Andrea Levy: Under the skin of history

Andrea Levy has transformed the story of the Windrush generation of immigrants into a portrait of post-war Britain, black and white. Christie Hickman meets her

When Andrea Levy's first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin', appeared in 1994, it was still difficult to interest mainstream publishers in new black British writing. Although this was a fresh, quirky story about the family life of a second-generation black Londoner, Levy says that, "the main problem was that they perceived it as being just about race, and thought it would only appeal to black readers." How wrong could they be? Not only did it sell well to a diverse readership but, two years later, her second novel, Never Far From Nowhere, was long-listed for the Orange Prize.

Back then, Levy was something of a pioneer, a situation that's hard to imagine now, when British-born black and Asian writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali have redefined concepts of Englishness and stormed their way into the bestseller charts. "It took a book like Zadie Smith's White Teeth to really blow that perception out of the water," says Levy, who is a tall, fair-skinned, striking woman with a mane of dark, curly hair and an infectious laugh, "and we needed somebody to do that. It's made an enormous difference. Things have changed so much in the last 10 years."

For Levy, who lives in an elegant Edwardian house just a few miles and a world away from the north London council estate where she grew up, everything has changed. That Highbury estate provided the setting for her first two semi-autobiographical novels, but as Levy became more aware of her Jamaican ancestry, the family tree proved to be a source book of ideas.

"I'm still English," she laughs, "but I also have this wonderfully rich heritage which I would like more people to understand and acknowledge. And that's become very important to me." She explored its diversity in her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon, and it more than informs her new book, Small Island (Review, £14.99), which looks at the outcomes of war and migration on her parents' generation immediately after the Second World War.

Levy's father and his twin brother (who had been among the thousands of West Indians serving in the wartime RAF) were among the first wave of Jamaican immigrants to arrive at Tilbury on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948. Her mother followed six months later. They had been brought up as children of the British Empire and England was the "Mother Country" on which they pinned their hopes for a better life. But, far from welcoming them, post-war London, still in the process of surfacing from five years of bombing and privation, was cold, prejudiced and hostile.

Against all the odds, they somehow made it work. Her mother, who had been a teacher in Jamaica, had to take a sewing job to make ends meet. "But she did go back to college," says Levy, "and got a degree with the Open University. One of the first. She was a plucky woman, my mother."

Levy's father died from lung cancer in 1987. Two years later, she visited Jamaica for the first time, where she discovered even more about her colourful family background. There was a red-haired, Scottish great-grandfather, and her father's father who was born Jewish, "married out" and became a Christian while fighting in the First World War. Even further back, her "mother's, mother's, mother's mother" was born a slave. Every Light in the House Burnin' was, in part, a moving elegy to her father, as well as a voyage around her own identity, but it's easy to see that all three of her novels have been progressing steadily towards Small Island.

The arrival of the Windrush pioneers was a watershed in British history, and a period that Levy was eager to examine from all sides. In a vivid and skilful piece of storytelling that defines a time of irreversible change, Levy uses four individual voices to pilot her narrative.

In 1948, Gilbert and Hortense, a pair of ill-matched Jamaican newlyweds, rent a shabby room in an Earl's Court house owned by Queenie Bligh and her husband, Bernard, who spent his war in India with the RAF. Queenie (always drawn to outsiders) is virtually prejudice-free, but Bernard is not, and declares open warfare on his lodgers, with unforeseen results.

Small Island took four-and-a-half years to research and write, and became a labour of love. "I tried to find areas and aspects that hadn't been explored in depth," Levy says, recalling long days spent in the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum and local community-centre archives. She talked to Londoners who lived through the trauma of bombing, rationing and homelessness, to her family and to former servicemen who had survived India and the Burma front, as well as RAF life in the UK.

"I felt very humbled by the experience," she says quietly. "The more I researched, the more I thought what an incredible thing these people had gone through. They were so young, and marriages were just ripped apart by husbands being sent away for five years and then coming home and being expected to pick up the pieces. It was shocking. I don't know how they coped. I wanted to do justice to those stories. And it has changed me in some way."

Like her previous novels, Small Island addresses both black and white experiences of race, class, gender and identity, but on a much broader canvas. "I like that point of contact between black and white. The fission. For me, that's where the energy is. Immigration is a dynamic process. The people who come are as changed by it as the people they come to."

Racism was part of the landscape when she was growing up, but it was never discussed at home. Much later, when she persuaded her mother to talk about her early experiences (many of which were used in Small Island), the subject still remained in the margins.

"My mum would say, 'I don't think I encountered any real racism. They'd call me things like 'darkie', but then of course I was dark.' And she'd say: 'When I was a teacher, some of the parents took their kids out of my class, but I was glad to see the back of them.'" Levy laughs ironically. "But no, she didn't encounter any racism."

She says she could have written an entire book about Bernard, which is intriguing given that he is a white, racist bigot. But Levy saw Bernard as a challenge, and wanted to climb inside his mind. This is a process she applies to all her characters, and it is why she likes the immediacy of writing in the first person. "For me, it's akin to acting. Whenever I started to write Queenie, I had her voice in my head. I knew how she talked and what she was thinking. And it was the same with Gilbert and Hortense. I like to live that person.

"Every time I've started a new novel," she continues, "I've said, I'm going to write this one in the third person, but when I begin it's like a sheet of glass between me and what's happening. As soon as I switch back to the first, it disappears and I'm there. What I'm not interested in is my opinion. A lot of writers like being present in their own narrative, but I hate it. I want to show you what is going on and hope that you'll form your own opinions. If you can understand something then you're part of the way to changing it."

Levy didn't start writing until her early thirties. There had been nothing before to indicate that she might become a writer. She was the youngest of four siblings and grew up liking television, music (Julie Andrews was an early role model) and the company of her white friends.

There were no burning ambitions, though she would have liked to try acting, and she says that she "drifted" through those early years. As it was, she went to art school to study textile design and stepped into a parallel universe of creative and political awareness. "I'd never read a book with any interest until I was 23, and then somebody bought me [Marilyn French's] The Women's Room, and that was the first time I realised a book could be enjoyable. It was a revelation, and it turned me into an avid reader."

She devoured all the popular African-American writers, but it left her hungry for books that would illuminate her own experience of being born black and English. "There was nothing, so I thought I'd try - and I joined a writing class at the City Lit and loved it."

With the added encouragement of her partner, Bill Mayblin, a graphic designer, she has never looked back. "We've been together for 22 years," she says, "and we got married two years ago. I don't like to rush into these things."

Surprisingly, Levy doesn't see herself as a predominantly London writer, nor as part of a London migrant writing fraternity that began with post-Windrush classics such as George Lamming's The Emigrants, Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners and Caryl Phillips's The Final Passage. "I don't get a sense of being part of any particular group. What I do feel is that I'm still learning my craft. I just hope I'm an accessible literary writer, and, more and more, I'm beginning really to enjoy storytelling."

Levy is determined and passionate about her work, and by telling stories she says she is able not only to filter her observations through fiction, but to watch herself grow as a writer.

"None of my books is just about race," she stresses. "They're about people and history. Basically, I love people. The greatest thing I could ever do would be to walk into a room with all my characters in it and mingle with them."

Biography

Andrea Levy was born in London in 1956 to Jamaican immigrant parents. After grammar school, she went to Middlesex Polytechnic where she studied textile design and weaving. When she left college, she began work as a woven-textile designer and assistant buyer in various shops; she later worked at the BBC and Royal Opera House wardrobe departments. Levy began writing in 1988, and attended a writing course at the City Literary Institute, taking one day off a week to write her first book, Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994). Her second, Never Far From Nowhere (1996), was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (2000), drew on her Caribbean family history, as does her new novel, Small Island (published by Review). Levy also writes short stories which have been anthologised and broadcast on Radio 4, and has been a judge for the Saga Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in north London with Bill Mayblin, a graphic designer, and has two grown-up stepdaughters.

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