A report by Richard Lea for The Guardian.
The writer Andrea Levy, who explored the experience of Jamaican British people in a series of novels over 20 years has died, aged 62, from cancer.
After starting to write as a hobby in her early 30s, Levy published three novels in the 1990s that brought her positive reviews and steady sales. But her fourth novel, Small Island, launched her into the literary big league, winning the 2004 Orange prize, the Whitbread book of the year and the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, selling more than 1m copies around the world and inspiring a 2009 BBC TV adaptation.
On Friday, authors including Candice Carty-Williams and Linda Grant paid tribute. “So sad to hear about the passing of Andrea Levy, who so beautifully told the stories of the Windrush generation and the love, pain and memories that came with them from the West Indies,” wrote Carty-Williams, while Grant remembered her as “a wonderfully funny caustic friend. What a huge loss.”
Sir Lenny Henry, a board member of the National Theatre, which is staging an adaptation of Small Island this spring, said she was “funny, had attitude and was immensely smart”, while Helen Edmundson, who adapted the novel for stage, called working with Levy “a joy and a privilege”.
“Like her books, she was uncompromising and funny, wise and honest. There was nothing I couldn’t ask her, and always something we could laugh about. Although we sometimes fantasised about miracles, we knew it was very unlikely that she would ever see the play. Her support for the script I arrived at meant everything. I once told her that adapting Small Island was as complex and important as adapting War and Peace. She loved that. She was, and is, one of the greats,” Edmundson told the Guardian.
Her longtime editor Jane Morpeth said she was “incredibly honoured to be Andrea’s publisher and to call her my friend”.
“I was so proud to watch her win prizes, be read by millions of people and reshape the literary world around her. Her legacy is unique, and her voice will be heard for generations to come. I miss her,” said Morpeth.
Levy was born in London in 1956 to parents who were part of the boom in immigration that shaped postwar Britain, her father arriving in the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and her mother following shortly afterwards. She grew up on a council estate in Highbury, north London, explaining to the Guardian in 1999 that she did not read much: “Being a working-class girl, I watched telly.”
The casual racism Levy encountered during her childhood was “rarely violent, or extreme”, she wrote in 2014, but it had a profound effect.
“I hated myself,” she explained. “I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean. In my effort to be as British as I could I was completely indifferent to Jamaica.”
After studying textiles at Middlesex Polytechnic, Levy worked briefly as a designer, a dresser and a receptionist. But it was not until she was 26 that a racial awareness session with colleagues at an Islington sex education project gave her a “rude awakening”.
“We were asked to split into two groups, black and white.” Levy wrote. “I walked over to the white side of the room. It was, ironically, where I felt most at home – all my friends, my boyfriend, my flatmates, were white. But my fellow workers had other ideas and I found myself being beckoned over by people on the black side. With some hesitation I crossed the floor.”
As someone who was “scared” to call herself a black person, the experience was shocking enough to send her to bed for a week. But the writing course she had begun part-time came to her rescue, sending her back to explore the shame and denial that had marked her childhood and to rediscover her Jamaican roots.
It took her 12 years to translate this shift of perspective into fiction, with the publication in 1994 of her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’. In it, a young black woman returns to help with her father’s cancer, and looks back on her childhood on a council estate and her parents’ journey from Jamaica to London. When Angela asks her father about a photograph taken outside his beautiful Jamaican house, “he would shrug and tell me not to bother him”, Levy writes. “Or he’d suck his teeth and ask me why I was interested. He would do this in the manner of somebody who does not want to answer – of somebody who would like you to leave them alone.”
This deft examination of race and class met at first with a string of rejections that showed publishers did not know what to do with a “black British writer writing about everyday things”, Levy told the Guardian in 1999.
“They were worried that I’d be read only by black people – less than a million and they don’t read anyway. Apart from African American writers and Yardie, there was nothing to show I’d sell. But it’s grist to my mill. My attitude is, I’m gonna get these fuckers. I’d love to have them pawing at my door.”
As her reputation and ambition grew, Levy gradually reached further and further beyond her own experience. Judging the Orange prize in 1997 opened her eyes to “what fiction was for” she told the Guardian in 2010.
“I had to read books that I wouldn’t have necessarily read,” she said. “I had to read them well and I had to read them in a short space of time. Back to back. Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood and Beryl Bainbridge and Anne Michaels – boom, boom, boom. And I started to realise what fiction could be. And I thought, wow! You can be ambitious, you can take on the world – you really can.”
The novel that followed this moment of realisation was drawn on her biggest canvas yet. Small Island follows a quartet of narrators in England and Jamaica both before and after the second world war, reflecting the experiences of the Jamaican RAF pilot Gilbert and his wife Hortense against those of their English landlady Queenie and her husband Bernard. Writing for the Guardian in 2004, Mike Phillips hailed her grasp of the rhythm of both Caribbean and London speech and the research that helped her illuminate “old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time”.
“The novel records some of the most unpleasant racist aspects of the period without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate,” Phillips wrote.
A trio of major prizes followed, with the bestselling novel translated into more than 20 languages and being added to English syllabuses across the globe.
“Thanks to Small Island, I don’t have to pay the mortgage any more,” she told the Guardian. “There’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful I’m in that position … Now I can explore what I’m passionate about.”
Levy followed her passions back to early 19th-century Jamaica for her last novel, The Long Song, which explores the everyday realities of life on a slave plantation. When she started writing, she had intended to examine a much broader sweep of history, but “you can’t avoid slavery,” she said. “You have to go to that place. You keep banging into it.”
Writing in 2014, Levy explained her continuing fascination with the forgotten history of the British Caribbean.
“Britain made the Caribbean that my parents came from,” she said. “It provided the people – black and white – who make up my ancestry. In return my ancestors, through their forced labour and their enterprise, contributed greatly to the development of this country. My heritage is Britain’s story, too.”
Mari Evans, managing director of Levy’s publisher Headline, said that her novels “have perhaps never been more relevant or important in their questioning of identity and belonging … May we continue to learn the lessons so elegantly laid out by one of the greatest novelists of her generation.”