The Empire in black and white

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am

Often described as Britain's black Roddy Doyle, Andrea Levy prefers to call herself 'the bastard child of Empire'. 'When I say I'm English, it's not an act of patriotism, it's almost an act of defiance ... I'm the bastard child Britain doesn't really want to acknowledge,' she says.

A child of the Windrush generation - the 492 Jamaican ex-servicemen and women who changed Britain when they migrated on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 - Levy has been toying with British identity for more than a decade in her four novels. 'All my books have been about trying to understand who I am and the position I'm in,' she says.

She works the themes again in her latest novel, Small Island, which uses four narrative voices to tell the story of two couples, one black, one white, whose lives are brought together by the idea of Empire. Gilbert Joseph's love for the empire compels him to fight for England during the war, then to leave Jamaica in 1948 and sail to London on the SS Empire Windrush to make a new life for himself and his young bride, Hortense. He takes up lodgings in Queenie Bligh's attic, much to the chagrin of the neighbours, who think these 'darkies have come for the teeth and the glasses'.

'People are responding to that whole thing about it not just being about black people but about white people as well. But some are a bit pissed off by that,' says Levy. 'Some people feel I should have been a little harsher, but I don't feel that. I want change, not retribution.

'The arrival of the Windrush in 1948 has now gone down in British history as the moment when multicultural Britain began. I wanted to go back and have a look at that, and what that meant for the people who came, because my dad and my uncle were both on that ship. But I also wanted to look at what it meant for the people they came to.'

While Small Island is an exploration of the moment when Britain is thought to have been forever changed by immigration, it is also about the disintegration and backwash of Empire. 'The British Empire wasn't a cultural exchange, it was an economic exchange. There was no interest particularly in the people and the cultures of those places; it was all about the kind of things you got from them. Nobody ever said we got the finest art in the world from Sarawak, or we got songs and merriment from Jamaica. It was a commercial transaction.'

Long before Zadie Smith penned White Teeth, Levy became a bright literary light in 1994 with Every Light in the House Burnin', a semi-autobiographical account of growing up as the child of Jamaican immigrants on a council estate in 1960s London. 'When I first tried to get published there weren't many black people writing, apart from Victor Headley with his Yardie crime series. Publishers thought no one would buy just a little family story.'

Two years later her second novel, Never Far from Nowhere, made the long-list for the Orange prize. But Levy has never signed a book contract before completing a novel. Time is paramount in giving depth to a novel, she says, 'and publishers don't like to give writers time'.

'In writing Small Island, I got hassled like hell after two years and I had to resist. It's the first job I've ever had where the power is completely in my hands, and I'm not about to give it up to a publisher.'

Only one thing could stop her working. 'If I could write a novel to end racism once and for all, then I would put my pen down,' says the woman who was 17 by the time she discovered her father had been on the Windrush, and even older before a workplace racial awareness class brought home to her what being black meant. 'I know that sounds absolutely ludicrous, but that was the first time I really had to confront that that meant something a little more than just my own personal experience, that this was a political thing as well.'

Until that moment, says Levy, reading a novel 'was about pain, about being bored stiff'. Overnight she developed an appetite for reading, fuelled by Marilyn French's The Women's Room and James Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man. She began writing when she went looking for the book 'that was about my experience, which was about being black British. It wasn't there.'