Article published on October 26, 2015.
Nicola Barranger meets the award-winning writer who was at the forefront of introducing central black characters to British fiction.
‘Is The Long Song as successful as Small Island?’ asks Andrea Levy as we settle down to talk about her latest novel which was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
It seems astonishing to hear the author of these two immensely high-profile novels ask such a question. Granted, The Long Song may not have yet reached the audience numbers of Small Island but it is surely only a matter of time. ‘Take no notice of me,’ she says. ‘I’m in that post-publication fear period, when the paperback is now out and I’m thinking, Is anyone going to read it?’ Only when I confirm that I had seen several people on trains reading The Long Song did she seem reassured.
Now translated into 13 languages, the novel tells the story of slave girl July working and living on a sugar plantation in the mid-nineteenth century, narrated at the end of her life at the insistence of her son. As it says, in July’s voice, just inside the cover: All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a novel they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.
What follows is the story of her and her fellow slaves’ survival day to day, a picture of intense suffering lightened by anecdotes and incidents of pure mischief to make life bearable – for example, slaves tricking their mistress into thinking that the white cloth on the table is indeed created for that purpose when in fact it comes straight out of the sheet cupboard. Or July’s mother enduring for several weeks, day in day out, the stench of manure, as she carries baskets of dung on her head to the fields. How her nose could forget the smell but not her throat or tongue if she failed to keep her mouth firmly shut.
Although the slaves are the main characters, Levy also gives the white plantation owners a full palate of colour. Caroline Mortimer, for example, the plantation owner’s sister, considers that her slave’s birth name July is simply not suitable for the lady’s maid she always wanted to have and re-christens her Marguerite, as she has the perfect right to do. These are slaves whose parents had been slaves, as had their grandparents and great grandparents before them, going back some 300 years, whose children and grandchildren would also, in all likelihood, be slaves too. But in fact the book is set just before the Baptist Wars of 1831–32, when the age of slavery was drawing to a close. The intention of The Long Song is to highlight that these were individuals who loved, suffered, hoped and despaired as much as anyone – something in which Levy clearly succeeds magnificently.
BRINGING HISTORY HOME
Almost as important to Levy as her books sales is her ambition to ensure that the subject of slavery in UK history is acknowledged and brought into public debate. What appals her today is that the part slavery played in British history is so rarely talked about in schools or universities. This is probably simply down to the fact that most of the slaves remained on the plantations of the Caribbean, she says.
‘It was just something that just went on over there – metaphorically and physically. Bringing [this fact] home, bringing it back to the mother country is very important. It’s very important to me.’
To emphasise her point Andrea Levy describes a couple of small but highly significant incidents indicating how this exclusion has crept into the British education system. ‘When I was out doing publicity (for The Long Song) I did two separate interviews with very intelligent women – two different women who had been through the university system – who did not know that slavery had happened in the Caribbean.’ At which point she stops. Although it is clear she has told this story several times, it still stuns her.
‘And I was more than shocked. Something has gone horribly wrong. Because it is so important to our understanding [about] who we were in the British Empire and how it came together. It cannot be written out of history.’
“I did two separate interviews with very intelligent women – two different women who had been through the university system – who did not know that slavery had happened in the Caribbean.”
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK
Encouraging people to read a novel about enslavement, suffering, war and a highly sensitive period in human rights was never going to be easy.
Yet Levy’s novel is anything but grim. Thanks to her superb light touch, The Long Song is a delight to read and often ‘laugh-out-loud’ entertaining.
For many, this ability to deal engagingly with a dark subject is Levy’s calling card. Before filming began on Small Island, she was keen to remind the adaptor and producer that the work is meant to be a comedy. Long-term fans of Levy will not need reminding. Mixing serious subjects like miscegenation in Small Island or enslavement in The Long Song with humour is a terrific achievement. For Levy, this is nothing surprising; for her, humour is quite simply part of the human condition. ‘Any character that I write who doesn’t have a sense of humour isn’t quite right. I believe everybody has a sense of humour. You find the odd person that doesn’t,’ she adds in a vague sympathetic tone as if it is a terrible affliction, ‘but certainly if you come from the Caribbean and slavery you had to have humour to get through it.’
That is not to say that she has made light of the appalling suffering slaves had to endure. ‘I want to make that quite clear – it’s not Carry On Up the Plantation, it’s a serious book, but out of my characters will always come humour.’
Another writer might have made the plantation owners stereotypically evil, but Andrea Levy was careful to avoid the pitfall, to dehumanise the perpetrators as easily as they did slaves. ‘I’m not interested in demons,’ she says. ‘As human beings, when we go into our periods of extreme cruelty to one another, it’s not because the person perpetrating it is evil, it is because the circumstances somehow have conspired to make the doing of something truly awful an easy proposition.’
And this is where Andrea Levy reminds me that it is not necessarily the individual who is evil, but often simply the situation. It is so easy with our modern twenty-first-century sensibilities to demonise and criticise anyone who has perpetrated evil. Her novel recreates the world where this was the norm. It was quite simply how the rich landowners behaved and how they were expected to behave. Nonetheless sitting in Levy’s lounge in 2011, there was something exceptionally shocking in listening to a black writer reminding me about the way white people regarded and treated their slaves.
‘At that time they thought that a slave was not truly human, didn’t really have souls and weren’t worthy of that treatment – much more akin to cattle than human beings. We have a propensity to do that all that time. It was done in the twentieth century and I have no doubt in my mind that it will be done again – where you make human beings not quite as good as you and then you can do what you like with them.’
For Andrea Levy, writing was not something that she did from a young age. In fact she did not make a start until her mid-thirties. This may have been because of the E grade she received for her English A-level. But what she may have lacked in confidence was made up for in the stories she had swimming around in her head and when she did begin writing, she set about creating the material she always wanted to read and which was sadly lacking in mainstream literature –stories involving black Britons.
Her first novel , Every Light in the House Burnin’, published in 1994, is unashamedly semi-autobiographical. But it was Levy’s fourth novel, Small Island, published in 2004 and which has sold over a million copies worldwide, that brought her into mainstream public awareness. Dealing with the racism in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it won a collection of high-profile awards including the Whitbread Bo ok of the Year in 2004 and the Orange ‘Best of the Best’ in 2005 . A television adaptation followed in 2009 directed by John Alexander and starring David Oyelowo, Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris, which won its own set of nominations.
Small Island drew heavily on some of the experiences of Levy’s own parents arriving in the UK from the Caribbean in the late 1940s. Levy’s father was one of the 492 individuals who came to the UK from Jamaica in 1948 aboard the famous MV Empire Windrush and her mother not long afterwards. Yet Levy did not hear about most of this crucial family history, until her early teens. She says that it was something her parents just did not want to talk about. They wanted to start a new life in the UK, looking forwards rather than back. The result was that young Andrea grew up not realising her family’s rich personal history. ‘We as children were not interested,’ recalls Andrea of her sixties upbringing. ‘They didn’t come from America. If they didn’t come from America, what was there to know?’
The sixties were a time when coming from Jamaica was not something to be particularly proud of, Levy reminds me. In fact, she had recently caught up with a friend with whom she had grown up. Andrea asked her whether her friend had realised that the Levy family originated from Jamaica. The friend replied that she had absolutely no idea and that this was the first time she had appreciated the fact. The anecdote is highly indicative of the lengths to which the Levy family wanted to integrate into modern post-war Britain.
As her writing career advanced, Levy knew that eventually she would have to confront the elephant of a subject from which many a writer, black or otherwise, would prefer to keep a very big distance – slavery. The moment – now well documented – came at a conference about the legacy of slavery. As Andrea Levy sat in the audience, a young woman stood up and asked how she could be proud of her ancestry when they were slaves.
‘At first I didn’t think I was hearing right. She was ashamed to say [that] she came from slavery, and I thought: Wow, how could you be ashamed of that? What is there to be ashamed of? How did we get to that position? That’s when I thought – could I tell her a story, which would change her mind?’
If that was her moment when the seeds of The Long Song were sown, the decision to write the novel did not come easily and there was a certain amount of resistance. ‘It’s a real confrontation – I was going to have to confront the society I live in and enjoy and love…The resistance when it comes is: “Oh, we know about slavery, I’ve read a book about slavery the other day – not another book about slavery.”’
“Any character that I write who doesn’t have a sense of humour isn’t quite right. I believe everybody has a sense of humour.”
TAKING THE STAGE
Nowadays however, Andrea Levy is far more likely to be on a stage discussing slavery rather than in the audience. As with every successful writer, there are endless demands on her time – for festival appearances, book signings and interviews. Andrea Levy would be the first to admit that being in the spotlight in front of an audience is way out of her comfort zone.
The demands made of a writer have changed immensely in the last 20 years. Book promotion nowadays is a key component of publication and book tours and appearances can claim as much time as a part-time job. The irony is that it is thrusting an individual who is highly disciplined in the art of solitary self-motivation, who works very long and lonely hours at a desk, straight into the public arena and demanding a performance.
Yet there is absolutely no question that Andrea Levy is remarkably good at the public appearances. She holds audiences enthralled with her witty, entertaining, off-the-cuff remarks. It is perfectly understandable that she is so much in demand. When I remind her of this and emphasise how easy she is to interview, she explains just how hard this aspect of a high-profile writer’s career can be.
‘I don’t want to sound churlish, because I understand what it is to be invited to do those things, and I feel grateful for that. Having said that, it’s very time-consuming, it takes all your brain. It’s very hard to do anything else. Some writers at literary festivals go into their bedrooms at night and write books. I wish I could do that but it tends to take over your life. In Small Island I was in a bath of cold water that heated up gradually, but with The Long Song I was straight into boiling water.’
Boiling or not, Andrea Levy swims along very strongly. Writers’ appearances have now become part of a whole entertainment industry. Audiences can number a thousand, as happened at Andrea Levy’s appearance at Hay-on-Wye. The writer will have no script and absolutely no idea what questions are to be asked either by the host or audience members. Anything could happen. ‘I defy any stand-up comedian to do that. It’s a really tough gig. You are also there to entertain, and I find that quite a challenge. When I did Edinburgh [Book Festival], I was absolutely horrified that in the newspaper the next day I was star-rated like a comedian or a theatre production.’
SPOKEN AND WRITTEN
How often does an author read the audio version of their own book?
Andrea Levy read Small Island in the gentle Caribbean lilt of her parents – and read very well indeed. She also knows the importance of good marketing and communicating to her readers. Her website www.andrealevy.co.uk clearly demands much attention to maintain at such a high level.
The academics are also after Andrea Levy. Her work is now being studied at university level and a new Open University course recently invited Levy to contribute to the way she uses Caribbean language. So with this world attention now on her, has it affected the way she sits down to write?
‘From where I sit I’m just a writer and I do what I want to do and that relationship with my writing hasn’t really changed. I’m aware, and I was certainly aware when I was writing The Long Song, that I may have a bigger audience for it than I would have before. That’s in the back of your mind. And when I write a book now, I do kind of know it’s going to be published.’
Slightly stunned, I repeat that last remark. ‘Kind of know it’s going to be published?’ This seems extraordinary coming from a Man Booker Prize shortlisted writer. Surely publishers will be fighting over the rights to her next book? Andrea Levy seems slightly nonplussed.
‘I’ve lived the writer’s life for nearly 20 years now, and for the first 14 the question was: “Is my next book going to be published?” That [feeling] doesn’t leave you. For a writer, it is a real fear.
‘And I feel a sense of relief and a tremendous sense of privilege that I don’t feel in that position now. I feel if I write another book, if I ever do, it will be published.’
This is the point when any self-respecting interviewer has to pose the inevitable question about the next book – is there one in the making?
‘Yes,’ she replies after a pause. Her delightful smile gets even broader and a knowing twinkle in her eye suggests she has taken full command of this conversation.
‘Is that all you are going to tell me about it?’ I say, smiling as broadly but realising I’m fighting a losing battle.
Another pause, her winning smile very firmly cemented now. ‘Yes.’
When the time comes, I have no doubt her agent will be quite busy with the publishers’ offers.
“When I did Edinburgh [Book Festival], I was absolutely horrified that in the newspaper the next day I was star-rated like a comedian or a theatre production.”