialized atmosphere, we both feel a strong connection to US life, culture, and literature. It makes sense that I should look to him for guidance about how to be a storyteller and a teacher of creative writing.
Yet, as I listened to Phillips in conversation with Corina Stan and John Plotz in last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue, I felt some of my long-held (and long-suppressed) writerly anxieties re-emerge. Near the end of the conversation, Phillips claimed that he writes only when “he has something to say.” It’s a bold claim, but also a difficult one. How should a Caribbean writer of my generation take this? Moreover, is it good advice for a teacher to give her writing students?
Each generation asks the question “why write” anew. What would it have meant for Phillips to ask this during his time at Oxford, in the 1970s, when the canon was restricted to white writers? What about his fellow Antillean Jamaica Kincaid, who grew up without knowing that anyone of her generation could even be a writer? Neither Phillips nor Kincaid had the luxury of knowing a career as a writer was possible, if not practical. Having something to say seemed less urgent than knowing whether anyone cared to listen.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t serious limitations that affect Caribbean writers who are building their careers today—foremost among them a publishing industry beholden to readers who want the same stories told over and over. Once again, the question “why write” is countered by a discouraging “who will listen to what I have to say?”
This is why I teach my students that they need to know who they are writing for, and what they are writing towards. I want my students to believe that their interiorities and the fullness of their lives are important—to them, to their families, to their communities. I advise them to write themselves into a world that is often hostile to their voices, stories, and histories.
Isn’t this why Phillips writes? Think of how he illuminates the lives of enslaved people in Crossing the River (1993), or how he accesses the interiority of white creole women in A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018). In his best novels, Phillips writes to memorialize people who history would otherwise forget.
It may be that Phillips’s interest in the injustices of the past has made him uneasy about the future. At one point in last week’s conversation, Stan asked Phillips if he would consider writing a letter to his sons, in the style of James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates. He demurred. Although he understood the impulse, he doesn’t have faith, necessarily, in the next generation’s ability to learn from those that came before them.
For all our similarities, this is where Phillips and I diverge. No one can develop a roadmap for future generations. But when a student asks me why she should keep writing, I pause before I answer. She will have to navigate the difficult question of whether anyone will listen. But first, like Kincaid, Phillips, and myself—she must open her mouth, and speak.
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