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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Atlantic Sound, Caryl Phillips

The Atlantic Sound, Caryl Phillips

Genre and Reasons For Writing 

  • When asked what prompted him to write The Atlantic Sound Phillips replied: ‘No real moment. I always have some notion of a subject, but between the notion and the book there's much transformation!’ 
  • Yet when asked if he was searching for something personal the reply was: ‘I'm always searching to simply understand. There are no real answers, only a better understanding. From writing The Atlantic Sound, I've gained a better understanding of the complexities of history, replete as it is with ironies and surprising stories of courage and loss.’ 
  • Travel writing became the instrument for which Phillips could do this. 
  • The travel writing genre is taken to new heights by Phillips, and other 20th century writers. 
  • These countertravelers have broken the stereotype of the travel writer as white, male and middle class 
  • Instead of trying to please the reader with the exotic or to boost their national identity ‘countertravel writing aims at shaking the reader’s complacency through the “unmapping” of the “mapped” world views. 
  • Phillips’s revision of Europe’s historical involvement in the slave trade through his trips across the atlantic provides him with an opportunity to take up his perennial occupation with notions of home, belonging and cultural identity and also to further understand the history from whence he came. 
  • The travelogue is a valid genre in which to do this. The formal flexibility common to the modern travelogue lets Phillips explore his history and identity through various modes of research. 
  • The Atlantic sound is a blend of intriguing historical passages, geographical descriptions, fictionalised narratives, interviews, newspaper articles, letters, poems, extracts from courtroom proceedings, speeches, and endless strings of epigraphs which give the author, and the reader, the means to understand the history of the slave trade in the cities with the most involvement, Liverpool and Charleston. 
  • Phillips’s large personal investment in his travel writing is exemplified in the fact that he starts his Atlantic tour with a trip from the Caribbean to England 
    • Through his Atlantic crossing as an adult Phillips explores his identity in the extent to which he can relate to his parents’ generation 
    • Yet he is a very different kind of traveller – his parents travelled to England with a sense of ‘hope and expectation’ (p.16) but Phillips travelled towards Britain ‘with a sense of knowledge and propriety” (p.16) 
    • In his atlantic crossing Phillips shuttles between the roles of insider and outsider, between the sensitised son of Caribbean immigrants and the educated British scholar 
    • This role shifting exemplifies Phillips’s inability to pin down his cultural allegiances 
    • Although Phillips can sympatise with his parents he realises he holds a very different position. In spite of being in British society, Phillips complains that he is not being perceived of the society. 
    • Phillips shows uneasiness about critics labelling his as a British writer, a black writer, a West Indian writer and a Caribbean writer instead of a diasporic intellectual 
    • In this light Phillips’s travels in the narrative are not emotionally loaded experiences. A trend undercutting all notions of original identity is what is actually portrayed in the travelogue. 
  • After his personal prologue we hear of Phillips’s travels from Liverpool to Ghana to Charleston 
    • Describing Liverpool Phillips states: ‘history is so physically present, yet so glaringly absent from people’s consciousness in the Northern city’ (p.93) 
    • On Charleston Phillips says: “it shocking that so much of [its] true, complex, hybrid history is hidden behind a slick, neatly-presented facade.” 
    • Phillips is disturbed that such a key part of the history of the two cities, the slave trade, is absent. 
  • The form of the postcolonial travelogue allows Phillips to critique the cultures which we so involved in the slave trade yet are quick to forget them. 
  • Phillips’s wanderings have allowed him to deal with a wide array of issues such as the cultural affiliations of people of African descent, their dispersal in the Atlantic world or their revision of Western history. 
  • His exploration of the history allows him to try and place himself within this history yet his last words in the narrative are: ‘it is futile to walk in the face of history’ (p.221) highlighting that identity is not found in the past but in the future to be made. 
  • When asked what one idea he would like The Atlantic Sound to convey, Phillips answers, "The idea that history is not as simple or simplistic as the manner in which it is presented. We are encouraged to view history as an extended interview with the ‘winners’. Well, some of the so-called ‘losers’ have an equally valid, and important, point of view as well" 
  • The subjective drive which underlies The Atlantic Sound, Phillips grappling with his identity as Black and British and understanding true cultural history, is characteristic of the centrality of the personal in the contemporary form of the modern travelogue

    John Ocansey’s Story

    • In chapter one, Philips takes the majority of the chapter to tell the story of John Ocansey.

    “Ocansey was bound for the world-famous port of Liverpool in England, in order that he might discover what had happened to the money accrued from goods dispatched by his father, William Narh Ocansey, during the course of the previous year” (p. 24)

    • Philips does not mention the relevance on telling Ocansey’s story nor does he mention the story again throughout the book, it almost seems random within The Atlantic Sound. However, when researching Ocansey and his trading business it seems they were well known traders in Africa.

    “Hickson and Sykes referred to W. N. Ocansey and Sons as “the best traders on the Coast” because they could “buy [oil] cheaper than other traders””

    • Therefore we can see from this that people spoke highly on W. N. Ocaney and Sons and their business. Not only this Dumett stated that:

    “W. N. Ocansey attained success gradually as a palm oil exporter during two decades of rising prices and demand for the product in Europe”

    • W. N. Ocansey and Sons was a clearly well known trading business, it seems odd however that Philips decided to tell this story of John coming to Liverpool and not justify why he mentioned it. On page 23 of The Atlantic Sound Phillips gives a short paragraph relating to the relationship between black people and white people in terms of trade

    The African dispatches the money to the white man and his African heart swells with pride. The African hopes for a new dawn; a brighter future. Luck has not been on his side. For many years now there have been problems. But, with the help of the white man, he can once again become great…” (p.23)

    • Throughout the story of John Ocansey’s visit to Liverpool Philips repeats small parts of the paragraph which relate to the story he is telling. Oboe and Scacchi say that: “To further enhance Ocansey’s alienation, Philips punctuates his story with brief, lyrical passages hinting at the complicity of Africans in the slave trade”. The paragraph relates to the trade between W.N.Ocansey and Sons and Robert W. Hickson.
    • When analysing the text Oboe and Scacchi refer to the italics as the “historical voices” in which John hears. They say that: “In The Atlantic Sound, the “historical voices” contribute to John’s confusing in what is already a complex relationship with his “father”. John’s sojourn in Liverpool lasts a few months, long enough, however, for him to reflect on the emotional effects that the forced separation from one’s homeland ultimately produces on isolated subjects”.
    • Philips clearly saw it as important to include this paragraph in italics to show the connection to trade between the “white man” and the “African” and also how it relates to the story of John Ocansey.
    • Philips does not specify the reason why he mentions the story of Ocansey in so much detail in his book, however, we can only guess that he wants us to see the relationship of trade between Africa and Britain.


    • The notion of homeland is firstly seen with the way the book is broken up; the first chapter titled “leaving home”, the second “homeward bound” and the third “home”.
    • Caryl Phillips is a perfect example of a person who has grown up in a Diaspora, what with his birthplace being the Caribbean, growing up in the UK and now calling the United States home
      • The question. The problem question for those of us who have grown up in societies which define themselves by excluding others... ‘So my friend, you are going home to Africa. To Ghana.’ I say nothing. No, I am not going home”.(p.98)
    • Unlike other books on African Diasporas, Phillips is not necessarily on a quest to find his “homeland” but is in fact examining why so many “return”, only to find is sometimes not what they expect.
      • “Enthusiasm by those overseas who, upon arriving in the Americas, were suddenly distressed to discover they were black...there were engendered in their souls the romantic yearning to return “home” to a family and a place where they could be free from the stigma of race”. (p.113)
    • Reasons include a lack of acceptance by many residents of these homelands and cultural collision
      • In the US - the problem is colour; in Liverpool – the problem is the country of origin and that they are not “Liverpool Born Black”.
    • That these countries are not their homeland
      • “The States has let them down in some way and they expect Africa to solve their problems for them...the states has got problems but it’s their home”. (p.122)
      • “People of the diaspora who expect the continent to solve whatever psychological problems they possess”. (p.172)
    • Phillips describes the journey of those from homelands looking for a new and better life such as Mansour. He also discusses the journey of many from the United States back to what they deemed as home in Africa, either as a means of escaping prejudice or because of incentives offered to them such as the “Hashuvah movement”
      • “They travelled in the hope that the mother country would remain true to her promise that she would protect the children of her fact, much to their dismay, they discovered that the mother country had little, if any, desire to embrace her colonial offspring”. (p.15)
    • Many biblical references are made to the concept of homeland, with the epilogue titled exodus and the numerous references to Israel and promised land
      • “His understanding of the Bible had led him to believe that God would eventually lead black people in America out of their bondage...back to the promised land, the land of the ancestors” (p.161)
    • Phillips can be seen to be questioning the romanticised quests of many to find their homelands as a way of solving their problems
      • “Where a man keeps his memories is the place he should call home”. (p.93)

    Selective Memory

    • Throughout “The Atlantic Sound”, it is noticeable that there is the underlying notion of selective memory, and the lack of commemoration or recognition of certain past events that have shaped black history.
    • Phillips’ interest in looking to the history of memory can be linked to the memory boom of the late C20th.
    • Most noticeably, the history of slavery, as seen in modern day Liverpool as well as in America with Sullivan’s island
      • “Like Liverpool, the city of Charleston also possesses a hidden history that is centred on the slave trade”. (p.87)
    • Sullivan’s Island has been described as the “Black Ellis island” and holds a lot of history of the Atlantic slave trade, however, Phillips finds it difficult to garner any information on its past. When asking for where the “pest houses” once were, no locals could tell him; this is an example of the problem of selective memory.
    • “I asked him if renovation might not be seen as a process of literally and metaphorically whitewashing history... ‘do you think we need to be reminded about slavery? We know’”. (p.119)
    • He also looks at how Charleston seems to be trying to hide its history of racism and prejudice.
    • As recounted in the Charleston City Paper, Phillips referred to the history of memory and how most of the time it is an interview with the winners, and how many so-called losers have important things to say
      • This could be seen as a reference to the efforts made by Judge Waring and his wife, to remove racial inequality from Charleston
      • Although they succeeded to some extent, they made a lot of enemies and effectively lost their “home”.

     A movement to unify all of Africa and African people into one community

    Phillips in conversation with Charles Rhyne:

    CR:: In The Atlantic Sound, you don’t seem sold on Pan-Africanism What is your stance regarding it?
    CP:: I have no stance on Pan-Africanism, as such. I empathize with the impulse behind the theory, but between theory and practice much is lost. Idle romanticism helps nobody.
    • Amalgamation of the history of all Africans and African descendants as one
      • With the theory of Pan-Africanism all those connected to Africa should be able to come together with a common past and linkage to Africa. Phillips is sceptical of the possibility of this commonality and how this will help the continent of Africa and the countries within it in the long run.
        • Panafest
          • “Panafest is to be a time when the diasporan family returns to the Mother Africa to celebrate the arts, creativity and intellectual achievements of the Pan African world” (133)
          • Phillips description of a lack of cohesion between the different groups shows just the surface of the difficulties that face Pan-Africanism. For example, Dr Ben Abdallah's description of how Ghanaian schools teach slavery “'It is taught', he said, 'with the understanding that those sold into slavery were not always that good, and that in some respects they got what they deserved.'” (pg 117) is in contrast to “an American, wears a bright yellow costume which is decorated with a drawing of human cargo that is laid out in the hold of a slave ship. Above it are written the words, 'Never forgive, Never Forget'.” (pg 136)
          • Panafest manifested too many differences between the different groups for there to be a belief that Pan-Africanism is an achievable goal.
        • Charleston Festival of African and Carribean Art
          • “There are no 'African-Americans', only 'Africans'. Everybody is 'Brother' or 'Sister'. Here in Charleston.” (pg 213)
          • “threads that connect them to the imagined old life” (pg 213)
          • Pan-Africanism seems much more achievable in this removed place of Charleston, where they are calling themselves the collective Africans. However, it is an imagined ideal Africa that is bringing them together, one that is removed from the intrinsics of politics and history that prevails in the continent of Africa.
    • “You people” “So much for Pan-Africanism, I thought” (pg 118)
      • Dr. Ben Abdallah describes how certain sites means different things for those who stayed in Ghana and Africa and those in the diaspora, separating them off as “You people”. Despite his advocacy for Pan-Africanism, those in the diaspora are a separate entity fro Dr. Ben Abdallah. “It is your history, and their decline is not the fault of the Ghanaians.” (pg 118) They have separate histories, and it is not the responsibility of the Ghanaians to preserve another group's history. Phillips sounds disappointed that one the great advocates for Pan-Africanism dismisses those in the diaspora, perhaps as not being as deserving of being included in Pan-Africanism.
    • “They think that if they dress down and filthy then they are being African” (pg 172)
      • A hotel worker, Kate, is lamenting the Jamaican guests who seem determined to return to their African roots by cooking over fires in their rooms, using drugs and dressing “ethnically”. Phillips describes many of the diaspora who attend Panafest as being determined to reconnect with their roots, and remembering the traditions of their ancestors, despite the fact that Ghana and Africa has modernised and moved on from the time the Diaspora left Africa. The Pan-African continent the Diaspora are aspiring to is an imagined one of the past, whereas Dr. Ben Abdallah and others are working for a modern and relevant Pan-African continent.

    Dumett, R.E, “African Merchants of the Gold Coast, 1860 - 1905 - Dynamics of Indigenous Entrepreneurship” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol 25 no. 4 (19
    83) pp. 661- 69

    Moorhouse, Geoffrey; "African Connection";

     Oboe, A. and Scacchi, A. (eds.) Recharting the Black Atlantic: Modern Cultures, Local Communities, Global Connections (Routledge, 2008)

     Ropero, Maria Lourdes Lopez, 'Travel Writing and Postcoloniality: Caryl Phillips's The Atlantic Sound', Atlantis Vol. 25 (June, 2003), pp.51-61

    Saez, Elena Machado; "Postcoloniality, Atlantic Orders and the Migrant Male in the Writings of Caryl Phillips"; Small Axe; Volume 9; 2005; pp.17-39

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