Wednesday 18 September 2019

Pick of the week: Imagine...

Immigrant stories, Wednesday, BBC1, 10.45pm

True story: Writer Andrea Levy talks to Alan Yentob about the personal history behind her work
True story: Writer Andrea Levy talks to Alan Yentob about the personal history behind her work
Grizzly bear cubs
Rory O'Connell
Danny DeVito
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

If any writer has managed to crystallise the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants to Britain, it's Andrea Levy. Her acclaimed 2004 novel Small Island told the story of four immigrants who arrived in England in 1948 as part of the 'Windrush' generation who considered Britain the mother country and expected much from the nation for which some of them had fought in World War Two. Instead, they faced endemic racism and marginalisation as they attempted to build lives for themselves in a hostile new land.

Levy's latest novel, The Long Song, goes further back in Caribbean history to describe the struggles of new freed 19th century slaves. It's just been made into a major BBC drama (see drama picks), and in this Imagine special Alan Yentob talks to Andrea Levy about the personal history behind her work. She was born in north London in 1956, just eight years after her parents had emigrated to Britain from their native Jamaica. Many years later, the 'Windrush' generation would be at the centre of a political storm over wrongful deportations and state mistreatment that led to a ministerial resignation, but Andrea grew up on a Highbury council estate, eating sweets and watching soap operas, as she puts it, and living a normal working class life.

But as an adult she would become painfully aware of her dual identity and sense of otherness, when she encountered violent racism. She also noticed that, while it was easy to find lots of black American writers, British ones were thin on the ground. This shortcoming she herself would correct, in books like Fruit of the Lemon and Every Light in the House Burnin', and her master-work, Small Island. Her nations owe her a debt.

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