[lit-ideas] Re: England good at "incorporating" immigrants

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 26 Apr 2011 16:32:08 EDT

And 'The Internationalization of English'.  This is the section in B.  
King's book referred to by L. Helm and cited in the reference section of the  
online interview with A. Levy, online.

My last post today. J. Evans was referring to his interview to A. Levy,  
online, so here are some excerpts.


Q: I’ve read that you started writing in your mid-thirties in the  1980s. 
That was a
time when there was so much going on in ... third world  publishing. Was
there was any connection for you in that respect?

A:  Certainly.

Q: Does anything in particular come to mind?

A: [T]he  beginning of black consciousness.

Q: How did you start writing?

A:  Back in 1987. ... You had a nice day out in Covent Garden every week 
[at this  workshop], and I really
enjoyed it.

Q: In "Never far from nowhere",  [you have this character] Vivien [with her 
'issue] -- "Do I belong in England?  ..." And I just read ‘Loose change’ 
which is about another wave of  migration.

A: Before I wasn’t so interested in the link between Jamaica,  the 
Caribbean and Britain. I was much more, ‘we’re black British, we’re here,  and 
are we going to move on?’ And that’s absolutely part of what I do, too,  
but I didn’t think that looking backwards was so important, whereas now I 
think  it is absolutely important and so fascinating. 

Q: [Y]ou interviewed your  mother about your family history?

A: Yes, as far as she could tell me  anything.

Q: So when you were growing up, your parents’ experience wasn’t  talked 

A: No, no, no, no, no. We never really discussed that. I  had no idea. I 
had to prise it out of my mother. I can’t tell you what it’s like  to grow up 
in an incredibly nuclear family—a nucleus—because we had nobody else  at 
all. And then to have a sense that actually you do have family, that you have 
 connection, that you do go back. It sounds crazy, but it’s a revelation 
because  I’ve just grown up in this tiny, tiny world. So when people talk 
about  grandparents—I never knew a grandparent. When my grandmother died it 
meant  absolutely nothing to us kids—which is incredible. Connecting with that 
again—I  think that’s where it started off. Now I want to know  everything.


Q: As "Changing English" is a journal for teachers  of English, I wanted to 
talk about
education. ... Was the English curriculum  part of the experience of 

A: Oh, I’ll say. Middlemarch?  [Laughs.] Yes, because it was something 
different, the code was Jane  Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, fabulous 
writers. I
can see what they were  getting at now, but for someone who was coming from
having to watch the telly  from four o’clock to eleven—and there were some
great things on the telly—but  for someone who just doesn’t read, this isn’
t going to
work. You’ve got to  understand what reading is about before you can get 
anything like that.  So there was life—and there was this stuff that you 
had to do  at

Q: And the connections just weren’t there.

A: No,  no. Even now, I’d still say what is the connection between me, ever 
read, at the age of 15, Middlemarch? Middlemarch? At the age of 15?  Are 
you kidding
me? I just read it recently, and I thought I’m beginning to  understand it 
now, but the
age is crazy. Books to me were where you got bored  stiff. That’s what a 
book was. It
was something to get through if you could.  ... You wind up
reading Middlemarch and thinking, ‘this is wonderful, if only  they’d read 

Q: [Why always London?]

A: It’s just because I  live in London, and London as far as I am concerned 
is a country and  very
different from the rest of Britain. I grew up here and everything I know  
understand is in London, and I really value that sense of belonging I  feel 
in London.
It’s really important to me, I feel like a Londoner, and I  am. I love 
that. Having said
that, my next book isn’t set in London. I’m  beginning to worry [laughs].

Q: In all your novels, that sense of  belonging is something that your 
have to struggle to  get.

A: When I was first on the shortlist for the Orange Prize, two  papers said 
that there
was only one Briton on the shortlist and that was Rose  Tremain. I tell 
you, I nearly
packed my bags. I felt very grounded in London,  but as soon as that 
happened, I felt,
actually my family have the most  incredibly fleeting relationship with 
this place. I’m
not grounded to it. My  parents came here. They lived here for 30-odd 
years. My
mum is at the moment  living in New Zealand. My Dad is dead. I’ve got a 
sister in
New Zealand, a  brother in Vietnam, very little family here. In fact my 
family in
the next  50, 100 years, will probably no longer be here—I don’t have 
children. And
in  a way it didn’t matter as well. This is my home, and it’s dynamic. You 
with it all the time. There are people who would like you to piss  off, but 
it doesn’t
worry me.

Q: In your most recent novel, two people  come to Britain thinking the 
doors are
going to be open to them and they  literally and figuratively have the 
doors slammed
in their faces.

A:  People have often said to me—because that happens, because there is 
that  sense
that people don’t want you here—don’t you feel that you should say you  
somewhere else? Shouldn’t you find your sense of self or belonging  
somewhere else,
somewhere where people want you?

Q: That seems an  extraordinary thing to say.

A: It is an extraordinary thing to  say.

Q: At the end of Never far from nowhere somebody asks Vivien where  she is 
and she answers, ‘My family are from Jamaica, but I am  English’.

A: That’s how I feel. My sense of belonging doesn’t depend on  being 
loved or accepted. I don’t know whether some people do have  that sense, 
but I never
really have. I’m always a bit of an outsider  everywhere. When I was in 
people talked about me being a Caribbean  writer, and I’m sort of ‘I don’t 
think so’ and
people are, ‘aren’t you proud  of what you’re doing? Why don’t you want 
to be a
Caribbean writer?’ But I  don’t come from the Caribbean. I felt like a 
fraud to say I was a
Caribbean  writer because I don’t know the Caribbean. Therefore the 
Caribbean  isn’t
necessarily the thing that is informing my work, maybe it is a bit, but  I 
don’t feel like a
Caribbean writer. And then I thought, why shouldn’t I say  I’m a Caribbean 
writer? I
just decided to be cool about it. Passing through  Birmingham—Birmingham 

Q: Related to this notion of London spaces,  of belonging at times and being
excluded at others, is what constitutes home.  It’s in Every light in the 
house burnin’
when the characters go to the Ideal  Home Exhibition, but it’s also in your 
recent work where the house is  emblematic of England. Though very clearly 
as individuals, the  characters also seem to represent the interaction 
migrants from  Jamaica and the English. And in your recent short story, ‘
change’,  there’s homelessness.

A: Oh yes, how interesting. Academics always have a  different take—it’s
wonderful. When you’re talking, I’m suddenly thinking I  can see how home 
very important. I have a tremendous fear of being  homeless. My biggest 
fear would
be to be a refugee—absolutely terrifying. I  grew up in this tiny little 
council flat, and
it was a real dive, six of us  in this tiny little place and we always 
dreamed of a home,
not dissimilar to  the one you’re sitting in now. And there was this 
programme on the
telly once  called ‘Kathy Come Home’, about homelessness in Britain, and I
remember  watching it, I must have been quite young—terrifying. So I think 
there  is
something about finding that space that feels yours. If you can see it in  
my work,
then it has probably something to do with that.

Q: I imagine  it also has to do with being first generation in a new place.

A: Yes,  that’s right. Because my parents had a fear of losing their home, 
if  they
were homeless for a while. If you’ve got a home, if you’ve got somewhere  
that you
can shut the door on, you’ve got something solid and you are within  a 
society. When
that’s taken away, you are just floating.

Q: When  Faith has the breakdown in Fruit of the lemon, she doesn’t feel 
she has  a
home anymore. And the novel opens with her parents saying they are going  ‘
home’ and all she can think they mean is back to their council flat in  

A: That sense of home must have to do with having  immigrant parents and a
palpable sense of insecurity of being in a society  where the only real 
sense of security
is being at home. I used to dream about  it. And the Ideal Home Exhibition—
all my
friends and I when we were young  wanted a home, a nice home, it’s very 
For some people, though,  their home is what they carry with them; it’s not
necessarily a place. For me  it really is a place.

Q: With the experience of migration in the family,  you can be in between 

A: Yes, absolutely. I grew up with a sense  of insecurity about home 
because I was
always in council housing and they can  always chuck you out and so the 
sense of
somewhere that is in your control in  the middle of London, to have a house—
to have
control over where you can  stay—

Q: In ‘Loose change’—your story of the refugee from Uzbekistan who  doesn’
know where to sleep that night—the narrator remembers her immigrant  
who was given a spare bed, but then her decision at the end is  very 
curious, very …

A: Very Andrea Levy. The genesis of that short  story, like most of my 
short stories,
is from a dream. I remember having a  dream where I woke up thinking, what 
would I
do in that situation? Am I big  enough? I often think about that with the 
war, would I
have been a hero or  would I have been one of those collaborators. If 
tested, if push
came to  shove—do I just want to fit in or could I be different? And until 
you’re  tried
you never know. That’s what that’s about. You don’t know what you’re  
If I so tenaciously want a home, would I protect it?

Q:  How does your writing fit in or intersect with contemporary British  
today? Or does it?

A: Time will tell. But, I think that at the  moment there’s a lovely sort 
of vibrancy
about black British culture. We’re  having a little moment, and perhaps we 
may look
back on this and see it.  Certainly in the last year, we’ve had the 
champion—do you get that  programme in the States? It’s a big quiz. We had 
Apprentice, and he was  black and British, and then we’ve had Zadie Smith, 
we’ve had
my book, we’ve  had Kelly Holmes getting two gold medals …

Q: At the West End theatres,  The big life and Elmina’s kitchen—

A: And some fantastic actors. In  theatre, Roy Williams’s stuff is really 
Music—and in art, Chris Ofili.  I’m hoping we’re going to look back on it 
as a sort of
Harlem Renaissance.  But you don’t know when you’re going through it.
We’re goingto have to  fightourway intothe canon. I’ll have to fight to 
get in the canon.
I had this  thing through the post about the classics of the future, and 
they wantedme  to
choose 15 books out of this list of a hundred books. I just looked at this  
list of a hundred
books and I thought Small island’s not on it. You’ve left  my book off it, 
and there’s
CaptainCorelli’s mandolin and Birdsong.Who chose  this list of a hundred?Who
this canon? And I wrote back saying this  list is so limited. It’s daft. 
Itmakesme somad. I 
do think we’re going to  have to fight so hard to come out of this 
syndrome.  It’s so patronising. No, this is serious work. It’s more 
serious than a lot  of
serious writing in Britain. Because you laughed, you think it’s not  

Q: Oxford University Press recently published two separate  histories of
contemporary British literature, one about black and Asian  literature, and 
one more
focused on white writers, and it seemed an odd  choice to keep these 
traditions separate.
In an article called ‘Literary  apartheid’, Susie Thomas (2005) talks 
about the way
publishing and marketing  seem to separate these writers. She says that 
Maggie Gee
had difficulty  getting The White family published because it was assumed 
that she
couldn’t  possibly write knowledgeably about black characters.

A: I had someone ask  me how can white writers write about a black character
because as soon as we  do we’re accused of being racist. I said, if you don’
t think
you’re being  racist, then fight your corner. If you’ve written about a 
black person  and
someone says you’re racist and you think they’re wrong, then say why, so  
that we
move on. Don’t just don’t do it. It makes me laugh to think people  are 
scared to
write about characters because someone says that’s not right, a  black 
person doesn’t
do that. If you think they’re wrong, then you say. Then  that’s how it w
ill break down.
If you get into a big row, and it gets into a  big hoopla, what the hell, 
this is what is
dynamic about it. That sort of  mindset, ‘oh we can’t do that because then 
we’ll be
accused of being racist’:  well, if you are and you’re not, then fight 
your corner,
what’s the matter  with you lily-livered bastards? [Laughs.]
I think that some of the more  established British writers are feeling a 
sense of
threat in that it’s  becoming clear that writing about a modern society and 
a modern
Britain does  actually involve having to know something about other 
and you  can live in Britain and know absolutely nothing. I know about the  
majority, as I call them, because I live here, so that’s no problem  for me 
to write
about. It’s hard to make a book feel like it’s dealing with a  modern 
Britain unless it
takes in the changing face of Britain.

Q: How  have your tools as a writer developed over the years?

A: I think I’m  definitely learning. At the moment I’m fixated on 
story-telling. I
really  want to be a storyteller. So I read all sorts of books by people 
that I  wouldn’t
normally read, but I think they’re fantastic storytellers. I really  do 
feel like I am
learning all the time and that there is a lot to learn.  With each book 
there is
something different that you’re exploring and trying  to learn both in 
terms of its
content and in terms of the way you actually  deliver it. I just love 
novels, I love
stories, and when they work well, I  don’t think there’s anything to beat 
it in terms of
art. I don’t think  there’s anything to beat a really finely crafted, 
fantastic  novel.

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