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TitleCaryl Phillips: Writing in the Key of Life
TagsNovels Essays Narrative Heart Of Darkness Joseph Conrad
File Size8.5 MB
Total Pages439
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Writing in the Key of Life

Page 219

 “The cloud of ambivalence” 197



Elland Road and muttered those words for the first time. And I say back to
that child today, “And you will always be Leeds, for they are a mirror in
which you will see reflected the complexity that is your life.” (“LU,” 301)



A momentary unity (“All together now”) is created as the fans assume a col-
lective identity, repeating their football-chant mantra. Belonging, it seems,
needs to be continually asserted in order to become believable. Like the diffi-
cult representation of slavery in Phillips’s novels, in which he refuses to re-
duce the complexity of this past to a simple, manichaean, politics of accusa-
tion and innocence, his depiction of the legacies of this past, such as belong-
ing and identity for non-white Britons, is also complicated. Leeds United may
remind Phillips of who he is but, as we shall see, this reminder is arguably of
his difference; it is not an easy affiliation with the white football fans. I would
contend that the above passage also indicates that identities are performative,
suggesting Bhabha’s notion of the pedagogical and the performative, on
which I shall now elaborate.
In his essay “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Mod-
ern Nation” (1990), Bhabha writes of the heterogeneity of the nation – the
numerous histories and points of cultural difference that preclude the estab-
lishment of a homogeneous national identity. There occurs, he suggests,


a split between the continuist, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical,
and the repetitious, recursive strategy of the performative. It is through this
process of splitting that the conceptual ambivalence of modern society be-
comes the site of writing the nation.16



For Bhabha, therefore, the pedagogical is a continuous history, a linear move-
ment through time, whereas the performative is continually repeating and
non-progressive. In A New World Order, we can see that, by donning a foot-
ball shirt, the fans perform an identity as supporters of a certain team and, in
so doing, also as British citizens. Against this performative, and repetitive,
aspect of British identity runs the pedagogical. The belief in the uninterrupted
continuity of British history is expressed in George Orwell’s essay “England
Your England,” explored by Phillips in A New World Order. Completely
ignoring centuries of migration to Britain and, of course, the involuntary ar-
rival of slaves from Africa, Orwell is confident in claiming that



16 Bhabha, The Location of Culture: 145–46.

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198 AB I G A I L WA R D 



British people had no desire to view themselves as a nation of immigrants,
and that a sense of continuity with the past was a crucial determinant of
national identity.17



This idea of the unbroken continuity of British history has also been used by
Enoch Powell, and has a far-reaching historical basis. As Ian Baucom states,


the strategy of disavowing blackness in order to negatively invoke a racially
pure English identity draws on a long history of the reading of Englishness as
primarily a racial category.18



The persistent belief in the coalition of race and nationality, which prompts
the exclusionary tactics deployed against Phillips by fans of opposing teams,
is clearly not a late-twentieth- or early-twenty-first-century phenomenon.
While a temporary solidarity may be introduced by assuming an identity as
a Leeds United supporter, for fans like Phillips this identity remains volatile
and uneasy. The mirror in this case is provided by his football team; in Phil-
lips’s works, mirrors can be found in different, often unexpected places. A
mirror is a crucial tool in terms of identity-construction and, importantly, is
not connected with how you are perceived by others but, rather, with how you
perceive yourself.19 If, as Phillips argues, he is often perceived by other Brit-
ons as not belonging in Britain, his affiliation with Leeds United provides him
with a mirror in which he sees the confirmation that his identity is complex
and that he does not, to use his terminology, easily “belong.”
Phillips suggests, therefore, that moments of belonging are always tempo-
rary. When he travelled to France during the World Cup to watch England
play against Colombia, he admits that he rose to sing the national anthem,
“with a vigour that shocked [him]”:


For a moment the cloud of ambivalence was lifted. I belonged. Why not, I
wondered, submit to the moment and cease struggling? After all, what is
wrong with a tee-shirt emblazoned with the Union Jack? The sixties and


17 Caryl Phillips, “The Pioneers: Fifty Years of Migration to Britain,” 266. Orwell’s

essay is entitled “England Your England,” but his focus is on Britain, rather than England.
18 Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire and the Locations of Identity (Prince-

ton N J : Princeton U P , 1999): 15. Again, while Baucom refers to England, his comments are
fully applicable to Britain.

19 Though, of course, the two versions of identity (self-identification and identification by
others) are inextricably linked, as Phillips has stated: “Growing up in England in [. . . ] that
heavy time of Enoch Powell and the Notting Hill riots, created an anxiety in me and others
about how we fitted into Britain. When I looked in the mirror I saw someone who was told
to go back where he came from.” See Harry Eyres, “Home Is Where the Art Is,” The Times
(London; 11 May 1993): 33.

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416 WR I T I N G I N T H E KE Y O F L I F E 

Page 439

 Index 417

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