4.2The High Anxiety of Belonging: In the Falling Snow, Foreigners, The Final Passage
The selected novels all deal with West Indians' s (and one West African's) struggle to integrate in Britain. The setting, time and plots vary greatly from each other and as such the stories reflect deeper changes in the British society especially in terms of discrimination, generations and British identity.
Foreigners (2007) is a work of fiction consisting of three unconnected stories of different men and is largely based on historical facts: the lives of Francis Barber, an eighteenth-century personal assistant of Samuel Johnson; Randolph Turpin, a boxing champion in the fifties and David Oluwale, a Nigerian stowaway who came to Leeds in 1949, are told.
The Final Passage (1985) is a story of Leila who comes to the 50´s Britain from the West Indies with her family.
In the Falling Snow (2009) is a novel about contemporary Britain where all three generations of West Indians (or, Britons of West Indian origin) in Britain interact and through this multiple perspective show how much Britain has changed since the first larger arrivals of West Indians to Britain in the fifties. The main character Keith, a social worker in his 40s, is a British-born son of black West Indian immigrants and lives in London, separated from his wife and son.
In his fiction, Phillips is consistent with his beliefs that a writer should feel empathy to society (Desai, Phillips, and Stavans 83) and write with honesty, insight and compassion. The political is, according to him, unavoidable (ibid., 88-9).
On the other hand, he consciously tries to avoid judging the characters (Sharpe 159). While he was described as someone who engages in the theme of 'noble black suffering' in his novel Higher Ground, where black-white relationships are stereotypically described in terms of suffering Africans and plundering Europeans (Davis), the characters in the selected novels are portrayed with variety and perhaps only the story of David Oluwale in Foreigners evokes sympathy and outrage since Oluwale, despite constant racist attacks, chose to remain silent and passively receive any racial abuse.
The same themes will be analysed as the ones in the chapter on Phillips' nonfiction. Phillips is quite consistent in his subject matter even though the protagonists often belong to various ethnic groups in different time periods and space. Phillips states he is not concerned with nationality since he finds race and class much more relevant to deal with (Desai, Phillips, and Stavans 82). Also, in choosing not to succumb to literary tribalism which Shapiro finds to be the consequence of identity politics (qtd. in Craps), he does not believe in the assumption that he should be writing only about black experience. After all, human experience is largely universal.
Phillips could be regarded as one of the writers of black British literature, but his work is diverse on many levels so that he is more of world literature rather than belonging to one national literary tradition. Walkowitz states that this is because his work actually functions as world literature:
. . . they are written, printed, translated, and read in multiple places; and they analyze the relationship among multiple instances of global travel, not only sampling and collating an array of migration narratives but also rehearsing different strategies of sampling and collating. Phillip's work offers an opportunity to consider the relationship between the production and circulation of world literature because - apart from being read within several literary systems - it is written to make those systems less unique. (536)
The world literature category is compatible with the concept of the 'Black Atlantic', proposed by the cultural critic Paul Gilroy in the Black Atlantic (1993), which shies away from "nationalist and ethnically absolute approaches" to an "explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" (qtd. in Bewes 33).
In contrast, Phillips' books often reflect a search for a "common human essence across space and time" (Craps) which is achieved through a first-person narration and internal focalisation which add to sympathetic imagination, empathy and critical awareness. Such empathy should then lead to openness and respect for otherness (Craps).
4.2.1Belonging and Multiple Roots
The concept of belonging is a two-way street with an individual's will to belong somewhere and the environment's will to accept it. Michael Ignatieff, in his book The Needs of Strangers, implies that exclusive belonging stands in contrast to diversity and difference:
What is common to us matters much less than what differentiates us . . . We think of ourselves not as human beings first but as sons, and daughters, fathers and mothers, tribesmen and neighbours . . . Dignity reposes in difference, not in equality. (qtd. in Mousavizadeh 136)
Phillips sees himself as the product of a diaspora which is connected to the notion of the impossibility of return. His analysis and reworking of our received history and our own collective memory of it uses historical documents and first-person voices, in an approach he believes will lead to more understanding all the while he stays focused on the individual (Sharpe 157).
Mousavizadeh is a political scientist of Danish and Iranian background who grew up in Denmark and attended Harvard later. He draws attention to the different degree of acceptability. While he was growing up in Denmark, he never struggled to identify himself as a Dane since his upbringing among educated and affluent Danes was a very different environment from the one in which many immigrant workers live. As such, he was "interestingly different (if different at all)" (138) and received very positively. He calls his upbringing sheltered (138) and his case confirms Phillip's persuasion that race and class (or, by its extension, power) are more important to consider than nationality.
In Foreigners, David Oluwale, comes to Britain from Nigeria by himself. He finds work in a factory, lives in a crowded housing with many other foreigners and his social life evolves around a "colour bar" (164-5). He could be regarded as "interestingly different" but immigrants - at that time mainly manual workers - are often not - their working class environment usually sees them as a threat to wages and work conditions and they do not have many chances to interact with the rest of the society. Such perception of threat brings up R. E. Park's persuasion that people are not always motivated by self-interest - in certain situations, ideas, passions win over material interest since humans "live in the world of imagination" (qtd. in Lal 43). Even though Phillips shuns the concept of racial solidarity as invalid in Europe in his nonfiction, in Foreigners, he shows how other Africans tried to help David (188), which again suggests that racial or immigrant solidarity works especially among recent newcomers. When David becomes homeless, he gets arrested. He expects to be arrested (197), which sends us back to Phillip's concept of ´belonging with vigilance´ which is reflected in anxious reflexivity of the marginalized minorities.
The first story in Foreigners is dedicated to the life of a black servant of dr. Johnson, Francis Barber. Through this narrative, Phillips shows that black presence in Britain is not a case of recent history. In fact, he goes further in demonstrating that as he explains how black presence has become more permanent in Britain since the 16th century and how blacks have been in Britain since the Roman occupation (87). In this way, Phillips makes a case for belonging of blacks via a story based on historical fact.
Rootlessness and multiple roots are sometimes used interchangeably. Multiple roots, "some compatible, some not, some embraced here and not there, some celebrated in the mind, some rejected as embarrassments as remnants of a past" (Mousavizadeh 138) are not uncommon in present-day globalised world. Migration does not have to be necessarily viewed with nostalgia as leaving does not have to mean severing ties but rather multiplying them (ibid., 142). In The Final Passage, Leila, the protagonist, echoes a familiar immigrant's story of the past, accentuated by the fact that people did not have access to modern media at that time period. Leaving the safety of the family and exchanging it for the anxiety of living with strangers (15), England is presented as a place of a fresh start and few memories: "They did not want to reminisce. That would exclude the future" (15).
The familiar immigrant's story, who comes to a fairly closed society, continues. First impressions do not include just mist, umbrellas, dirty rivers or "hurried, private English faces" (121) but social differences as well since the city is quite segregated. Leila's character reveals a dynamic of vigilant mistrust towards white men whose sugary smile suggested just one characteristic to her - cowardice: " . . . as if to release it [smile] might be interpreted as sexual aggression, or colonial bullying" (152).
Leila, with little education and in a new country with a cheating and unreliable husband, finds herself feeling inadequate in general and threatened by English women (195) and she starts to long for 'home': "At least the small island she had left behind had safety and two friends, and if the price to be paid for this was a stern predictability from one day to the next then she was ready to pay it" (203).
While it was easy for the British Empire to mark out the territory outside Britain and transplant British citizens and culture on these territories, the other way round proved to be much more difficult, with riots during Thatcher's era when British-born youth of immigrant background was "trying hard to make a space for themselves" (In the Falling Snow 105).
In In the Falling Snow, the main character Keith is a British-born social worker. The novel begins with him in contemporary London suburbia:
He is walking in one of those leafy suburbs of London where the presence of a man like him still attracts curious half-glances. His jacket and tie encourage a few of the passer-bys to relax a little . . . It is painfully clear that, as far as some people are concerned, he simply doesn't belong in this part of the city. (7)
These insecurities happen inside one's mind and the power of imagination affects the person's grip on reality: "He's sure he's imagining it that the woman looked at him disdainfully" (150-1). He is aware that his feelings may be unfounded yet he cannot avoid looking at himself through the British eyes, a prisoner of his own subjective and anxious reflexivity. When Keith walks around London with his son Laurie, "he resists the urge to continue his history lecture, which is of course a veiled attempt to persuade Laurie that this is his city too” (402).
Phillips makes the theme of belonging one of the central pillars of his work, making multiple roots identification seem more plausible than ethnically and spatially exclusive societies.
When European immigrants look at themselves, they do so via a European's worldview which Mousavizadeh sees as a sort of domestic imperialism (137), "insistent upon defining and stigmatizing the Other who has become so close, so ubiquitous, so threatening". The consequence is the immigrants' suspended worldview (ibid., 137).
Hybridity is conceptually very close to belonging and recent postmodernist theories embrace the concept as somehow inevitable. Mishra counters that "having hybrid identities, not belonging anywhere or indeed belonging everywhere, may have its advantages, but these attributes must still contend with pressing circumstances like the voraciousness of 21st-century capitalism" which means one's freedom has its limitations of predetermined social positions and surrounding history.
In The Final Passage, people leaving for Britain are willing to erase their memory (16) which is one of the core characteristics of the Caribbean identities: the willingness to leave and start anew. The islands are so small and predictable (19) that departure seems like a fresh wind of change. Exchanging lack of privacy for anonymity, Leila feels sorry for anyone not wanting to leave (20). Several times, the Caribbean is set in contrast as beauty (the islands' nature) versus the possibility of realising one's ambitions in Britain (42; 103). Such willingness to leave may be translated into a presupposed wish to leave: "You mean you don't ever want to leave the island?" (114).
Hybridity comes with interconnected histories which impose order upon chaos as lack of solidified history clear of ideological undertones had been plaguing the Caribbean for a long time. When Leila tries to explain history of her West Indian village, she struggles to clarify why it is named after an Irish saint (171).
To West Indians in Britain, the British identity in The Final Passage is perceived through 'colonial' eyes since they were brought up to see it as their 'mother country' and to be proud of it yet Britain they envisaged seemed to be more like a fairytale told in colonial schools. England is then perceived more as a country of deceit since history taught West Indians that ideology can be conceited in its aims. England is then a place where a smile can mean six things at once (198). Leila's impressions of England are similar to those voiced by other West Indian writers in their books:
. . . everything seemed bleak. She quickly realised she would have to learn a new word; overcast. There were no green mountains, there were no colourful women with baskets on their heads selling peanuts or bananas or mangoes, there were no trees, no white houses on the hills, no hills, no wooden houses by the shoreline, and the sea was not blue . . . (142)
Thus West Indians' perceptions of Britain often convey a certain degree of mistrust. In In the Falling Snow, Keith's father describes typical Trinidadians' impressions of Britain (660-1): icy winters, everything is "dear", Briton's preference for orderly queues, double talk, penchant for punctuality and "sea of white faces" everywhere; Britain is then a place where a West Indian knows a lot about Britain as the vestiges of colonial education signify – they know daffodils, kings, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Nelson (661), but average Britons "don't care much for the foreigner" (662). In a reaction to the double talk, Keith's father advises his son to play the part of the stranger that nods and smiles when he is asked questions that show Britons' ignorance (663).
If it's racist, then it's not a joke. (Foreigners 204)
The three selected novels show an interesting shift in the realm of stereotypes and discrimination practices. In Foreigners, Samuel Johnson's servant Barber is regarded as someone whose hygiene is naturally poor (8) and his children are called "creatures" (18). Johnson's idea of Jamaica was colourfully pronounced as "a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves" (24). Such perception puts Britain and Jamaica in direct opposition to each other - Jamaica as a place of little culture, Britain as epitome of civilisation which makes a statement of black-and-white perception of the world; a perception which has mellowed into today's regard for no clear-cut vision or worldview. By law, it was illegal for blacks to learn a trade in the 18th century (30).
When Randolph Turpin started winning in the boxing matches in the fifties, Britons had no trouble calling him "their champion" (80). Phillips often mentions in his nonfiction and fiction the healing and uniting power of sport or music and this is a historic example how sport was able to bring people together. Turpin's sporting achievements did not save his family from racial slurs such as "dirty" or "khaki-coloured" (83) but it enabled him to rise from his working-class environment.
The novel then shows that while towards the end of the twentieth century discrimination has become subtler in the language and practices, the fifties and sixties had powerful tools to ensure no black immigrants were getting ahead such as short-term imprisonment (158) or stay in a mental institution because of one's attitude (174). Bars had quota for blacks but most of them barred blacks altogether (166).
The above-mentioned examples demonstrate how the system managed to fail its West Indian immigrants through institutions which were supposed to ensure justice or fair treatment but deceitfully ensured only one aim that was to keep immigrants segregated and void of power, voice and representation.
In The Final Passage, Leila and Michael, like most other West Indians in the fifties, face housing discrimination (155) and the job interviews are energised by ignorant questions such as how many wives one has or if one had been to prison before (166).
The novel In the Falling Snow offers a glimpse at contemporary Britain, void of outright racial abuse; Britain of politically correct language and institutions such as Race Equality agency where Keith works. A shift in the society is clear - ideology realized in acts of language (which evolved into a very inclusive politically correct speech) signifies how ideology is in constant change and shows how these statements are rooted in the social and historical context (Billig 217). Albeit, racial awareness still functions as a marker of difference. Keith is asked to speak on behalf of his race in order to explain it ( In the Falling Snow 114) when police officers ask him to clarify black anger. Although Phillips has been labelled as being too political and showing blacks as noble sufferers (Davis), he does not save Keith from having his own set of prejudices he displays when he meets a Polish woman: "But it's Poland, right. Home of Treblinka and Auschwitz. You don't change people's minds in a couple of generations" (198-9).
When Keith's son Laurie falls behind with his school work, the headmaster loses himself in the politically correct talk of a different "cultural cachet of the ethnic way of life" (579). Keith's work reports are filled with similar inoffensive language which calls for recognitions of people with "specific religious, cultural, or dietary needs" and facilities should be "genuinely multicultural" (599). Such use of language reflects a deeper change in the British cultural psyche where difference is tolerated and encouraged.
By comparing The Final Passage and In the Falling Snow it could be seen that Phillips managed to show different pictures of society's portrayal of sexuality. The former novel takes place in the fifties and the latter in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In The Final Passage, Leila is warned by a friend in the West Indies that "white women do anything to get their hands on a piece of coloured man" (114), which adds to Leila's distance to or mistrust of white English women. Her mother reiterates the advice by stating that Leila can never trust white people (129). Leila's husband Michael receives similarly stereotype-tinged advice from a friend: "Well, all you need to remember is they treat us worse than their dogs. The women expect you to do tricks with your biceps and sing calypso, or to drop down on one knee and pretend you're Paul Robeson or somebody" (168). Leila admits she had always been led to believe that "all white women in England loved coloured men" (190). During the fifties era, information accessibility or the lack of thereof meant friendly advice was a valued piece of information and myths and stereotypical representations were easily spread and believed: "Man had filled his head with ideas, half-formed, half-truths, uncritical, myth, none of which could be verified except by trust" (102).
On the other hand, In the Falling Snow deals with a demographically and culturally different Britain. Three generations interact and it is mainly the parents of Keith and his white ex-wife who seem to be ridden with similar stereotypes as the ones in The Final Passage. Keith's son Laurie lives in a very different world from the one described by Keith's father to Keith:
. . . don't bother going to any dance club without a girl, coloured or white. They don't care what kind of girl you bring, but what they don't want is no single coloured man prowling around the place . . . They believe all this inter-racial business begin in the dance hall . . . (737)
4.2.5Three Generations of West Indians in Britain
Since the arrival of a significant number of West Indians in Britain in the fifties, three generations have already been calling Britain home. This has meant an evolution in their perception of Britain as their home, their stereotypes or their prejudice. The generation gaps may be even wider because of acculturation and infrequent interaction with the land of ancestry.
Moving to a new country as a family puts strains on the relationships. Even though Leila and Michael are a married couple in The Final Passage, Michael decides to choose a new start in Britain; a start without any burdens of his past: "If England was the place that Alphons Walters had led him to believe it was, then how much energy could he afford to waste continually patching up this newly repaired but still leaky marriage?" (169-70).
In Foreigners, having a mixed-race family meant for the Turpins encounters with hostility and outright racial prejudice during the fifties (83; 144). There were several occasions in British history when prejudice was challenged. One of those was David Oluwale's death in 1969 as a consequence of police brutality. His death had an impact on a whole generation (204).
The plots of the novel In the Falling Snow are largely built on the interaction of three different generations. The parents of Keith's (white) ex-wife are more traditional in the sense of opposition to interracial marriage, since, in their view, "people can be very cruel" (78) which, they could be - a 60s study on intermarriage showed that unlike children of higher classes, children from interracial marriage and the working class often experienced some form of racist treatment (Hiro 309) which manifests the reinforcing and cross-cutting impact and influence of race and class. Keith and Annabelle are divorced in the novel but the novel turns attention to interracial marriage which Jacobson and Heaton in an article on family studies dissect in the following way:
Inter-group marriage is often viewed as the last barrier to racial integration. Marriage publicly and legally formalizes an intimate relationship between partners, and between parents and children. Presumably those who marry interracially do not see the race of their partner as a boundary limiting interpersonal interaction though others often do. Further, the presence of mixed race couples and their children may blur racial boundaries. Patterns of intermarriage thus provide an assessment of the strength of barriers against inter-group intimate contact.
Keith's father belongs to a generation that preferred to have a social circle of people of West Indian background (In the Falling Snow 461) and at the end of their lives, they seem disillusioned with Britain where they can find little to be proud of (486). It is also a generation that generally longs to go 'home' to the West Indies but cannot afford it. Keith's father believed that black and white children should be brought up differently (491).
On the other hand, Keith's teenage son Laurie does not question his identity in terms of belonging too much. A trip to Spain sounds more interesting than a trip to the Caribbean (311; 317). Laurie sees resistance not as a problem of only discrimination but respect as well: "You can't just let people large it up in your face and disrespect you" (414). Keith, on the other hand, believes it is more important to act one's age, not one's colour (415).
Keith's ex-wife sees the difference in the upbringing of Laurie, who does not seem to be very 'streetwise' since he did not grow up in the white working class estate with streets full of National Front supporters (501). When Laurie gets into trouble and the whole family finds itself at the police station, Keith wants to make sure Laurie was not racially abused but Laurie replies that the policeman was black (558-9). In this way, Phillips skillfully challenges the reader's presuppositions and postulates the image of diverse contemporary Britain.