Books: The Medusa of Highbury the London-Born Novelist Andrea Levy Talks to Maggie O'Farrell about Television, Grey Socks and Black British Identity
Maggie O'Farrell, The Independent (London, England)
A ndrea Levy is nervous. She fiddles with the lid of the small teapot on the table, asks for a glass of water, then confesses, "I've never been interviewed by a broadsheet before."
Her latest book, Fruit of the Lemon, should secure her even more attention from the mainstream press. It is the story of Faith Jackson - Londoner, BBC costume department employee, Fifties child, and daughter of Jamaican immigrants. After a lifetime of both casual and intended racism from the fellow inhabitants of her mother country, Faith's identity reaches a crisis, and she goes to Jamaica to search out the histories her parents never told her, and to reconstruct her fragile self-image. It is a thoughtful, honest and measured piece of writing, and, embedded in the stories that Levy weaves into Faith's narrative, is a clear record of colonial history that I, for one, was never taught at school.
Levy has a mobile, expressive face with a lively, often self- deprecating smile. Her light skin and mass of black Medusa curls means she - as with one of her characters in Never Far From Nowhere - "could, in a dim light, be taken for Spanish or Italian". She was born in London in 1956, her parents having arrived from Jamaica in 1948. Even though her three books to date have been concerned with the second-generation Jamaican experience in Britain, she doesn't see herself as a writer with an agenda: "Black British identity is what interests me. That's all. I write about what I understand, what I know." The mutual bafflement engendered by the generation gap is, in Levy's writing, widened by cultural differences: the parents don't comprehend the world their children have been born into, and the children have no understanding of the world their parents left behind. In Fruit of the Lemon, Faith and her brother are irritated by their parents' seemingly inexplicable habit of hoarding boxes: "Fyffes boxes ... toilet roll boxes; Wagon Wheel packet boxes; unspecified boxes; thick double-lined boxes ..." Faith's parents, in turn, are mystified by her career ambitions and domestic set-up (a houseshare that includes two "boys"). Levy is illuminating on the generational shifts that have taken place since the mass immigration from Jamaica in the 1950s. In Never Far from Nowhere, the mother chides her daughters: "You're not black. You're you." Levy herself "was brought up with a sense of `just keep quiet about it'. Black pride is a strange thing. For my parent's generation there was a sense of pride in who you were, pride in being Jamaican and pride in being British. My parents were taught to think of themselves as British. They really believed they were in some little satellite town of Britain. So when they came here it was quite a shock." Levy's sister's children, by contrast, "have no idea what it's like to be the only black kid in your inner London school, no concept of life without black pride." It is precisely this ever-altering tension between prejudice and identity that enlivens Levy's characterisations and narratives. Levy rejects the notion that racism might have abated since her parent's time. "It's just different now," she insists. "No better and no worse. It's mutating. I find prejudice interesting, in an intellectual way." She stops, laughs and admits: "It gets on my tits as well, though. Since the war, the change in this country has been staggering. When I think back to my childhood in little grey socks in Highbury, it's a completely diff- erent planet. These changes mean that the English identity has devolved: if the word Englishness doesn't define me, then the word needs to be redefined." The racism that simmers away in the background of Levy's writing is of a lurking, insidious, often unconscious type, only rarely - and thereby more shockingly - exploding into violence. I ask Levy how autobiographical Faith is, and she grimaces: "I don't want to say `no' and I don't want to say `yes'. …