It’s nearly a year since her passing…
I was fortunate, last year, to be able to watch the play of Small Island via a link at the Savoy Cinema, Nottingham. I wasn’t sure what it would be like, never having done something like this before but I thoroughly enjoyed it. After, I heard that on the opening night, that there had been a standing ovation and I am not surprised. Sadly, Andrea was unable experience the audience’s reaction.
Andrea was born in March 1956 in London to parents who were of (now called) the Windrush generation. Her father had in fact been one of the men who had embarked at Kingston Jamaica, in 1948 and had sailed to England on the HMS Empire Windrush. In a BBC documentary about her life Andrea confesses that she’d based her characters in Small Island on them.
She was like any other black child growing in England at that time, who had parents who worked hard in jobs that didn’t appreciate what they had given up or recognising any educational training that they may have had. Plus, the hardship of being accepted, despite that fact that they were invited to England to help with rebuilding after the war.
Unlike what you might think, despite her huge success as an author, Andrea did not read her first book until she was twenty-three. Like many black children, including myself, she couldn’t find any books that had characters that she could identify with. The ones that she could find were written and published in America. The rare books that she did find weren’t widely available and quite costly too. Sadly, there was very little available in the UK.
Her love of writing was inspired by the books she read, and she recognised the difference they could make to the reader by her own experience when she read.
Her writing career began after she attended a workshop for writers and then enrolled on a writing course, in 1989, which was around the time that her father died. It took her seven years to complete the course and it inspired to write the books that she could not find, the ones that told the ‘untold’ stories of black people in England at that time.
Her first novel Every Light in the House Burnin, published in 1994, is said to be a semi- autobiography. It’s set in 1960’s England about a black traditional family of that time with a father, who is head of the home. Her experiences of initially getting published was difficult as in that stories with Black characters were not seen as marketable and she had several rejections before it came to print.
Her second book, Never Far from Nowhere, was published two years later in 1996 and set in 1970’s England about two sisters with Jamaican parents, as was Levy herself. Her third book was published three years later in 1999, called Fruit of the Lemon. The main character of the story a young woman with Jamaican parents discovers more about her family that she intends after her own visit to the Island where her parents were born. Her parents, like many whom had left the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s, had the intention to go ‘back home’. Her journey becomes of journey of self-discovery, taking her to other islands in the Caribbean too and even to Scotland.
It’s not sure if the title of her third book was influenced by the 1962 song Lemon tree. The refrain says, ‘Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet. But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat…’ describing the life and times of the character Faith Jackson.
Andrea’s third book and perhaps the books she is most known for, was Small Island. It was published in 2004. The story is set in Jamaica and England during World War ll. The main characters, Hortense and Gilbert, were based on her parents, which Andrea revealed during a BBC documentary about the book just before she passed away in February 2019. Their individual struggles of adaptation to a culture they did not know, disappointment and outright racism. Their interactions to the new friendly and hostile relationships while trying to maintain (in the case of Hortense) her sense of pride of coming to the ‘Mother Land’. Only things were not as she expected.
Small Island was not only a book, it was adapted first for TV by the BBC in 2009 and then for stage by Helen Edmundson in 2019. Sadly, Andrea was only able to witness rehearsals before it was performed at the Nation Theatre, London and screened across the UK at various cinema outlets after her death, where it received several standing ovations.
During her life Andrea won many awards, including The Whitbread Book of the Year; the Orange Prize; Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Walter Scott Prize. Her books were also nominated and shortlisted for many other awards too.
Her last novel The Long Song, published in 2006, also won awards and was adapted for TV by the BBC. In total Andre Levy produced six books, two of which were essays and short stories. Her legacy is that, she continues to inspire women like myself, who grew without seeing themselves in books, who now know and believe that if the books aren’t there, then we can write them ourselves.
Andrea Levy passed away on 14th February 2019, aged 62.