More vital now than ever: My research on Andrea Levy

Colston statue
The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol. CC BY 3.0 Caitlin Hobbs

With live venues currently unable to open their doors to the public, streamed performances of events that cannot be attended in person have become a staple of lockdown life for many. One particularly notable scheme has been ‘National Theatre at Home’, which has seen the NT make a selection of recorded performances available online for a week each, free of charge, via YouTube. One of the productions selected was the critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island. Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris, this production premiered in 2019, just weeks after Levy’s death. While she was present for some rehearsals, unfortunately Levy never got to see her seminal novel brought to the stage in front of a packed Olivier Theatre. In one of many five-star reviews, The Guardian stated that it ‘fe[lt] like a landmark in the National Theatre’s history’ and suggested that Small Island is, ultimately, ‘about lies; and the biggest lie of all is that Britain would both welcome and utilise the talents of its fellow citizens from Jamaica’. Performances of Small Island were routinely met with standing ovations, and its entire run was sold out; moreover, many commentators noted that its audiences tended to be rather more diverse than is typical at the NT. Unsurprisingly, a second run was slated for late 2020 to early 2021. While this has now been postponed, it seems inevitable that Small Island will make a welcome return to the stage once conditions permit.

The story of Jamaican migrants to Britain in the post-War period, Small Island was Levy’s fourth novel and marked her breakthrough into literary stardom. Her early work had explored the lives of British-born children of migrants from Jamaica, and was heavily influenced by her own experiences; Levy was born in north London in 1956 to Jamaican parents who had arrived in Britain in 1948 (her father was one of the men who sailed on the Empire Windrush). With Small Island, Levy turned her attention firmly to her parents’ generation. Narrated by four different protagonists – black Jamaican couple Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, and white English couple Queenie and Bernard Bligh – the novel is a tour-de-force. It won numerous awards, was the subject of the largest-ever mass reading event in the UK in 2007, was adapted for the screen by the BBC in 2009, and is widely considered a contemporary classic. With her final novel, Levy cast her gaze further back in time: The Long Song (2010) is set on a sugar plantation in nineteenth-century Jamaica, and is narrated by a former slave. Another critical and commercial success, the novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and, like Small Island, was adapted for the screen by the BBC. Levy lived just long enough to see the adaptation of The Long Song be screened in late 2018, and to see it attract critical acclaim.

Levy’s prose invariably sparkles with wit, insight, and poignancy. Her writing is hilarious and heartrending, sometimes both at the same time, and she has an astonishing gift for voices. But in addition to its literary qualities, Levy’s work is also of profound sociological and political significance, and that significance is clearer now than ever. The stage adaptation of Small Island was performed in the wake of the Windrush scandal, which broke in 2018. The scandal revealed that Caribbean migrants of Levy’s parents’ generation have been treated horrifically by the British state; that they have been denied benefits, medical care, and legal rights to which they were entitled, that they have had their documentation destroyed, and that, in many cases, they have been wrongfully deported. When I saw Small Island at the National in the summer of 2019, as grim revelations about the British state’s treatment of the Windrush generation continued to come to light, Levy’s story of Jamaican migrants to Britain felt more than ever like one that needed telling, and to as many people as possible. Even more recently, the importance of Levy’s work – which has a great deal to say about systemic racism, and about the ongoing legacies of Britain’s imperial history – has been further underscored by the disproportionate toll that Covid-19 is having on BAME communities, and by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. As I write, David Starkey – a historian recognisable to millions because of his work as a television presenter – has just caused outrage by stating that slavery did not constitute genocide because ‘otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain’. As shocking as such comments are, my guess is that Levy probably wouldn’t have been all that surprised by them; in fact, this is exactly the kind of racist (mis)conception of imperial history which Levy’s work suggests has long been a staple of the British establishment, and which it vigorously contests.

I have been teaching and working on Levy’s fiction for more than a decade. I currently teach her work on two modules in the English Literature department at LJMU, and have previously taught her work at the University of Cambridge, at a university in Turkey, at English Language schools in the UK, and at a sixth form in South London. I have lost count of the many, many young people, from very different backgrounds, who I’ve seen be inspired, challenged, educated, and moved by her work. My publications on Levy include a journal article that later became a chapter of my first book, chapters in edited collections published by Bloomsbury and Northwestern UP, and numerous other pieces. I’ve also been interviewed about her on local radio. After Levy’s untimely death in early 2019, I had the enormous privilege of being the first scholar to work on her personal archive, an extraordinary body of material that spans decades of her work. The archive includes, among other things, notes towards and drafts of Levy’s novels and other published works, a great many manuscripts and typescripts of those works, draft speeches, essays, and other non-fiction, documents relating to research that Levy carried out for her novels and other projects, documents relating to adaptations of Levy’s novels, Levy’s correspondence, and work towards projects that did not come to light during her lifetime. In 2019, the archive was acquired by the British Library. I am pleased to say that, because of the award of a BA/Leverhulme research grant and the support and cooperation of staff at the British Library, my work on the archive is going to continue. My research activities include exploring (for example) the ways in which each of Levy’s novels developed throughout the writing process, Levy’s influences and research practices, and projects that she worked on but which did not come to fruition.

There are numerous outputs forthcoming in relation to this research. This includes a book that I am writing on Levy for Manchester University Press as part of their Contemporary World Writers’ series. It also includes a special ‘In Memoriam’ edition of the journal ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, which I am co-editing with my colleagues Henghameh Saroukhani (St Mary’s University) and Sarah Lawson Welsh (York St. John University), and for which I am also writing an article. This special edition features contributions from literary scholars from numerous countries, and – perhaps most excitingly of all – will also feature previously unseen work by Levy herself, curated from her archive. My own article in this volume explores this unpublished work, as well as some of the other projects that Levy worked on in her final years.

What first attracted me to Levy’s writing was, in more than one sense of the word, its vitality. Her characters have always felt fully human, and there is a determination in her work to tackle the biggest, thorniest, most urgent subjects of the day. As Levy herself pointed out, none of her novels is ‘just’ about race; other major themes of her fiction include class, gender, family, and memory. Nevertheless, her work places the experiences and the contributions of black Britons at the centre of the national story, it explores the historical roots and the contemporary persistence of systemic racism, and it insists that we cannot understand contemporary, multi-ethnic Britain without looking honestly and unflinchingly at Britain’s long and brutal history of imperialism. Right now, as the grim revelations of the Windrush scandal continue to emerge, as we watch protestors topple statues of slavers, and as we grapple with the fact that BAME communities in Britain are far more likely to die of Covid-19 than their white counterparts, the vitality of Levy’s writing has never been clearer. My research aims to provide new insights into the work of one of Britain’s most significant contemporary writers, reassessing and celebrating Levy’s legacy.

Find out more about research in English literature from the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History.


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