Andrea Levy: her important body of work set out what it is to be black and British


Sarah Lawson Welsh, York St John University

Prize-winning British novelist Andrea Levy, who died on February 14, will be remembered affectionately for raising awareness of black British writing and the closely intertwined histories of Britain and the Caribbean more than any other British writer of recent times (save perhaps Zadie Smith). In a career spanning 25 years, during which she published five novels (two of which were successfully adapted for television) and a luminous collection of short stories and essays – a significant legacy in itself – Levy garnered an unusually wide readership which crossed literary, popular and academic lines.

Like Angela, the protagonist of her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), Levy was of Jamaican parentage, her father being one of the original Windrush passengers arriving in Britain in 1948, her mother following shortly after. Levy herself grew up in a working-class household with few books, recalling in characteristically frank terms that “being a working-class girl I mainly watched telly”.

Like Faith, the protagonist of her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Levy knew little about her heritage and took little interest in Caribbean history and culture until a startling experience in a Racism Awareness training session at work launched her on a journey of rediscovery. As Faith’s mother says: “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”

Levy’s meticulously researched fictions interrogate the human experience of migration to and from the Caribbean in different periods. In Small Island (2004), Levy explores the ways in which Caribbean people were racially “othered” and made to feel unwelcome outsiders in Britain, despite being invited to migrate as British subjects in the post-1945 period.

In her final novel, The Long Song (2010), Levy harnesses fiction to, in her words, “go farther” – imaginatively excavating the human experiences of slavery from a variety of perspectives. Later on, in a twist stranger than fiction, Levy discovered that she herself, like her fictional character Miss July, was descended from a mixed-race liaison between a slave and a white overseer.

Although happy to be termed a black British writer, Levy importantly always saw the long historical connection between Britain and the Caribbean as a profoundly British concern, rather than a niche interest only relevant to those of Caribbean heritage. Indeed, reading her nuanced and inclusive explorations of what it is to be British and of Caribbean heritage might be seen as more urgent than ever in these heated times of Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

A British story

Levy started to write only in her 30s – but her writing achieved that rare thing: critical acclaim and commercial success (notably after Small Island which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize). Her texts now have a place on academic curricula across the globe but also – crucially – a huge popular readership as her books fill a permanent place on ordinary peoples’ bookshelves.

As the many tributes from her readers, those who worked with her and from prominent black British figures such as Sir Lenny Henry testify, it is clear that Levy’s writing played a hugely important role in helping many readers learn about, connect to and make sense of the complex, brutal and often hidden nature of Britain’s slave history and its lasting legacies. As Levy always made clear: the history of her heritage was also a British story.

Small Island is Levy’s hugely significant contribution to the fictional retelling and exploration of West Indians’ migration to Britain in the Windrush era. Levy’s compelling neo-slave novel, The Long Song, is a historiographic metafiction, a playfully self-conscious probing of the nature of narrative and the telling of history, this time from a slave perspective in an attempt to imaginatively reenter the harsh world of plantation society and give voice, agency and humanity to the enslaved.

Levy’s earliest novels, Every Light in the House Burning (1994), set in 1960s London; Never far from Nowhere (1996), set on a North London council estate in the 1970s; and Fruit of the Lemon (1999), set in the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s (as well as Jamaica), document domestic experiences of black British life and the particular manifestations of racism – National Front attacks, skinhead violence – prominent in British society during these periods. Later short texts, such as the short story Uriah’s War (2014), return to an earlier period and remind us that Britain and the Caribbean have long been closely connected and that West Indians – as British colonial subjects – also fought valiantly for “King and Country” in both world wars.

Growing up black

Levy seems to have been driven by a strong ethical imperative to tell these stories of West Indian arrival in Britain, of later generations “growing up black under the Union Jack”, to address the widespread British amnesia about its colonial history and the relative silence about Caribbean slavery in so many British institutions, including the school system.

The Small Island of Levy’s title is, of course, both Jamaica and Britain, two islands intimately and often violently yoked together by more than 300 years of shared history and culture. While Levy’s novels are set during different periods, they are all part of a longstanding, shared British-Caribbean history.

Thus, Small Island shows how the experience of the Windrush generation was marked by many of the same attitudes, inequalities and tensions found in the earlier period of plantation slavery in Jamaica, as explored in The Long Song. Levy’s 2014 essay Back to My Own Country, meanwhile, is a moving and powerful account of family, racism and her turn to writing. All are part of the largely forgotten history of Britain’s deep relationship with the Caribbean – a history which Levy’s texts show us is not just “out there” but “here (in Britain) too”.

Ultimately, what links all Levy’s texts is their deep humanity. Fittingly, Levy herself said that: “None of my books is just about race … They’re about people and history.” She described Miss July, the protagonist and chief narrator of The Long Song as “human, very smart, feisty”. There could be no better way of describing Levy as a writer.The Conversation

Sarah Lawson Welsh, Reader & Associate Professor in English & Postcolonial Literatures, York St John University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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George Saunders Booker win: why the British shouldn’t be sore at American literary success



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Andrew Dix, Loughborough University

“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.

But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.

American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.

Changing the rules

Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”

A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:

A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.

Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.

Novels without borders

If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.

George Saunders with his award.
Man Booker

There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:

Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.

Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.

The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.

The ConversationBut a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.

Andrew Dix, Lecturer in American Studies, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?



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Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.
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Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

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These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Bookish.
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Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top Ten Books on the British in India


The link below is to an article that lists what it believes to be the top ten books on the British in India.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/15/top-10-books-about-the-british-in-india

Article: Modern Life & the British Library


The link below is to an article that takes a look at how the modern world and the old world of the British Library are clashing.

For more visit:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-war-of-words-at-the-british-library-8734405.html

Free Book: History of the Boston Massacre – Frederic Kidder (1870)


This book is for history enthusiasts and concerns what has come down to us as the ‘Boston Massacre.’ The Boston Massacre was an important incident that led up to the American War of Independence. This book contains an account of the incident, as well as information on the town of Boston, the trial of the soldiers involved in the incident and a number of unpublished documents attributed to John Adams (who would become the second president of the United States) who defended the British troops
in their trial.

The book is some 320 pages long and can be downloaded as a pdf, as well as a number of other formats as shown on the page linked to.

To Download the pdf version of the book, visit:
http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924076622731

Life of George Washington – Washington Irving


I have been reading the five volume work of Washington Irving on the ‘Life of George Washington’ over the last little while. Currently I am in the middle of the second volume. Though I am only reading two to ten pages a day and don’t view this reading exercise as particularly pressing, I am enjoying my reading experience very much. It is an easy to read book, with chapters divided into very manageable portions. As a whole, the five volumes make up about 2000 pages.

This work by Washington Irving on the life of George Washington covers the life of the first president of the United States, shedding much light on the life and times of Washington. Thus far I have covered the period of Washington’s early life, through the war against the French and Indians (in which Washington played an important role) and into the American War Of Independence (in which Washington led the fledgling nation’s army against the British). This biographical work seems to be an excellent life of George Washington, but also provides an insight into the players and the history of the times.

In short, this five volume work on Washington is excellent and I would highly recommend reading the entire work on an important person in, and period of, American history. The work is available at the Internet Archive and I have links to the five volumes on my website at:

http://tracingourhistory.com/history.html

‘Shameful Flight – The Last Years of the British Empire in India,’ by Stanley Wolpert


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

‘Shameful Flight’ relates the history of the final years of the British Raj in India, including the partition of India into both Pakistan (West and East) and India, and the early hostility of the two new nations destined for perpetual warfare in such regions as the Kashmir.The history of this era of political instability on the subcontinent includes all the main players from Great Britain, India and Pakistan.These main players include Winston Churchill, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. There is not a single figure in this history of India’s partition who comes out of it in a good light, though several seem to have had very well-intentioned aims and motivations. It is the true story of lost opportunity and the devastating consequences of human pride and selfishness that have reverberated down through the decades to the present day and remain visible in the continuing clashes between India and Pakistan, as well as in the extremism expressed in both the Islamic and Hindu communities throughout the sub-continent. It is a story of perpetual tragedy and human suffering with no end in sight.

This book is extremely easy to read, passes on a wealth of historical information and whets the appetite for further research on the India/Pakistan situation. It provides enlightenment, by bringing understanding to the current political instability in both India and Pakistan, by clearly revealing the root of the problem – the manner of the birth of both nations out of British imperialism and that nation’s final haphazard departure aptly described as a ‘Shameful Flight.’ This is a great book for understanding the sub-continent and the wounds it still carries to this day.

This book was provided to me for review by Oxford University Press – www.oup.com