Bonnie Greer pays tribute to the prize-winning writer who was driven by her determination to tell stories of burning importance.
I moved to London to write. Usually African American writers went to Paris because of the lure of the French capital that stretched back to the Harlem Hellfighters returning in triumph wearing their Croix de Guerre after the First World War; Josephine Baker; and, later, the adventures of James Baldwin and Miles Davis.
No black American writer thought of Britain because it seemed too stuffy, too rigid, too joyless. But then the music of the 1960s came, and then the fashion, the film and the theatre. By the time I was living in New York City in the 1980s, downtown and making theatre, it was easy to see that it was time to move on. New York was being changed, gentrified, and the possibility of cheap living, of making art was over.
Then the London-based Black Theatre Co-operative arrived in Manhattan with the Mustapha Matura play Welcome Home Jacko and for the first time, I heard black people truly speaking in other voices. Not in accent, but in other realities, other assessments of their lives and the lives around them.
The reality of Britain and the United Kingdom became a different one because something extraordinary, something new in the African diaspora was happening. ‘Art is the news that always makes news,’ I once read somewhere and this theatre, these voices and point of view were news.
I had no idea when I arrived in London that black theatre was ending an era. Or rather, it was being forced to end an era, through the cuts that the Thatcher government imposed. The entire theatre industry became director-led and director-created, and while writers’ voices still existed, only the theatre-maker could ensure that bums were on seats and the rent was paid.
And so, from my vantage point anyway, the struggle was to hold on to a voice – which, by its very definition, is a point-of-view. The shaping of a reality, being a witness, was the struggle of the 1990s and beyond.
Andrea Levy, who died last week, stated that she was told over and over that her work would not sell; that there were not enough readers; that people only read books by black American writers.
The hegemony of the African American experience over the work of black British artists may not be documented enough. It is both overt and subtle. But Levy knew that a story had to be told and it could only be told in a voice forged between the Caribbean and Britain. She set out to do it. She never gave up.
I am not sure what it means to set out to be a writer, but that is what she did, with a fierce work ethic and determination. She took writing classes and she submitted work; an act of sheer courage, despite the fact that she had been told about the dominance of African American work. If she published, she would be overshadowed. Just as many of us black American writers toiled, in those days, in the shadow of the ghastly To Kill A Mockingbird.
Her courage is to reiterate because, at a profound level, Levy changed the game. She wrote the books that she could not find to read. In her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, published in 1994, she presents her calling card: ‘My dad was from Jamaica – born and bred. He came to this country in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship. My mum joined him six months later in his one room in Earl’s Court. He never talked about his family or his life in Jamaica. He seemed only to exist in one plane of time – the present.’
It is the experience of ‘the Windrush’, the story of the Windrush generation and their children, which Levy made visible. This visibility extends through all of her work, and gives it something more than that term to describe the work of people of colour: ‘vibrant’. She was anti-vibrant. She wrote of deep inner searches; of the past as the fuel and source of the present; she saw her people and all human beings as an accumulation of the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. Each and every one of us.
She could do the thing that all great writers can do: she could make the particular universal; the personal into an impersonal that allows the reader to enter a world that they may feel that they cannot, or should not, enter.
That idea of the impersonal – ie that personhood itself is a construct – is what Levy knew. Her life as the child of that Windrush generation gives her writing a resiliency at once tragic and profound.
Before she became known, every black woman was reading her, so her success came as no surprise to any of us. The awards, the prizes, all of that was her due and a kind of justice for her and her parents’ generation.
The home secretary would do well to read her work – better that than any official report around the disgrace of the present Windrush debacle that he could find. He could learn about the existential effect of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy on immigration that she created as home secretary. And the implied broken promise to a people who thought they were the children of the mother country.
I met Andrea Levy twice, on both occasions to interview her and review her books. I first met her at her home in Highbury, right before Small Island was published, in 2004. Levy was a hustler – she got out there and sold her books. She told me that she would sell this one ‘if I have to go door-to-door again’. I heard her, but assured her that her latest novel was a game-changer. She did not believe me.
By the time The Long Song was published, in 2010, she was handing out beautifully-published first editions and was a bit more guarded. But her passion, her drive, her determination to tell a story of not only great importance, but also beauty, fuelled her. Propelled her. Was her.
For every great writer, their own story is in their work, and is all that you really need to know.
‘I should describe my dad – tell you what he looked like. But who would I describe?’ she writes in her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’.
What she described was a people integral to what the UK is. Now and forever. And their bard, Andrea Levy, is immortal.