Being black and British

Long before Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, Andrea Levy was exploring the rich textures of race, class and empire. Her bestselling new book, "Small Island," is her first to be published in America.

Published April 15, 2005 2:12PM (EDT)

Readers whose pulse quickens at the mention of the names Eliot or Trollope or Hardy - and who have delighted in post-colonial updates on condition-of-England novels by Zadie Smith and Monica Ali -- should get themselves a copy of Andrea Levy's "Small Island." Born in England to Jamaican parents -- her father came over on the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought the first wave of postwar West Indian immigrants to England -- Levy's been acclaimed in her native country for her sharp-eyed take on being black and British. With "Small Island," her fourth novel, and her first to be published in America, the 48-year-old's star only continues to rise. Her bestselling book beat Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" for the Orange Prize and trumped Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" for the Whitbread novel of the year; last month she was honored with the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. (Still, the Booker long list eluded her; according to one judge, the book was "implausible and schematic.") While "Small Island" may have two love children too many for some readers, it's a mesmerizing concert of four voices caught in questions of class, race and empire. Levy can convincingly, often hilariously, pass herself off as a mouthy butcher's daughter and a stiff-necked Jamaican schoolteacher who loves Shirley Temple.

Levy's novel, set primarily in 1948 London with interludes in Jamaica, illuminates the moment at which one small, cold island began to turn into a melting pot. Gilbert Joseph, a cocksure but slightly hapless former Royal Air Force airman, has come to England hoping to make more of himself than he might have in Jamaica. His brand-new wife, Hortense, follows him, imagining that all the propriety she acquired in her British-run teachers college will be put to good use in the country she idealizes. But they've settled in one dank room in the house of no-nonsense Queenie Bligh, whose banker husband, Bernard, has unexpectedly returned home from the war. (Queenie had presumed him dead.) While Queenie and Bernard weather a soured marriage, Hortense and Gilbert try to maintain hope as they realize that their dreams may be dashed. Though they love the Mother Country, it's clear that she couldn't care less about them. "How come England did not know me?" Gilbert asks. Levy's novel attempts to answer that pained protest.

Though Levy may believe in the power of good old-fashioned storytelling, she's no romantic. "Have you lived here at all?" she asked, when this interviewer confessed to some Anglophila. "Come -- it will put you off completely." Salon talked to Levy, just before her American book tour, about her exceptional writer's life.

The novel is based in part on your parents' experience. To what extent is their story the story of Hortense and Gilbert?

All my books have been an exploration of my past, really. They're all about family and trying to understand it. It's me filling in my own gaps. And I have filled them in with fiction. I do get a bit confused sometimes. I know in "Fruit of the Lemon" [her 1999 novel] there's a family tree that I have gotten completely confused over what was real and what was fictitious about it, so I've just decided to have the one that's in the book!

It's a funny thing when you're writing fiction. Everything gets all mushed up, as they say in Jamaica. You can't unpick the threads. Because I would say to you that Hortense and Gilbert are not my parents. They don't have the same characters. However, my mum was once a teacher in Jamaica and came to Britain and couldn't teach, like Hortense. And my father did work for the post office. They did come to one room in Earls Court [where Gilbert and Hortense settle]. In 1948 my dad was on the Empire Windrush. So I suppose what you would say is I used her story -- or as my mother would say, I "thieved" it from her. And then the rest is fiction.

You didn't start writing until your early 30s. What got you going?

I was working in the wardrobe department at the BBC and the Royal Opera in my early 20s. By my early 30s, I was working as a graphic designer with my partner, now my husband, with our own company. And I got this urge to do something creative. I thought, I'll try writing and see if I'm any good at that. So I just sort of bought a pen and a pad and had a go. Fully intending to give up. Fully intending that this was just a silly thing and maybe I should try basket weaving or something next. I actually found I loved it. And I'm so glad I stuck at it. I really feel that I'm learning my craft. I'm not one of those people who wanted to be a writer from the age of 4. I didn't read a book until I was 23. So I'm really having to catch up on that.

So when you say you didn't read a book until you were 23, do you mean you didn't read for yourself in any serious way outside of school?

No, I meant from cover to cover. Shall I explain? [Laughs.] Well, I was sort of a working-class girl. I grew up on council estates. Books weren't big where I came from. We never really had that many books at home. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica, but not fiction. Nobody thought it was worth wasting time reading a book. Why read a story in a book when you could watch the television? So I grew up watching the television ... I had to read books for school and all those books I was made to read were by George Eliot, Jane Austen, Dickens. And so if you can just imagine for a moment a young, working-class girl without any books at home picking up "Bleak House" for pleasure -- it just wasn't going to happen. I did actually do A-level English but I used these sort of crib sheets, and that's how I got my A-level in English --and just barely. It wasn't until I was 23 a friend bought me "The Women's Room" by Marilyn French. That was the first book I read that made me think, Wow, this can be pleasurable. I honestly thought it was like taking in vitamins.

So you needed stories, but you got them from the small screen

Absolutely. I could almost, I believe, tell the 20th century writers who have learned their storytelling through books from those who've learned it on the telly. That's where I learned storytelling ... It is embarrassing, but I'm not ashamed.

So did your parents keep their stories to themselves?

Yes. They didn't have time. They were working. They were working hard. It wasn't that sort of environment.

Was there a point when you started to ask about them and your parents didn't understand why you would be interested?

My mum's still not sure why I'm interested. For my last novel I started asking about her childhood and her time in Jamaica -- she grew up and left at 26 and never went back. And so she started to tell these things because I had an interest in it. But I think she sort of regrets it now, because then I write it down in books and tell everybody our business. And she's fed up with it! But it's fine. And I think my mother's always tried to protect me from disappointment. Deciding to be a writer in my family is a bit like deciding to become a Hollywood film star -- it's way above your station. And I think she was nervous about that -- that I was starting something and nobody would be interested.

In one of your previous novels, a character talks of how proud she was of her hardworking parents. "My parents helped this country," she says, but then adds that even as a kid "I knew that English people hated us." To what extent is that a reflection of a split between your parents' hopes for life in England and what you experienced while growing up?

Well, I was getting along quite fine. Until I was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and in two newspapers the implication was that there was only one British person on the shortlist and that was Rose Tremain. I felt gutted! Absolutely gutted. So shocked. I didn't know how -- or what was going on that that happened. The journalists have subsequently apologized -- and said, "Oh, they just forgot," and blah blah blah. But it happened. And that hurt. So I'm never off my guard. I don't think that as a minority in this country that you're ever off your guard.

In "Small Island" you write about a little-known episode in British-American relations. You have black American GIs enduring the segregation of home while they're stationed in England and marveling at the relative harmony enjoyed by West Indians in the RAF. You did almost five years of research for this book -- how did you come upon this story?

It was almost by chance I found this going on. What happened was, I was researching the West Indians who'd been in the RAF here, and time and time again in all these sort of things it would come up that they were fighting literally on the streets or getting aggression from white GIs. It just kept coming up and I kept thinking -- these West Indians are fighting another war. Then I found a book called "When Jim Crow Met John Bull." This is a book precisely about that period when the American Army came to Britain as greatly needed allies, bringing with them Jim Crow, and the black people in the RAF were just going about their business and got caught up in it. And Britain didn't quite know how to deal with it. Because on the one hand they wanted to be friendly and they didn't want to upset anyone. But on the other they didn't have the facilities to cope with it. And hence you got strange things happening -- like towns designated as black towns for black soldiers on their days off and white towns for white soldiers on their days off. In newspapers there are lots of reports of it.

Since I've written the book people have come up to me and said that they remember at the time there being problems with this, saying that there was lots of animosity here as well with the ways black GIs were treated. We didn't quite understand it ... It's different here. But I never like to talk about degrees of racism. If it appears in any way it's far too much. But I think that during the war there were a lot of people in Britain from all over the place -- Britain was taking in strangers, if you like, in order to help with the war effort. There was always this sense that anybody you saw on the street who was unfamiliar was here for the war -- so there was a real [feeling of] "Thank God they've come to help us." And [the idea was that] they would go once the war was over. Of course the Jamaicans decided they didn't want to go. And then things changed. I think that probably a lot of British people thought of the men coming from the Caribbean -- or even from India-- they thought of them in the same way as Americans. Nobody thought the Yanks were going to stay forever.

You've said that when you began to write you turned to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. What were you finding necessary in these American authors' work?

I sort of grew up -- was it ashamed to be black? Well, not ashamed to be -- is there a place between not ashamed and ashamed? Because if there is that was it. My parents had brought me up to keep my head down. Don't make any noise and people won't know we sneaked into the country. Don't ever tell anybody where your parents came from -- don't ever mention it. And I went along with it for years -- you know, get your hair straightened and don't sit in the sun. Crikey.

Even now in my family when I say, "But we're black," it doesn't really go down that well. When I say that, I mean that there's this resistance to thinking that. When I was growing up you wouldn't use any term. You just tried to forget about it. There's a line in my second novel where the mother says to the two sisters who are the protagonists, "You're not black, you're not white, you're just you." And that's what I was brought up with. Then there was a point in my early 20s at which I broke away from this and thought, hang on, wait, it's great to be black. Feeling, oh, what have I done all those years? And then I was desperate and hungry to try and understand what it meant to be proud of being a black person and that's where those African-American writers came in. They were inspirational writers in that they were writing about being black. And they were saying, "It is worth listening to this story." And so that visibility and popularity of their work can't be underestimated. It was incredibly influential in making black Britons here think, Oh, do we have a story too?

So do you bristle a bit when you see the success of Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, women who've recently gotten a lot of acclaim for their writing on the British immigrant experience, when you've been writing on the same for more than 10 years?

Not at all. I know when Zadie's book came out it was such a big hit here and people were saying, "Oh, you must feel terrible because you've been doing it for so long." I thought, You're crazy! We are different writers. Entirely different writers, but it just so happens that we have something in common -- that we are black Britons. And that's it, really. So it doesn't worry me at all. The more the merrier.

I just want these stories told. I don't feel like there's some kind of competition between us -- any more than I feel there's competition between me and Margaret Atwood. It doesn't work like that in my head ... I'm kind of on my groove, if you like. I'm just going to write, and if nobody wants to read it, that would be terribly sad. I do want to write books that people want to read. For me, "Small Island" was fantastic because it was absolutely the book I wanted to write and it has caught something here that's made it a bestseller ... I've had some fantastic feedback. White people have been saying things like, "I didn't know it was like that," saying, "I remember in the '50s seeing women who were like Hortense at the bus stop and now I feel I know them." That's very, very heartening. And black people are saying, "I think I can understand my parents and grandparents better." It doesn't get better than that. And I'm going to go to the next thing. It's almost like a mission. And we'll just see whether it catches again. Maybe it won't, but maybe it will.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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