Week three: Andrea Levy on how her book emerged through her own family history. For Part 1 go to Small Island by Andrea Levy: a series of articles in The Guardian. For Part 2 go to Small Island by Andrea Levy (Part 2).
I hadn’t realised I was starting a novel, I thought I was just being curious about my own family history when, in my 40s, I finally got my mum to tell me about her experiences of emigrating from Jamaica to Britain. She always claimed that I was never interested in her past when I was younger. But the way I remember it, neither she nor my dad ever seemed to want to talk about their lives in Jamaica, or about why in 1948 they made the momentous decision to leave that island to come to another. Whatever the truth, that silence was finally breached and my mother, reluctantly, began to speak to me about her life before I was born. I was gripped from the start as those two familiar parents of mine began to emerge as fully rounded human beings with an amazing story to tell.
My dad had died in the 1980s, but I remember him mentioning, almost in passing, that he had sailed to this country on a ship called the Empire Windrush. Over the next decade or so the name of that ship kept cropping up – in TV documentaries, books, newspaper articles. By the mid-90s there was even talk of the “Windrush generation”. The arrival of that ship in 1948, with its 492 West Indian migrants looking for work and betterment in the mother country had become an important moment in our recent history – a point at which British society began to change. And he was one of the pioneers. My Dad!
I wanted to explore the relationship that the Caribbean islands had with Britain. After all it was no accident, no sticking a pin in a map, which brought my parents here. It was a legacy of the British empire. My parents believed themselves to be British. They really thought they would be welcomed here. They really did get a shock.
But throughout my mum’s story of arriving in England, she would talk about the white English people she met. Some she dismissed with a wave of her hand, but others she would talk of fondly. That they helped her, and made an impact on her, was clear. I realised if I was going to tell this story I had to tell it from all sides. Not only the immigrants’ tale, but also from the point of view of the people that those immigrants came to live among. Their lives were changed by that migration to Britain just as my parents’ lives were.
I had also been talking to my mother-in-law about her childhood. She had grown up in the 1920s and 30s on a farm in the East Midlands. Those conversations became very important in forming Queenie’s back-story. In my mother-in-law’s conversations she talked about her husband, who died in the 1960s and who I never met. He had been in the RAF in Burma during the second world war. I suddenly realised what a catalyst the war must have been. That conflict was barely over when my parents arrived in bombed-out London.
I was also struck by how much my parents and my parents-in-law would have had in common despite the obvious difference of the colour of their skin. What would have happened if by some chance they could have met at that time? Would they have been able to discover this common ground? That’s when I began to imagine four people – two white English, two black Jamaican – in a rundown house in Earls Court in 1948. What happened to them to bring them to that place and time? And what would they think of each other?
So the book was started. At first I was very nervous writing a totally researched book. Unlike my previous novels I was venturing out of my own experience and into another world. But it became so fascinating that the fears disappeared. I read books, old newspapers, visited archives and museums, watched films. I talked to war veterans and people who had lived through those times. I immersed myself in the period I was writing about, the speech, the attitudes, even the music and the styles of dress. It was such fun. Four distinct characters began to form in my head, and all of them seemed to demand that they tell their own stories. So four first-person narratives became the structure of the novel. And as I explored their stories I came to better understand the relationship between the country of my birth and the country of my heritage. Small Island was a joy to write and those characters will stay with me forever. It became a work of fiction, but for me it still remains something of a family history, too.
Next week John Mullan will be looking at readers’ responses.
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/22/book-club-week-three-small-island