Andrea Levy Interview
with Tracey L. Walters
As a child growing up in England what kind of literature did you read? Were you conscious of a Black British literary tradition?
I didn’t really read literature as a child. I think I’m on record as saying that I did not read a work of fiction until I was 23 years old, and that is true. I managed to get through the Dickens, Eliot and Shakespeare at school by just reading the ‘pass notes’. The truth is that TV and films were my main influence as a child. They taught me how to tell a story, and I think that still influences my writing.
As for Black British literature, I certainly wasn’t aware of any such tradition as a child. Subsequently of course I did discover the golden thread of Black British writing – Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Jackie Kay, Caryl Philips, Fred D’Aguiar amongst others – but at the point that I came to writing myself it was with a sense that something was missing. I had soaked up a great deal of the African American literature, but couldn’t find very much on the bookshop shelves that reflected the Black British experience of my generation.
Before writing professionally you worked as a textile designer. What promoted your decision to begin writing? When did you leave the fashion design industry to start writing full-time?
I trained in textile weaving but only actually worked as a weaver for about ten minutes! I then worked as a dresser for the BBC and then in the costume department of the Royal Opera House. Finally I switched to graphic design and settled into a career with a small design group where I became a partner. I started writing by doing an evening class. It could have been yoga, or painting. It was a diversion. But I soon found that I had things I wanted to write about, and that I enjoyed doing it.
Is Every Light in the House Burnin’ a semi-autobiographical novel? This book was one of the first coming-of-age novels about growing up black in England. Did you see your book as filling a necessary void in the literary marketplace?
Yes, it certainly is semi-autobiographical. As I said, I couldn’t find the books that talked about the experiences of second and third generation Black Britons like myself. ‘Write what you know’ is the mantra of creative writing courses, so that is what I started by doing.
Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon offer an honest portrayal of how challenging it was for first generation Black and British born children to find a strong sense of identity in a racially hostile environment. How hard was it for you to write about this experience? Do you think successive generations of Black Britons found a way to cope with their dual heritage?
The actual writing was hard, because I was learning my craft as a writer. But the subject matter came easily. It was my experiences, my memories after all. I wanted those experiences to be visible as part of the social and literary landscape of my country. So I suppose there was my mission right from the start. Without it I’m not sure that I would have wanted to be a writer.
Things are different now, that’s for sure. There are a lot more of us for one thing, and the concept of multiculturalism is maybe more established. But ‘Identity’ as a political concept is a complex and ever-shifting thing. My friend, the writer Gary Younge, once said to me that identity was a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish.
Your first three novels did relatively well and were quite popular with British audiences, especially young readers, but they did not have the international success that you found with Small Island. Why do you think Small Island appealed to a wider audience?
I think Britain was finally ready to hear that story. It’s a story that tinkers slightly with the national myth of the Second World War and the end of empire, but in a way that people in Britain were ready and willing to embrace. Ten years earlier and, who knows, it might not have done so well.
With each novel you seem to reach back deeper into Jamaican history, was this a conscious effort? Were you trying to give voice to the experiences of your own Jamaican ancestors or were you attempting to use your novel to broaden our perception of history?
All my books are about me trying to explore my British Caribbean ancestry, and to place that heritage where I think it belongs – squarely in the mainstream of British history. Britain created those societies for better or worse, and she profited enormously from them. They have been relegated to the margins or, in the case of slavery, almost forgotten. I want to give them a voice, and make that voice an accepted part of our history.
Your parents were part of the Windrush generation. With Small Island you give us some sense of what life was like for Caribbean immigrants who migrated to Britain during the 40s and 50s. Did your parents ever speak about their own experiences? Did your parents have an opportunity to read Small Island?
I cannot recall my mum and dad ever talking to us about their experiences when I was growing up. And to be honest, I never asked. I guess I was aware of their silent sense of disappointment, and maybe even shock, at their circumstances. But their strategy was to keep their heads down, not make a fuss, and hope no one noticed them. My dad died in the mid 1980s, so he never read Small Island, which was a shame because as much as anybody it was his story. When I came to research the book I finally managed to sit down with my mum and ask her about her early days in Britain, and she opened up to me, and my tape recorder. Her memories formed an important part of the book. I think that my mother, and my siblings, have found it hard to have me writing books about ‘their business’ all these years. But I think the success of Small Island genuinely pleased my mum. Especially when I got to meet the Queen!
Small Island and The Long Song are both historical novels that obviously required a lot of in-depth research. Did you uncover anything about Jamaican history that was surprising to you? Do you think this story of British colonial history should be taught in elementary schools in London or Jamaica?
I think it would be fair to say that Jamaican history, along with other places in the Caribbean and the Americas, is one of the most unique, strange, and brutal histories that you can imagine. Researching The Long Song brought this home to me. Jamaica was set up as an island forced-labour camp. A massive factory involving the biggest forced movement of people in world history. So there were lots of surprises for me. But maybe the biggest surprise was the time scale. Slavery in Jamaica lasted for three hundred years. That’s the same as from the present day, back to the year 1710. What a lot of history to have mislaid! When I was at school the history topic of ‘slavery’ was mostly about William Wilberforce’s heroic struggle to end the trade. I think we deserve more than just that.
With The Long Song, were you conscious about writing within the slave narrative tradition? To write this narrative did you draw from slave records or reports from your own family? Have you traced your own genealogy?
What I found was that, unlike in America, the British Caribbean produced very few slave narratives, and those that exist tend to be mediated through the abolitionist movement of the time so they had a specific agenda. What I wanted to find were testimonies that gave me a glimpse of the ordinary life and culture of the enslaved people. There was nothing like this. Ironically I found what I needed by reading the copious books and journals of white people in the Caribbean. They went on at great length about the trials of living amongst the ‘negroes’. I found it was easy to read between the lines of these transparent, self-serving narratives and re-imagine the actual lives of the people they were talking about.
Despite trying hard I’m afraid I have not managed to get very far back yet with my own family tree. So that is still work in progress for me.
The Long Song offers a version of the female slave experience that is counter to many other texts dealing with slavery. In your novel, you dispel the myth that all slave masters forced their female slaves to compromise their chastity. The love affair between the protagonist, July, and her slave owner is (at first) genuine. Why didn’t you allow for their relationship to succeed?
That’s an interesting question. If you mean succeed in a ‘happily-ever-after’ way then I guess I would say that although nothing is impossible, such an outcome would have been unusual in that time and place. It would have felt rather false to portray it like that. I wanted my characters to have the world-view of the time, and not to be like modern people placed in the past. With the Robert Goodwin character I really wanted to explore the rather romantic and patronizing liberalism of that time that tended to crumble in the face of reality. Many abolitionist sentiments of the time would seem to us now just like racism with a smiling face. No, for July and Robert it was never going to work!
Almost all of your novels deal with the complicated relationship between blacks and whites in England and in the Caribbean. What do you try and teach your readers about race relations?
I don’t really see myself as trying to teach, or, even worse, to preach to anyone. I am certainly not an expert in history or racism and certainly not in present-day race relations. I’m just interested in my Caribbean heritage and I use writing as a way of exploring it. I suppose I hope that by reading my books people will get interested too. Where that takes them is up to them.
You have been writing a lot longer than some of your peers (Smith and Ali for example), and yet some readers are only now beginning to discover your work. Courttia Newland, Jackie Kay, and Bernadine Evaristo are others who have been writing for a long time and yet do not get the same recognition. Why do you think the British publishing industry has been so selective in their promotion of Black British writers?
I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Certainly there was a time, not so long ago, when British publishers were wary of black writers. They didn’t believe that a black author could carry a universal story and so they couldn’t see how they would sell many books. But I think that’s no longer the case. The fact is that for a whole host of reasons it’s tough for any new writer to get published these days, and once you are published it’s tough to get noticed. You need a lot of luck as well as everything else. I think that if a publisher has taken on a book, they are going to do their best to promote it. But, like I said, it’s tough out there.
In your estimation, what is the current state of Black British literature?
This begs questions about quite what we mean by Black British Literature, but I’m going to cut through all that and say that I think it’s in great shape. I think there has been a real flowering of black British voices in literature over the last few decades and I think they are producing some of the most interesting and challenging work around. Long may it continue.
What can readers expect from your next novel? Would you ever consider writing a collection of short stories or a play?
I never talk about what I’m working on. I’m a bit superstitious that way. I have written and published short stories before, and I’m sure I will do again. And I did think about trying to write a play, but then I thought maybe not.
But then again, who knows?
Tracey Walters, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Literature
Director of Undergraduate Studies for Africana Studies
Africana Studies Department
SUNY Stony Brook
Homepage image: http://bookclub.blog.sbc.edu/