In this clip, Andrea Levy talks about her mother, Amy, who was a teacher from the middle classes in Jamaica. In 1948 she joined her husband, Winston, in Britain. Andrea reflects on the ways that race and class intersected for her mother. She describes how Amy viewed English people while she lived in Jamaica, versus the startling reality of how she was perceived and treated as a Black Jamaican woman in England.
In Levy’s novel Small Island, Hortense’s failure to get a teaching job in England was based on Amy’s experience. When she arrived, Amy had to take in sewing for a living until she obtained a British teaching qualification.
Andrea Levy’s Authors’ Lives interview
In 2014, author Andrea Levy (1956–2019) recorded her life story in an interview with Sarah O’Reilly as part of the National Life Stories’ project, Authors’ Lives. Authors’ Lives collects in-depth interviews with leading authors working in Britain today.
Containing 14 hours of material, the interview covers an expanse of topics ranging from Levy’s reflections on her childhood and parents, through to her journey to become a writer, the genesis of novels such as Small Island and The Long Song, and her experiences as an author who explored what it was to be Black and British.
[Please note that an offensive racist slur has been edited out of this clip. The slur, believed to originate in early 20th-century Britain, has been used towards people who do not have white skin.]
My mum came from the middle class in Jamaica and she came here and she was, you know, right down below the working classes, she was just a sort of underclass. No money, she was an immigrant, she was black, she had this accent. But she had this amazing thing about ‘the English’, that ‘the English’ were wonderful people. And ‘the English’ were all the English she knew were from Jamaica and the English in Jamaica were the rulers. They were the elites. And so she’d go into a shop and they’d speak very nicely to her and she just thought they were wonderful. And then she got to this country and she found the working classes and she felt rather a cut above them, and they felt certainly a long way above her! [Laughs] Because she was just this sort of ‘Black w-- come out of somewhere’, you know. The shock of it must have been horrendous.
- Article by:
- Sarah O'Reilly
Sarah O’Reilly has been recording life story interviews with writers since 2007 for NLS’s Authors’ Lives project. Here she reflects on a recording she made with the novelist Andrea Levy in 2014.