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Phillips presents new novel Dancing in the Dark

Author Caryl Phillips' fiction is often set in the past, but he does not characterize his work as historical fiction. "[Fiction that is] set in a different time has the same problem as contemporary fiction," said Phillips, "in that the author has to make choices about what elements of the real world to include in his fictional landscape. "The more difficult task is developing the interior life of the characters-the research, the nuts and bolts of historical detail, it's actually quite pleasurable to get the facts and figures, like being a weird literary detective." His newest book, Dancing in the Dark, is set in fin de siècle America and tells the story of the African American vaudevillian Bert Williams. Phillips will be on campus on Nov. 3 to talk about Dancing in the Dark and about the role that performance has played in the American immigrant experience.

Caryl Phillips
Caryl Phillips

Phillips is himself an immigrant; born in St. Kitts, he emigrated to Great Britain as a child and now lives in New York City. A prolific writer, he is the author of eight novels and three nonfiction books as well as numerous dramatic works for stage and screen. Much of his previous fiction has focused on the black experience, especially as it relates to the slave trade. Phillips acknowledged that the issue of race underlies much of his work but added, "I usually pick people [to write about] who are facing a crossroads, a dilemma, a turning point. There has to be something that is special, some sort of friction, which has made this a turning point, whether it is the relationship to themselves, their family, society. Race is just one of the factors that can lead to that friction."

For Williams, race was indeed a source of friction. A light-skinned African American who performed at the turn of the century, he attained enormous celebrity for a black man of his era. In many respects, his achievements were groundbreaking; he was among the few black performers to appeal to white audiences and he was known as a gifted comic. Nevertheless, he suffered innumerable indignities due to his race and his onstage persona tended to validate and reinforce many of the worst stereotypes whites held about blacks. At the time, it was common practice for white vaudevillians to black their faces in imitation of a racist caricature. What initially drew Phillips to Williams' story was a picture he saw a decade ago depicting the light-skinned black man in blackface. "It's a distressing thing to see a black guy blacking up his face. That was the initial fascination-why someone would willingly choose to do that," said Phillips.

During his research, Phillips discovered that he had ample latitude to imagine the answers to that question. Williams left almost no written record of his interior life-no journals or letters-and although Phillips initially found this disappointing, he came to feel that "there were no materials to get in the way of my imagination. It was actually quite a good thing because it left a big space."

Phillips' lecture will be held on Nov. 3 at 4 p.m. in the Sanborn Library of the Sanborn House. The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by a book signing.  Call 646-2316 for more information.

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08