Award-winning author and Yale’s recently tapped novelist-in-residence Caryl Phillips shared excerpts from his latest novel, “Dancing in the Dark,” with an audience of nearly 100 students and faculty yesterday.
During the reading, Phillips delivered passages from his book that narrates the life of Bert Williams, the first black entertainer in the United States to achieve great levels of renown and success through his controversial performances, which caricatured African Americans in a manner that some said was degrading. Phillips, who has taught writing and post-colonial literature courses at universities all over the world, joined the English Department’s senior faculty this semester as a tenured professor after serving for eight years as a professor at Barnard College.
The department hired Phillips because of his approach to literature as a fusion of cultural studies and fiction writing as well as his talent as a prolific writer, English Department Chair Landon Hammer said.
“We have an exceptional writing faculty, but we wanted someone who could help act as a bridge between the writing program and the rest of the curriculum,” Hammer said. “Phillips is distinguished in being an exceptional man of letters, writing in all genres, and holding an international audience. He is both someone who will teach subjects such as post-colonial literature and have his works appear on that class’s syllabus.”
Phillips’ internationally recognized works, which have earned him numerous awards including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, explore the relationship between race, identity and heritage, a subject he has a personal interest in as a second-generation British man from the West Indies.
Despite his accolades, Phillips — who was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and raised in Leeds, England — said he faced a number of obstacles on the path to success.
“[My] challenges were the same as those of any black working-class kid in England,” Phillips said in an interview. “Lower standards were held for you. The biggest challenge was to keep the bar set high.”
Phillips said he decided to pursue writing because he was attracted to the idea of giving a voice to untold stories.
“Why did I start writing? It was not out of any sense of ambition,” Phillips said. “I just had something to say.”
This semester, Phillips is teaching a seminar on advanced fiction writing at Yale. Students in Phillips’ course said they are fond of how he encourages students to share their opinions in discussions.
Caroline Kriss ’06, another student in Phillips’ seminar, said she likes the professor’s critical approach to writing.
“It’s the first class I have ever been in where I am asked to criticize what the writer [of a published work] did wrong, as opposed to what he did right,” Kriss said. “It’s refreshing and empowering to put a critical eye to a published work.”
It was Phillips’ dedication to his work that initially impressed Maya Wainhaus, one of Phillips’ former students at Barnard who currently works as his assistant.
“What struck me as a student was how seriously he takes the subject of writing,” Wainhaus said. “The fact that he teaches is such an important part of his work.”
Hammer said he thinks Phillips will add a new dimension to the English department.
“Yale has an extended history of distinguished writers among our faculty such as John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren and John Hollander,” Hammer said. “Phillips is an extension of this. He represents new directions for both the writing program and the English department as a whole.”
Irwin, who attended yesterday’s event, said she noticed that Phillips’ warm personality shined through at the reading and she found the audience receptive to Phillips’ oration.
“I saw a lot of people nodding their heads at what he was saying [during the reading], and I suspect people are excited to hear more from him as he continues his career here,” Irwin said.