Andrea Levy's just-published fifth novel is The Lost Song. She is also the author of Every Light in the House Burnin, Never Far from Nowhere, Fruit of the Lemon and Small Island.
Andrea Levy came relatively late to fiction, starting her first novel in her thirties as an experiment to see if she could tell the largely unknown story of the black immigrant's life in Britain. She succeeded — spectacularly so with her fourth novel, Small Island, published in 2004 and winner of the prestigious Orange and Whitbread prizes for fiction, among other honors. Masterpiece's Richard Maurer spoke to her in March, 2010, from her home in north London.
Select a topic from the list below to see Levy's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The History Behind Small Island
In Small Island Gilbert Joseph arrives in England from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush. What's the significance of that particular ship?
That particular ship is credited with being the beginnings of multi-cultural Britain, although there were black people in Britain before that. What happened was that [in 1948], 492 men from British colonies in the Caribbean bought passage on the Empire Windrush to come over to Britain to live and work. The ship caused an enormous stir on its way across the Atlantic. The colonial office said, "What are we going to do with all these men? Where are we going to put them? They won't stand a winter!" Obviously, there were many people coming and going into Britain at this time, but these were black men coming from a place that had once been a slave colony. This has become an iconic event, and there are calls for a Windrush Day, rather like you have a Martin Luther King Day, where we would celebrate the change that started to happen because of that ship.
Your father was on the Empire Windrush. Was he proud of being a part of history?
Sadly, my dad died before he could get that pride. I only found out about him being on the Windrush by accident. We were watching something on the telly and he said, "I was on that ship." But he never talked about it. And now I regret that he didn't live to see himself go down in history. That would have been nice.
Why did the wave of immigration start then?
That's what I look at in Small Island. During the Second World War about 6,000 West Indian men volunteered for the Royal Air Force. They left those Caribbean islands for the first time and came to Britain and Europe and saw a different life. After the war they wanted the opportunity that they saw in Britain. At the same time, the old slave colonies like Jamaica were suffering from a decline. So put those things together and you have this mass immigration.
About ten years after the Windrush, Britain actually asked people from the Caribbean to come to England, because they needed people to work in the health service, on the busses and subways, and in places like that. So there was a period of time where British authorities were actively trying to get people from the colonies to come.
Growing up in the sixties, were you aware of the civil rights movement happening in U.S.?
Yes, absolutely. But in Britain there was no segregation or anything like that, so there was a sense that we didn't do it quite the same as you did in the States. It was a slightly different relationship. Historically the slaves didn't live amongst the British; they were in the Caribbean. So what happened in 1948, when my parents came to Britain along with many other descendants of slaves, is that a lot of people here didn't know why they were coming and what relationship the Caribbean had to Britain. That was our struggle — to try and educate people what our history had been.
The Major Characters
It's Hortense's dream to leave Jamaica for Britain that helps drive the plot. Would you say she's a strong person, yet she hides a certain vulnerability?
Yes, she's quite insecure underneath. Everything is a show. Her actual character is much more frightened by life than she would like to have you believe.
Why does she have an oddly elevated way of speaking?
Educated Jamaicans from my parents' generation spoke in a way that was vaguely nineteenth century. It was terribly proper. Sometimes it would be odd. My mom once wrote me a card saying, "The birds were prolific on the beach." Not quite right, but very proper.
Tell me about your approach to Gilbert.
He hasn't got such airs and graces when he talks. He's a very decent man. Through him I tried to capture that typical West Indian dry sense of humor. He came out of my research into the West Indian service men who came over during the Second World War. Actually, I fell in love with Gilbert as I was writing him.
Since you didn't grow up in Jamaica, did you have to develop an ear for how Gilbert would have spoken?
It's amazing because I never realized I had developed that ear until I started writing. I remember doing a reading and my mom was in the audience. I was doing it in a Jamaican accent, which I managed to do — I can slip in and out of it. At the end, my mom said to me, [Jamaican accent] "How you learn to speak like that?" And I said, "From you." And she said, "I don't speak like that!" I realized how much I had imbibed, as you do when you're the child of immigrants.
Queenie is a Yorkshire farm girl who comes to the big city. Tell us about her.
Queenie is a warmhearted person, a kind person, an open person. With all my characters, I never want them to be perfect; they have faults, just like us all. So Queenie isn't perfect. She's a real, rounded person. If you look at Hortense and Queenie, their backgrounds are very similar. But they never really get to know that because of the gulf between them, because one was born in Jamaica and one was born in England; one is black and one is white.
Given Queenie's upbringing, how did she get to be so open-minded?
Some people are just born like that, aren't they? They don't like their surroundings or the morality or ideas that their parents had, so they fight against it.
Bernard, who Queenie marries, has a number of distasteful qualities. Do you consider him the villain of the book?
I don't do villains. Well, I try not to anyway. I just wanted a man who had grown up in England in the thirties and forties and been led to believe that being a white Englishman was the highest achievement you could attain. Because of the Second World War and because of what was happening in his house when he came home, his world view is being shaken. It's completely understandable to me why somebody like Bernard was trying to cling onto what he believed to have been the best before.
Were there a lot of men like Bernard in England when you were growing up?
Certainly. I knew them. They weren't brutes; they weren't bad; they weren't nasty. They were just going through this change which was turning them into angry, frightened men.
Small Island — The Novel
Small Island is the kind of big, ambitious multi-part story that is very difficult to bring off unless you're an experienced author. How did you decide that the time was ripe to try something on this scale?
I'd written three books before and they were much more semi-autobiographical, drawing on my own experiences. But I was OK going along like that. Then I judged the Orange Prize for fiction and had to read seventy books back-to-back — books that I wouldn't normally read, including fantastic writers like Margaret Atwood, Ann Michaels, and Annie Proulx. It was like an epiphany. I thought, "I see! You can take on the world. You can be ambitious." I really wanted to try something ambitious to see whether I could do it. What I had in mind was a story based loosely on my parents coming to this country and the people they came to live amongst. Since it would have to be set in 1948, I'd have to do a lot research, which I'd never done before. Once I got started, I absolutely loved it. So I'll probably never go back now.
The "small island" of the title refers to both Jamaica and Britain.
It does, yes. It's a funny thing about titles. If people knew how writers came up with titles, they wouldn't dwell on them quite so much.
So how do writers come up with titles?
I don't know how other writers come up with titles, but this one came about because I didn't have a title and realized that it must be hidden in the book somewhere. All I had to do was find it. It occurred to me that Gilbert was always talking about "these small islanders" — meaning people from the small islands around Jamaica, but later he realizes that Jamaica, too, is a small island. And of course the reader can say, "Oh, yes, it also means Britain." But how I actually came up with the title was by playing hide and seek in the book. I knew it was in there somewhere.
For all of its volatile subject matter, Small Island has quite a lot of humor. Is this lightness of touch that you bring to serious material part of your outlook?
Small Island for me is an extremely serious book, but humor is absolutely part of it. I don't see how you get through a day without having humor around you somewhere. I can safely say that today I've laughed many times at stupid things, and it's not because I haven't had a serious day.
Hortense and Gilbert have an endearing, naïve love for England and all things English. Yet Jamaica was a colony that was brutally exploited for centuries. How does an attitude like that arise, where it seems it could easily go the other way, into hatred and resentment?
It's complex, isn't it? I would have to say I don't know. To be fair, there are a hell of a lot of people who don't have that attitude towards England. But there were also a lot who really believed that everything English, everything British, was the finest and the best. One of the things I put in the book was the experience my mom had, which was that when she came to England she was surprised to see white people who spoke roughly; who were cockneys; and who were sweeping the road. Because in Jamaica, if you were a white person you spoke well and you didn't work; you just sat around.
The Film Adaptation
Is it odd for you to see actors assume the roles of characters that you have envisioned so vividly?
I love that bit, because the cast does a fantastic job. They really do embody those characters. I cannot now think of the characters in Small Island without seeing the actors.
Did they shed any new light on the characters?
The actors ask you all sorts of questions about the characters. The first thing that they asked me was, "What happens after the book ends?" which threw me into meltdown, because I don't know. The difference between writing a script and writing a novel, I imagine, is that in order to write a script you have to know the characters inside out; you have to really understand them from the beginning, which is why the actors were asking those questions. But when you're writing a novel you get to know the characters as you go along. It's a much more fluid process. I hope I'm not doing scriptwriters a disservice, but that's the way it seems to me.