Andrea Levy, In Memoriam

The ‘Black British Female Fiction Author’ is an enigmatic figure. I just tried to count them myself without Google – I only needed my left hand. With more effort and time, I could maybe use two.

I remember as a 12 year old, exactly half my lifetime ago, walking around my school library aimlessly. It was 2008, so I was more than likely looking for something to occupy me whilst impatiently waiting for my turn to borrow the latest book in the Noughts & Crosses series, so I could finish them before Double Cross came out. As an already – avid reader, Malorie Blackman’s books gave me something I didn’t really realise I was looking for. Seeing elements of myself in her characters, even if only in subtle ways, as well as in her, this dark-skinned black woman with her short bob and wide smile, made me realise that this is a luxury which most white readers probably do not think much about. I got angry for the first time about representation in literature, amongst other mediums. So, I started to literally judge books by their covers. If I saw a black person or name on the front or back of a book, I’d pick it up, and most likely borrow it.

I saw Small Island on display in the K-M’s, and was immediately intrigued. The cover was this monochrome picture of two young unsmiling women, one black, one white, standing back to back. I should say that I was probably too young to be reading this particular book. It had a bold ‘YA’ sticker on the spine – that was technically code for Year 9’s and up, because of ‘mature themes’ (sex). I approached the checkout desk with all my fake-confidence, but the librarian paused at the sticker. Then, she waved it off, said that I should be allowed to learn about my history, and stamped me out. Now, this was technically a book about the Windrush generation in post-war London, and I’m not Caribbean, but for the sake of the sentiment (and because I really wanted to read this book), I ignored this – shout out to her.

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Those two stern women on the cover became the haughty but kind-hearted Hortense and restless, lonely Queenie, whose lives were irretrievably connected through the men in their lives. Levy’s wit, beautiful prose, complex characters, and genuine plot twists made a fan out of me. In my local library, I’d linger around the L’s hoping for a new find. Levy, though black, was many things that I am not. She was light-skinned, Jamaican, and came of age in 70’s London. These multiple perspectives were explored in depth in her books.

It’s strange when public figures die, at least to me, because it often feels sad but detached. But, when I was scrolling through my phone and saw the news that Levy had passed at age 62, I was hit in a different, more genuine way. I don’t really know why, but I think it’s because reading someone’s book is such a personal, introspective act. I have raised eyebrows at protagonists’ decisions, smirked at her jokes, wondered at the worlds she created. Her books took up space on my shelves and in my head. In Fruit of the Lemon, I’d pondered the impact of family legacy and the ugliness of colorism. Never Far From Nowhere was captivatingly tragic, chronicling two very different black sisters through adolescence and young adulthood. The Long Song was genuinely funny in parts, in a way that didn’t dismiss the horrors of slavery, but simply recalled that these were real, emotive people who managed to live through one of the worst chapters of human existence.

In 2019, most of us are aware that representation matters. Levy’s books are a valuable contribution to a cannon that’s still shamefully sparse.  Your average, mid-noughties school library just didn’t have the range back then. It probably still doesn’t. Whilst celebrating her work, I wait and look forward to investing in the next generation of black female British fiction authors. As of writing this, Candace Carty-Williams’ new adult fiction book about a young black woman navigating millennial life in London – Queenie – has been published, which is so exciting! I want to see myself in more drama, fantasy, romance, coming of age and comedy.  Whilst I’m waiting, I’m glad I can find such a wealth of works as I wander through the L’s.

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