Multi-award-winning British author Andrea Levy tells Vivienne Egan about slavery’s little-known histories
‘Slavery lasted 300 years,’ says Andrea Levy, her London accent matter-of-fact. ‘It wasn’t just a short sharp shock, it was a social system. One of the worst humankind has ever come to, but it was a system, so I wanted to try to understand the cultural aspect, the nitty gritty of it.’
Levy is a British author born and bred in London, but her Jamaican heritage has continually called into question her notions of national identity – especially as it has led people to presume she cannot be truly ‘British’. She wrote about the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants to England in the ’40s (the same time her parents emigrated) for her last book, Small Island, which went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Her new book, The Long Song, set in Jamaica on a sugar plantation named Amity, takes place as the British Empire’s slave trade is in its death throes. It’s narrated by former slave July, an old woman who is living out her days in comfort unimaginable to her younger self, a house slave whose life becomes precariously enmeshed with those of her owners.
Levy read widely to recreate life in the 1800s. ‘There weren’t many testimonies from people who were enslaved. If there were five, that’s not very much – but there weren’t that many. But there are a hell of a lot of accounts by planters, abolitionists, governors and planters’ wives, and I realised you can read between the lines, and hear what they’re saying about someone and imagine what someone else is thinking about them.’
An unavoidable reality of slavery is violence, and Levy doesn’t shrink from scenes of cruelty towards slaves, taken from actual accounts. ‘I couldn’t make those up – I wish I had.’ But The Long Song is not unrelentingly horrific, nor is it a tale of victimisation. Instead there is resilience, small triumph and even playfulness, such as when a slave lays the table with a bed sheet instead of a tablecloth.
Levy is also intent on showing that the slave owners weren’t all villains. ‘They went to the Caribbean and it made them into brutes. We didn’t just ship psychopaths there.’ Liberal-minded Robert Goodwin, who arrives to oversee the plantation, has a desire to treat slaves compassionately that is slowly worn away by the weight of generations of disrespect and cruelty.
Levy’s background wasn’t always this significant to her – she grew up on a London council estate. ‘I was rather embarrassed about being from Jamaica; it wasn’t something I had pride in.’ Her parents migrated in the ’40s. ‘They wanted us to get on with our lives, not really think about Jamaica.’ Levy is the only one of her siblings to have visited. ‘When I started writing, I realised that my heritage is very interesting, that there were stories to tell that hadn’t been told before. Now I bless that heritage, but [her connection to her ancestry] is still a journey for me, and every book I write is another leg of the journey.’
Asked for a concluding comment, Levy is thoughtful. ‘As long as you get in that it’s 300 years. I can’t say that enough. It was so shocking when I realised – 300 years!’ The Long Song is published by Headline Review.
The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
Established in 1987, this rewards the best in Commonwealth fiction. Here are more winners to check out
• True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey The Aussie author also won his second Booker for this fictional account of Ned Kelly.
• Disgrace by JM Coetzee South African-born Coetzee is the only author besides Carey to win the Booker twice – he also nabbed his second for this tale of a disgraced teacher facing shifting power balances in rural SA.
• Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler The Canadian writer presents a web of interconnected stories as a man tries to solve the mystery of Solomon Gursky, who disappeared after a plane crash.