24 October 2011
Caryl Phillips: Cambridge
Cultural identity is an important aspect of our existence. It determines who we are and what we are; it is our connection to people who share our beliefs, customs, values and experiences. In Part One of the novel Cambridge by Caryl Phillips, Emily, having been uprooted from her native land, struggles to discover her true cultural identity, while trying to understand the culture of her new residence on a West Indian plantation. In Part Two Cambridge describes his transition from his African cultural identity to his European cultural identity, and his desperate quest to hang on to the latter during re-enslavement on the West Indian plantation. Through these characters, Caryl Phillips not only portrays the clash between oppressor and oppressed, but he also conveys the idea, even within a context of exploitation, that cultural identity is a continuous process of exchange and transformation. When she arrives on the island, Emily, unaccustomed to leadership, renovates her identity to conform to the oppressor’s ideology. Initially she is described as the “ambassadress of grace” (3), thereby epitomizing the ideology of a nineteenth-century European woman; she displays feminine refinement, modesty, and subservience to the white male. Once on the plantation, she asserts herself as quizzical but knowledgeable, strong, and arrogant in an effort to understand and form an identity for herself. As a result, she draws an unbreachable line of demarcation between her and her lowly slaves; she acts clearly superior in actions, thoughts, deeds and being. She often likens them to animals; for example, she described Christiania as “the coal-black ape woman” (73) and the children as “the parcel of monkeys” (23). Her racial prejudice, compounded by ignorance and misinformation, clouds her humanity towards the slaves on the plantation, including her loyal servant Stella. Through Emily’s...