Books: The Medusa of Highbury

The London-born novelist Andrea Levy talks to Maggie O'Farrell about television, grey socks and Black British identity
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The Independent Culture
A ndrea Levy is nervous. She fiddles with the lid of the small teapot on the table, asks for a glass of water, then confesses, "I've never been interviewed by a broadsheet before."

Her latest book, Fruit of the Lemon, should secure her even more attention from the mainstream press. It is the story of Faith Jackson - Londoner, BBC costume department employee, Fifties child, and daughter of Jamaican immigrants. After a lifetime of both casual and intended racism from the fellow inhabitants of her mother country, Faith's identity reaches a crisis, and she goes to Jamaica to search out the histories her parents never told her, and to reconstruct her fragile self-image. It is a thoughtful, honest and measured piece of writing, and, embedded in the stories that Levy weaves into Faith's narrative, is a clear record of colonial history that I, for one, was never taught at school.

Levy has a mobile, expressive face with a lively, often self-deprecating smile. Her light skin and mass of black Medusa curls means she - as with one of her characters in Never Far From Nowhere - "could, in a dim light, be taken for Spanish or Italian". She was born in London in 1956, her parents having arrived from Jamaica in 1948. Even though her three books to date have been concerned with the second-generation Jamaican experience in Britain, she doesn't see herself as a writer with an agenda: "Black British identity is what interests me. That's all. I write about what I understand, what I know."

The mutual bafflement engendered by the generation gap is, in Levy's writing, widened by cultural differences: the parents don't comprehend the world their children have been born into, and the children have no understanding of the world their parents left behind. In Fruit of the Lemon, Faith and her brother are irritated by their parents' seemingly inexplicable habit of hoarding boxes: "Fyffes boxes ... toilet roll boxes; Wagon Wheel packet boxes; unspecified boxes; thick double-lined boxes ..." Faith's parents, in turn, are mystified by her career ambitions and domestic set-up (a houseshare that includes two "boys").

Levy is illuminating on the generational shifts that have taken place since the mass immigration from Jamaica in the 1950s. In Never Far from Nowhere, the mother chides her daughters: "You're not black. You're you." Levy herself "was brought up with a sense of `just keep quiet about it'. Black pride is a strange thing. For my parent's generation there was a sense of pride in who you were, pride in being Jamaican and pride in being British. My parents were taught to think of themselves as British. They really believed they were in some little satellite town of Britain. So when they came here it was quite a shock." Levy's sister's children, by contrast, "have no idea what it's like to be the only black kid in your inner London school, no concept of life without black pride."

It is precisely this ever-altering tension between prejudice and identity that enlivens Levy's characterisations and narratives. Levy rejects the notion that racism might have abated since her parent's time. "It's just different now," she insists. "No better and no worse. It's mutating. I find prejudice interesting, in an intellectual way." She stops, laughs and admits: "It gets on my tits as well, though. Since the war, the change in this country has been staggering. When I think back to my childhood in little grey socks in Highbury, it's a completely diff- erent planet. These changes mean that the English identity has devolved: if the word Englishness doesn't define me, then the word needs to be redefined."

The racism that simmers away in the background of Levy's writing is of a lurking, insidious, often unconscious type, only rarely - and thereby more shockingly - exploding into violence.

I ask Levy how autobiographical Faith is, and she grimaces: "I don't want to say `no' and I don't want to say `yes'. I did work for the BBC. I did work in the costume department. The comment about me walking too slowly did come up [Faith is criticised for this at a job interview]. The problem about that sort of thing is that you don't know if it's racism. You have an inkling but you're not sure because no one's actually saying `wog' to you." The family history Faith uncovers on her trip to Jamaica is, Levy reveals, "very loosely based on my own family tree, but very loosely, to the point where I can't remember what I made up. My main research was sitting my mum down and saying, `Tell me what you know'. I didn't know anything about Jamaica before I started. You're not taught that kind of thing at school. It was a real voyage of discovery for me."

Being a writer wasn't always part of her life plan: "I wish I could tell you `since the age of nine ...' stories. But I can't." She began in her early 30s, after becoming a "voracious reader. I'd read all the African- American women, and I wanted to read about my own experience, but there wasn't anything at the time. You couldn't just go into a bookshop and say, `I'll have your finest book on being Black British.' It was hard. So I thought I'd try writing." She enrolled on a writing course with Alison Fell at the City Lit, where she began writing her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin', eventually published in 1994.

She says she prefers individual books to writers: "Sometimes you get terribly disappointed by writers. But Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Toni Morrison have been consistently good. I love The Buddha of Suburbia, High Fidelity and The God of Small Things. I admire very clear writing - clear story telling." It is typical of her frank, down-to-earth approach to her life and work that she cites TV as her main inspiration. "It doesn't sound good, does it?" she says, shrugging, "but I think most of my writing has quite a short attention span. Watching Cathy Come Home changed my life. There's so much snobbery about TV, especially in the literary world, but I get nervous if I write something for too long. I need a new scene." She is adamant she won't ever give up writing books for the lure of TV: "Once you've fallen in love with the novel, nothing else will do."

Next comes a novel on the Jamaicans who emigrated. "The first three books were like a baton race, where the characters handed it on to the next. After Fruit of the Lemon I'm interested in the first generation and the country they came to." Then she smiles: "But you never know what happens on the way to the typewriter."

`Fruit of the Lemon' is published on 11 March (Review pounds 16.99/pounds 9.99)

Fruit of the Lemon': an extract

Faith Jackson, the central character in Andrea Levy's new novel, is a Londoner with black immigrant parents. When, in her mid-20s, they announce plans to return to Jamaica, she suffers a breakdown. Her concerned mother arranges her a holiday in Jamaica. This is Faith's account of arriving in Kingston:

Kingston airport was so alive, so noisy it was hard to imagine that I would not have heard it from up in the plane. The large arrival lounge was packed with black faces. Everywhere I turned - black faces. Black faces of people in uniforms. Black faces waiting for luggage. Black faces behind counters. Counters to change money, counters to find luggage, counters to check bags and boxes. Everyone moving, walking with purpose or drifting around, staring or searching, standing, shifting from foot to foot. And screeching, shouting, talking, whispering like a crowd scene in an epic film where the director had just called, "Chaos!"

I felt out of place - everything was a little familiar but not quite. Like a dream. Culture shock is how the feeling is described. A name made up by someone with a stiff upper lip who wanted to deny the feelings of panic and terror. The feelings that made me want to run for a corner and cover my head with my arms and scream for my mummy. I stood by the conveyor belt watching the boxes, sweating in the musty heat with my English woollen jumper sticking to my body - worried I would not survive this ...

It was then that I cried. In the middle of the arrival lounge at Kingston airport, clutching my open purse and thinking of Mum's words: "Everyone should know where they come from."

Then a woman's voice said, "You must shut up that purse ... Come, darlin'," the woman said. I was leaning on her with one hand, grabbing her shoulder and sobbing into the damp fabric of her nylon blouse. She began to pat my back, like my mum used to when I'd fallen over. "Come, darlin", she said again, soft and low, and she patted my back like she'd known me for ever.

"Your first time in Jamaica." I had to straighten up and look in her face to find out whether that was a question or an all too obvious fact.

"I thought so," she said, even though I had said nothing. She smiled. "I said to Errol, that young girl is her first time in Jamaica, her first time. And you know how I know?" She took my hand and folded it around my purse, then pushed my purse and hand into my bag. She indicated at something on my face using her own face for demonstration. I began to wipe my cheek as she carried on.

"You know how I know?" she giggled. "You waitin' by the luggage ramp." She giggled some more. "Twenty years I been coming home and me bag never come with me once. Not once."