Last night I went to see Andrea Levy, noted UK novelist, who was in Christchurch to support her new book, The Long Song.
The format of the talk was a conversation between Levy and Christchurch writer Helen Lowe. The two writers sat in magnificent throne-like chairs in a magnificent room of one of Christchurch’s magnificent old buildings. Helen conducted the proceedings with aplomb, and Levy had many fascinating stories to tell.
Levy is the daughter of Jamaican parents, and while she has lived all her life in the UK, she clearly identifies very strongly with her Jamaican heritage and the legacies of the age of slavery.
The Long Song is set on a nineteenth-century Jamaican plantation, and tells the story of two slave women. As well as conversing with Helen, Levy gave two readings from her book, switching from her UK accent to a Jamaican one (clearly based on her mother’s accent) to great effect.
When asked about the sudden success of her fourth novel, Small Island, Levy said that she had been writing for ten years before she became successful, and that it was like whispering in a small room before suddenly looking up to find that the whole world is listening. When asked about the long gap (six years) between Small Island and The Long Song, Levy said that part of the reason was the demands placed on her by the sudden success of Small Island.
Levy said that The Long Song came from a desire for her to find out about her Caribbean ancestry and heritage. When she started researching, she found “this amazing hole in history.” According to her the age of slavery lasted 300 years – and yet there exists almost no testimony from Caribbean slaves. No records of births, deaths, or baptisms, no personal journals. The only information about the life of the slaves comes from the plentiful journals and other records left by the white slave owners. She had to put together the story of the slaves from these references, a process Helen suggested was like trying to make a puzzle with reverse pieces.
When asked about how modern people felt about their slave heritage, she said that it used to be a source of shame for people, to be descended from slaves, but that attitudes were changing, and likened it to how Australians feel about their convict heritage.
When asked whether she had found it difficult to use her imagination to bridge the gaps in the historical record, Levy replied that she had no problem at all. She said that people all have the same emotional reactions to things, and so felt confident about writing about how slaves would have felt about their lot in life, even in the absence of direct testimony. As an example, she talked about a story (from one of the white owners) of how the slave women had to collect manure in baskets which they then balanced on their heads for the trip to the fields, a long walk in the hot sun with the “juice” running down their faces. The white owner was convinced that the slaves didn’t mind, and were made for it, while Levy said she had no problem imagining what the women would actually have thought about their situation.
Helen talked about the scenes of brutality in the book, and asked how much of that was made up. Levy said that she felt that it wasn’t right for her to make such things up, and so used real examples from the records, such as the white men who put a slave boy in a barrel, drove nails into it, and the rolled it down a hill.
When asked about the amount of humour in the book Levy suggested that history tends to concertina time such that all the brutal bits tend to get left in and the happy bits tend to get left out. But in all times and places people love and laugh, no matter how bad things get, and so she wanted to inject some of that into the brutal story. As she said, “people survived, and I’m testament to that.”
Helen pointed out that there were two accounts of the narrator’s birth in the book: one almost mythic, the other realistic. Why? Levy said that when reading about slavery she repeatedly found the slave trade described in almost mythic terms, and put in the dual birth stories to make it clear that these were real people.
When talking about gradations of skin colour, Levy said that even today the Caribbean operates a ‘pigmentocracy’, with the suggestion being that the closer to white you are the better a person you are. She said that historically there where many terms for different shades of skin, and claimed that one island identified over 100 shades between black and white. She claimed that – bizarrely – the system, while derived from British ideals of white supremacy, was policed and enforced by the slaves themselves, with those with darker skins being expected to do harder and more unpleasant jobs than those with lighter. Levy claims that these attitudes are still present in the Caribbean to an extent, as can be seen for example in the existence of whitening creams.
When talking about her earlier, less-successful books, Levy suggested that she had problems convincing publishers to pick up her books because they felt that books about black families would only be of interest to black people, and couldn’t tell universal stories, but that the success of Small Island had helped to change that perception.
When asked about how her family had reacted Levy said that at first it was tough on them, as it felt like she was telling the family secrets, but attitudes changed with the success of the books, and that now her mother actively encourages her to write more about their background.
Levy said she became a novelist almost accidentally, as a result of taking a creative writing class on a whim. She claimed that she didn’t even start reading regularly until she was 23, something she put down to the trauma of being forced to read books like Bleak House as a kid. Levy greatly enjoys doing the research that inform her novels. In fact she said she loved it so much that she wished she could just do research all day and then go home and watch TV.
Small Island has been made into a TV series which has shown in the UK and will be screening in NZ in mid 2010. It took five years to get from lunch to TV. (“Everything in publishing starts with ‘lunch’.”) Levy admitted that the first time she saw the production she didn’t care for it, because of all the changes they’d made to her story, but on a second viewing she decided that it was a really good drama, and reflected the tone of her book well.
As a final question Helen asked if she was going to keep writing in the same subject area, to which Levy replied with an emphatic yes. As Helen pointed out, the legacy of the British Empire gives a lot of scope.