Andrea Levy

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.

Malorie Blackman OBE

I first heard about Malorie Blackman when my niece and her mother were planning to go to our local theatre to see the theatre show of Noughts and Crosses. I’m not sure
why I hadn’t heard of the book before then. 

However, I made sure shortly after to read the book. I was disappointed then that I hadn’t read it before because the feedback from the theatre show was that it was excellent, and I’d felt that I’d missed out.  Noughts and Crosses (although aimed at 12-year-olds) was one of those books that I couldn’t put down, and I was sad when I‘d finished it.  There are now a total of six books in the series with another due to be published next year.

Malorie was born in 1962, and initially, her career aspirations were to be an English teacher. After studying  HNC in Computer Science she worked in IT for some time before graduating from the National Film and Television School, later changing career and to become a writer in her late twenties.

Her first book (Not So Stupid) was published when she was twenty-eight (1990), it was a collection of science fiction and horror stories. It was also the year that she got married. That book was followed by her first in the series of the Girl Wonder books (1991) and in 1992 the first in the series of her first Betsey Biggalow books.  In the same year (1992) Hacker and Trust Me were also published.

Altogether there are four Girl Wonder Books, published from 1991 to 2014 and five Betsey Biggalow Books, published from 1992 to 2014.  Girl Wonder books are aimed at children aged 7 to 9, the Betsey Biggalow series are suitable for children aged 5 to 7. Hacker is aimed at readers that are aged 9 to 12, whereas Trust Me is ideal for children 12+.  This shows the uniqueness of Malorie’s talent, to be able to successfully write stories for various aged children. Malorie has also written picture books suitable for children aged 3 to 5. In total today Malorie has written over fifty books that are suitable for young children and young adults.

There are several books, including Big Heart Boy and Noughts and Crosses that have been made into TV series, stage plays and radio such is her capability to cross different genres of writing.

Malorie is inspirational and worthy of her many (over 20) awards including receiving her OBE in 2008 and then becoming Children Laureate from 2013 to 2015.

To date, Malorie is now writing episodes for the new Doctor Who and is continuing to write children’s stories and taking part in Human Rights projects. She truly is an inspiration.

2020© Sharon RM Stevens

Louise Bennett (Miss Lou)

I first heard about Miss Lou as a child; my mother used to retell my sisters and me her poems and rhymes.  I remember finding them amusing and even tried to read one at my mother’s 80th birthday party in front of around 50 guests. I’m not sure if I read it as Miss Lou would have done, but I certainly did my best.

She was born Louise Simone Bennett on 7th September 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica and died aged 86 in 2006 in Canada.  She was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica to Augustus Bennett (baker) and Kerene Robinson (dressmaker) but was mostly raised by her mother after the death of her father when she was seven years old.

Louise attended both elementary school and college, later in 1943 studying Jamaican folklore at Friends College, Highgate. By the age of fourteen, she was first recognised for the ability to write poetry and then soon after she was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts; after which she worked as a drama teacher in the UK for many years.

Before her return to Jamaica Louise, she also hosted two BBC radio programmes: Caribbean Carnival and West Indian Night. Upon her return to she lectured across Jamaica and America teaching folklore and drama.

During these times and throughout her life, Louise wrote poems, books, took part in children’s tv, radio and film.  She could also be found working with other well-known celebrities such as Harry Belafonte which led to a well know children’s song Day – O (The Banana Boat Song).

During her role as a Jamaican folklorist, performer,  writer etc. Louise won several awards including an MBE, the Norman Manley Award for Excellence, the Order of Jamaica and Honorary Degree of Letters from the Univerisity of West Indies.

Miss Lou was well known for her ‘bigger than life’ performances using patios, she was proud of her heritage and celebrated this using it in many forms. Her love of people and performing took her around the world and in her later life, following the death of her husband (Eric Coverley) in 2002 she emigrated to Canada where she died.

Social Climbin

Shet up yuh mout an tap de nize!

Yuh tink yuh grievance strong

Because yuh never get de chance

Fi jine de dress-puss gang?

Stop jump an kick an bawl an gwaan

Like chigger-fly hah bite yuh.

Yuh hooda tun big poppy show

Ef dem did go invite yuh!

For yuh no got no scissors-tail-

Coat an top hat fi wear,

An de waistcoat grampa dead lef

Nyamy-nyamy up an tear!

Moresoever, koo yuh head top

How it shape like big seed pear!

Wha yuh tink yuh hooda favour

Eena dem-deh kine a gear?

A no piawpiaw tings did outa

Big church Sunday mawnin gawn.

Me never see more nose-veil

An hanstockin from me bawn!

Church yard wasa play dress circle.

It was jus like dress parade –

More plastic boot an jersey frock!

More embroidery an braid!

All de mout-dem dah put awn de

Scritchy-scrutchy high class talk!

All de foot-dem dah try out de

Scripsyscroopsy high class walk!

When de breeze dah meck fi blow weh hat,

Gloves han pon head dah cotch it;

Nose veil dah tickle up nose, an

Glove finger-dem dah scratch it!

Yuh waan see Matty Walla-lef

An Mary Halfa-brick

Wid Sweetie Charles dah roll him eye

An wheel him walkin stick!

So stop shoot off yuh mout bout how

Parson did out fi spite yuh,

An calm yuhself an praise de Lawd

Dem never did invite yuh!

Ay ya yie!

Taken from Aunty Roachy Seh – Louise Bennett  (Edited by Mervin Morris)

2020© Sharon RM Stevens

Valerie Bloom

If I mentioned the name Valerie Bloom, would you know who I was referring to? Or I asked you about her work, would you know what she did?

Well, I was in the same position as you, if you’d answered no to any of the above…

I was at a local fair and found one of her books on sale. As a supply teacher I usually take poetry books to school to read to the children I teach and as I often leave things behind I’m always on the lookout for a bargain.The book I bought was ‘Let Me Touch the Sky’ I loved it and so did the children whom I read the poems to.

Valerie was born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1956 and moved to England in 1979. She completed a degree in English with African and Caribbean Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury; later (in 2008) she was given an honorary master. In 2008 she was given an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and is now part of a team that teaches teachers how to teach poetry at Centre for Literacy in Primary Education – Poetry

She has written lots of books (mostly in patois) in many genres, children poetry, stories, adult literature and have performed too live and on the radio. Her latest book, Jaws, Claws and Things (2013) I am still yet to read.

The poem that I love to read is Hair Cut Rap; it’s one that children often request.

Hair Cut Rap

Ah sey, ah want it short,

Short back an’ side,

Ah tell him man, ah tell him

When ah teck him aside,

Ah sey, ah want a haircut

Ah can wear with pride,

So lef’ it long on top

But short back an’ side.

Ah sey try an’ put a pattern

In the shorter part,

Yuh could put a skull an’ crossbone,

Or an arrow through a heart,

Meck sure ah have enough hair lef’

Fe cover me wart,

Lef’ a likkle pon the top,

But the res’ – keep it short.

Well, bwoy, him start to cut

An’ me settle down to wait,

Him was cuttin’ from seven

Till half-past eight,

Ah was startin’ to get worried

‘Cause ah see it gettin’ late,

But then him put the scissors down

Sey, ‘There yuh are, mate.’

Well ah did see a skill an’ a

Criss-cross bone or two,

But was me own skull an’ bone

That was peepin’ through

Ah look just like a monkey

Ah did see once at the zoo,

Him sey, ‘What’s de matter Tammy,

Don’t yuh like the hair-do?’

Well, ah feel me heart stop beatin’

When ah look pon me reflection,

Ah feel like somet’ing frizzle up

Right in me middle section

Ah look aroun’ fe somewhey

Ah could crawl into an’ hide

The day ah mek me brother cut

Me hair short back an’ side.

https://vimeo.com/129541898

Another favourite of mine: https://vimeo.com/129653563

For more information: https://www.clpe.org.uk/professional-development/courses/power-poetry

2020© Sharon RM Stevens

Alice Walker

Another female writer that I admire is Alice Walker. My first experience of her work was when I watched, as a young woman, The Color Purple. I shall never forget how I felt. I went through numerous emotions, I was shocked, horrified, sad, excited, inspired plus many other emotions…

Alice was born in 1944 in Georgia, USA. It wasn’t an easy time to be black, poor and more so to be born into a family that worked on the land. Despite other people’s expectations, re the educating children born into such circumstances, her mother enrolled her in school when she was four.

Unfortunately, at the age of eight, she damaged one of her eyes due to an accident whilst she was playing with her brothers. This left her feeling self-conscious and withdrawn, however, this led her to develop a love of reading and writing. It’s said by some sources, that she started writing The Color Purple around this time.

Despite the challenges that black children/young people had during their time of learning in that era, she was able to complete her education and graduated from college in 1955 aged 21. Incidentally, this was also the year that she wrote her first book, and the year she first became involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Just like Mya Angelou, Alice spent time supporting Dr Martin Luther King, took part in the Civil Rights march to Washington in 1963 and took part in an anti-war rally, which she was arrested at. She has supported woman’s rights and many other causes, for many years, to try to bring about change to areas that she felt were unjust. During her working life apart from writing, she has also worked as a social worker, teacher and a lecturer.

Alice has written many books, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, the one that she is most recognised for is The Color Purple, because it has been dramatised into a film and on Broadway. She wrote her way through hard and challenging times and despite this won many awards. Her first award was the Pulitzer, in 1983, for The Color Purple and since then she has won many other awards and fellowships to many institutions. Her most recent books, The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers and The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to being in Harm’s Way, were published in 2013, both of which I have yet to read.

One of her quotes: “Don’t wait around for other people to be happy for you. Any happiness you get you’ve got to make yourself.”

Expect Nothing

Expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise

Become a stranger

To need of pity

Or, if compassion be freely

Given out

Take only enough

Stop short of urge to plead

Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger

Than your own small heart

Or greater than a star;

Tame wild disappointment

With caress unmoved and cold

Make of it a parka

For your soul.

Discover the reason why

So tiny human midget

Exists at all

So scared unwise

But expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

Alice Walker

http:/alicewalkersgarden.com

2020© Sharon RM Stevens

Maya Angelou

I have a love for many female writers, past and present, but Maya Angelou’s achievements stand out for me. Among many of her writings and books, I love her poem and book ‘And Still I Arise.’

Maya was born in St Louis, Missouri on 4th April 1928 and passed away on 28th May 2014 (aged 86) and her writing life spanned over 50 years. She didn’t have an easy start to life, had many professions but her love books and some influential people in her life helped her overcome her difficult times. She wrote her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at the age of 17.

During her lifetime she published autobiographies and poems, some of which took the form of lectures, plays, movies, television and film. She was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement and was a good friend of Martin Luther King Jr. Education was important to her and even after a difficult period in her life, she graduated from high school, continued learning and by the time of her passing had over 50 honorary degrees and prestigious awards.

Maya Angelou met and influenced thousands of people whilst alive and still today. I’ve been called a ‘strong woman’ and often question the term but, Maya Angelou really was a strong woman and her legacy proves that she was.

In her own words:

“All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated. ” – Maya Angelou

(McPherson, Dolly A. (1990). Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0-8204-1139-6)

STILL I RISE

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

2020© Sharon RM Stevens