Andrea Levy: “This was not a small story”

British writer Andrea Levy on exploring her Jamaican roots in her novel Small Island — as told to Marina Salandy-Brown

  • Andrea Levy. Photograph by Angus Muir

I am English, but all my writing has been trying to understand my Jamaican heritage, family, ancestry. Everything I get excited about is because I have that heritage.

I have been [to Jamaica] only once, in my early 30s, and it was an incredible experience. I found all this family I didn’t know I had. My history had started with my father stepping off the Empire Windrush onto English soil in 1948, so finding people there who looked like us and who had pictures of me was quite something. And I felt that I was attached to the place. People were good to me, and claimed me as a Jamaican, they recognised me physically, and I thought, “Yeah, you’re right”. It was a wonderful feeling.

Levy is a Jewish name. Jews went to Jamaica in the 1600s. My paternal grandfather was born Orthodox Jewish, from a very strict family, but after fighting in the First World War he became a Christian and came back and married my grandmother. His family disowned him, so I don’t know much about them.

But going to Jamaica opened up my life. Before, it felt my experience was limited to Britain, geographically and in every other way. Being in Jamaica, I realised what happened there is about the world, empire, a story about humanity — this was not a small place, this was not a small story that affected only a few. It is so much a part of British history and global history. And most of these stories are untold. I felt so privileged to have that history and to feel I could explore it.

My parents lived a very isolated life in Britain. They were not black, but coloured. They spent all their time trying to distance themselves from black, low-class Jamaicans. I would ask my mother what that meant, but she couldn’t explain. We were supposed to be high-class, but we lived on a council estate and were as poor as church mice. My mother taught us to be very wary of the black people, and to mix with the whites. She could never accept that they didn’t understand her, when she thought she was very well-spoken.

I spent the first 21 years of my life thinking of myself as a white person, with no back-up at home when we encountered racism. We were one of the darkest families there, among the Greek Cypriots and white working-class, but the children played together in the street — until someone would come along and not like “darkies”, and we would be ostracised. With hindsight, it was not a good place for them to have located us.

I was born in London in 1956, the fourth, and baby, of the family, by a long way. Exactly like in Small Island, my father came to Britain in 1948. Later my mother joined him, and they lived in one bedroom in Earls Court in London for five years with three children. They were always trying to get re-housed, and finally got put, temporarily, into council housing. Twenty-one years later, they were still there waiting to move out.

That disappointment my mother and father felt about Britain I took in with my mother’s milk. I grew up with a real sense of being let down. My mother, particularly, was very disillusioned, but they couldn’t go back, as they had no money. I only started telling stories so that I could understand the situation I had been born into.

When I started Small Island I didn’t intend to write about the war. I wanted to start in 1948 with two women, one white, one black, in a house in Earls Court, but when I asked myself, “Who are these people and how did they get here?” I realised that 1948 was so very close to the war that nothing made sense without it.

If every writer in Britain were to write about the war years there would still be stories to be told, and none of us would have come close to what really happened. It was such an amazing schism in the middle of a century. And Caribbean people got left out of the telling of that story, so I am attempting to put them back into it. But I am not telling it from only a Jamaican point of view. I want to tell stories from the black and white experience. It is a shared history.

In the end, I want to have made a contribution to change. I hate what is happening to the Caribbean: forgotten, just left on the margins. And I hate the injustice of what is happening to a lot of black people in this country [Britain]. I want to see change. This has given me a purpose.

As a writer I want clarity, a good story. I want my books to be accessible. I want to be intelligent, and to have something to say. I use humour because it is part of the human condition. I grew up with a great deal of poverty and a great deal of humour. When I read something that is totally bleak, I think, “Where is the rest of it?” I don’t mean telling jokes, but in every situation humour shows itself, and it can be used as a form of defence. Humour is also part of my personality. I like to laugh.

All my novels have been in the first person. And I love thinking myself into a character. For me, it is like acting, but it is much better than being Julie Andrews, who I wanted to be when I was growing up. (I could sing and dance.) I hear the character and let him or her respond as only that character could, according to how he or she saw the world.

In terms of my development as a person, understanding a character’s reactions helps to make sense of the life I live. Character comes easily to me. Once I realised that we haven’t changed since the cave man, except in how we respond to things, I stopped writing my characters into their time. Instead, I just wrote them as people, and that was a great liberation.

I didn’t come to writing with any knowledge of the canon of great English literature. I hadn’t read a book until I was 23. I was a totally instinctive writer who wanted to write about the life that I knew and couldn’t read about. When I started, I didn’t know or understand what it was to be an English writer, so when I started telling stories I told them the only way I knew how, from watching television, not reading. I see stories in my head, and I describe what I see. I can tell writers who have learned to tell stories through 19th-century literature, and those like me.

To be desperately honest, it was not until I judged the Orange Prize about six years ago that I really understood what literature was, and that was an enormous leap in my learning curve. That’s why all my fancies about winning anything centred on wining that prize. It is breathtaking to have won, and now I have this little statue and I just feel so honoured. Getting validated by the literary world and one’s peers is special.

It was an enormous journey from street kid to middle-class writer. I am terribly proud of myself to have come from where I was to where I am now. My ambition is to write an international bestseller, so that my stories can go around the world, and if I can change one person’s mind that would be my biggest prize, quite apart from being very rich.


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