Yale English professor Caryl Phillips visited Stuyvesant High School on Wednesday, March 28, to speak to English teacher Walter Gern’s three sophomore Modern European Literature (E4ME) classes in the library during 5th period. The topic of discussion was Phillips’s 2008 essay, “Rude Am I in My Speech,” which explores the connections between “Othello” and Phillips’s father.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Phillips has published many dramas, award-winning novels, and other works, including his most recent collection of essays, “Colour Me English,” which was published in 2011. His plays have been produced for the stage, television, radio, and cinema. Phillips was first invited to visit Stuyvesant by Brenda Lee, Gern’s assistant teacher.
“About 15 years ago, I read a novel he [Phillips] had written that had a beautiful and accurate description of the condition of Holocaust survivors, which I used in my sophomore classes to talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Gern said. “When the opportunity arose for him to come here, I was thrilled.”
Phillips, whose father emigrated from the West Indies to England, expressed a personal connection to Othello as the son of an immigrant who had somewhat acclimated to life in a new culture. Several students were able to relate to this connection as first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States. “I really appreciated what [Phillips] was saying about Othello and his own father,” sophomore Jason Polychronakos said. “I’m a second generation immigrant, too, and I could understand his point of view.”
Phillips currently serves as a professor at Yale University, teaching Contemporary British Fiction and Literature of the Middle Passage, but he has also worked at Barnard College and Amherst College, as well as in Sweden, India, Singapore, Poland, Ghana and London as a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer.
Many of Phillips’s plays, which have been performed nationally and internationally, have received notable awards, including the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Essence Literary Award Finalist, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, among others. Phillips offered his interpretation of “Othello” to the students and answered questions pertaining to the racial discrimination in the play, as well as racial discrimination he has encountered in his lifetime.
“I really enjoyed Phillips’s presentation because it gave insight into how a writer thinks about and analyzes Shakespeare. His answers to our questions reflected his thought process when writing, something that is not taught in class,” sophomore Richard Yip said. “The comparison he made in his essay between his father and Othello made me realize just how complex a character Othello is.” “One [question] of my favorites was when a student asked him about Shakespeare and he said that it didn’t really matter what Shakespeare’s intention was while writing, but what the reader gets from what he wrote,” Lee said. Phillips also answered questions the students had on his relationship with his father and the contradicting views and values they had as first- and second-generation immigrants. “He wanted to assimilate to British culture, but had difficulty with it because his father was so skeptical of this western culture,” Lee said. “I thought this could appeal to students, a lot of whom are first generation immigrants or immigrants themselves.”
Ultimately, Gern, Lee, and the students were pleased with their day spent in the presence of a professional, widely-acclaimed writer. “It was really interesting how he managed to connect with us,” sophomore Yaseen Islam said. “He had a lot of stories that students could relate to, and I took away a lot from this experience.”