Andrea Levy FRSL was an author best known for the novels Small Island and The Long Song. She was born in London to Jamaican parents, and her work explores topics related to British Jamaicans and how they negotiate racial, cultural and national identities.
Author of Obituary: Margaret Busby
Andrea Levy came from a background that would have made it hard to predict for her a career as a universally lauded, award-winning novelist. Born in London to Jamaican parents – her father had arrived in Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, her mother followed soon after – Andrea was the youngest of four children. In her own words, she was an ordinary working class girl: ‘I lived on a council estate in north London. I went to a local school. Spoke like a good cockney. I played outside with all the white kids who lived around my way – rounders, skipping and hide and seek. I ate a lot of sweets. Watched a lot of television: Coronation Street, Emergency Ward 10. Loved the Arsenal. Hated Tottenham Hotspur.’
Yet after starting a creative writing class at the City Lit as a hobby in her mid thirties, she would transform herself from someone who had not read a book until the age of 23, and did not think of herself as black, into someone who read excessively as she moved towards understanding exactly where she fitted societally and where she came from. While she found books by African-American writers, there was not much literature published about the black British experience. (Recognition of that same fact led Marsha Hunt to set up the Saga Prize to champion new British-born black literary talent, a prize that both Andrea and I judged in its early years.)
Following the ‘write what you know’ model, Andrea’s early subject matter reflected her life in Britain as the child of migrants. However, visiting Jamaica for the first time enabled her to research her family history and heritage – which embraced a Jewish paternal grandfather and a Scots maternal great-grandfather as well as African roots.
After initially frustrating attempts to find an agent and rejections from publishers – attributable to their narrow perceptions of the marketability of black writing (‘not only was I from a minority but publishers felt my novels would only appeal to minority tastes’) – she attracted favourable critical attention for her first three novels: Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), Never Far from Nowhere (1996) and Fruit of the Lemon (1999). It was her fourth novel, Small Island (2004), that secured the sales and awards that were game-changing, and her final novel, The Long Song (2010), confirmed her as a writer who could claim the world for her audience.
Undeniably, it was Andrea’s astute eye for British Caribbean life and history, combined with a nuanced playfulness, an unflinching and often irreverent way of seeing, that made her so readable. She wrote the books that she had to write, shedding light on the realities of her own identity. The international success she achieved, with millions of readers and adaptations for television, screen and stage, undoubtedly confirmed her selfworth, but no elitist pretensions came with the security it brought Andrea and her husband, Bill Mayblin.
She once wrote in an essay: ‘Britain made the Caribbean that my parents came from. 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 modern Britain. My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.’ That is something Andrea achieved herself with her own writings. When I invited a contribution from her for New Daughters of Africa, I was delighted that she accepted with alacrity, choosing to be represented by a passage from Small Island. Sadly, Andrea’s funeral took place on the same day as the South Bank launch of the anthology, two days after what would have been her 63rd birthday, and we all joined in paying tribute to the inspirational life of a truly extraordinary ‘ordinary’ person.
Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.