By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts
It was with great sadness that I heard the news of Andrea Levy’s death on Friday. She had been very supportive of our Windrush exhibition, for which she lent the Library a number of items including drafts of her novel Small Island. It was a pleasure to meet Andrea several times over the course of the exhibition planning period. Even sitting in her kitchen last December over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, knowing she didn’t have much longer to live, there was still a warm atmosphere and plenty of laughter.
Not that Andrea hadn’t been a little reticent about her manuscripts being shown in the exhibition. ‘What archive? Are all those boxes of papers in my cellar an archive?’ she asked me initially. And the idea of letting anyone see a first draft sent a shudder through her. As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2011, for her those first attempts were embarrassing. ‘I write absolutely the first thing that comes into my mind… longhand. And they’re bad. The first things I write down, ooh no, they’re not good.’ But as any literary archivist knows, the fascinating thing is to see the progression of successive drafts as a novel takes shape, to be able to pinpoint where the magic happens, the key decisions where things fall into place. In the case of Small Island, the drafting process brought her gradually closer to her four protagonists Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard:
I love writing in the first person. I did actually start the book in the third person but it felt like I was writing behind a screen. It was only when I let the characters speak themselves and saw the world entirely through their eyes and I wasn’t anywhere present in the book (and I hope I’m not present) [that] they really came to life for me. It’s like acting. Trying to take historic generalities and make it about humans. (Radio 4 Bookclub)
This for me is Levy’s overwhelming talent. Her knack for embodying and inhabiting her characters so completely. To walk in other people’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives. To appraise people clearly, with an uncompromising and unsentimental humour which nevertheless finds the strands and sinews of humanity that make everyone’s lives of interest, however modest. This talent is present as much in her three early novels (Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon) as it is in Small Island and The Long Song, though it’s in the latter two that she really stretches her imagination to weave plots on a much larger canvas encompassing the broad sweep of history from slavery to the aftermath of World War II.
It’s difficult to face the truth that there will be no more novels from Levy’s pen and that she is no longer with us, but we do have those five novels and a handful of short stories to return to (plus the essay ‘Back to My Own Country’ which can be read on the British Library website Discovering Literature), and also the excellent Imagine documentary which aired for a second time last night (and which features Andrea getting the better of Alan Yentob on more than one occasion, and Rufus Norris for good measure).
For more on Andrea Levy, the British Library collection includes her interview for the Authors’ Lives series, which you can read more about on our Sound and Vision blog. Our Discovering Literature site offers Hannah Lowe’s ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island’ which discusses Levy’s role as a second-generation migrant bearing witness to the trauma which had silenced her parents’ generation. There are also teaching resources for secondary students, and digitised images of the objects which were displayed in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land – selected pages from the manuscript of Small Island, Winston Levy’s ‘Jamaica shirt’, his postcard of the Empire Windrush bought on board ship, and a family photograph of the Levys on a rare trip to the British seaside.
I will leave you with this clip from the Imagine documentary in which Andrea visits the Library to see the Windrush exhibition. Here she points out her father in the Pathé news footage playing in the gallery - though she confessed to me later that she wasn’t sure it really was her father. More likely it was his twin, the more attention-seeking of the two brothers, whom she’d never met but had clearly been the inspiration behind the character of Kenneth in Small Island.
Like her father, Andrea did not seek the limelight but she was proud to find herself there, proud to be telling the story of the Caribbean and the Black British experience, and proud to represent Black writers in a society that has too often overlooked others like her.