In ‘the Atlantic Sound’ Caryl Phillips revisits many of the concerns that have bubbled through his fiction: the lives of people whose fates have been largely shaped by the 500 year-old relationship between West Africa and the West. As a travelogue, this book is also something of a companion volume to his fine exploration of modern European identities, ‘The European Tribe’.
Here he travels to towns that all figured prominently in the old slave triangle – England-Africa-the Americas – to gain a sense of how their contemporary realities play against their historical freight. In particular, he’s interested in the mind-set of the black diasporans he meets. What constitutes home for these ones, like himself, whose most defining characteristic has been displacement?
The book is topped and tailed by visits to Liverpool and South Carolina, but the heart of it is the trip Phillips makes to Ghana to attend ‘Panafest’, a biennial government-sponsored jamboree that seeks to exploit the growing fashion for cultural tourism amongst diasporans. The author casts a largely sardonic eye over the event’s organisational laxity, and the inability of these ‘homeward bound’ Americans and Caribbeans to be as African as they would so clearly like to be…
Well, yes. Phillips’ critique of the quixotic nature of such projects is a popular counter against the Afrocentric thinking that remains such a strong current in black western communites today. But clearly the fact that such yearnings do remain, and are being acted on, is a testament to the disaffection that many diasporans still feel in their western homes, even when it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Their prescriptions may be flawed, or unrealistic, but the passions they spring from are real and they demand, I think, a passionate, not just an intellectual, engagement. This book is billed as a ‘personal quest’ but I wanted to know more about this Caribbean-born and England-bred author’s own deep feelings to ‘home’ and how they were affected, or not, by his journey….