Born in London, Andrea was the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica. Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica.
Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.
Amy took in sewing and studied with the Open University in order to gain recognised credentials as a teacher, becoming one of the Open University’s first graduates. “She was a plucky woman, my mother,” Levy noted.
The youngest of four children, Andrea Levy grew up on a council estate in Highbury, and attended Highbury Hill grammar school. She was not particularly good at English (she claimed she got an E). Nor was she interested in reading. She went to art school to study textile design, and there discovered friends who introduced her to books including Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. It made her realise that “a book could be enjoyable”.
She also began to read African-American writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and they in turn made her feel the need for novels reflecting her own experience of being black and British.
So she thought she would try to create something, and joined a writing class at the City Lit, she received encouragement both from her tutor, Alison Fell, and from Bill Mayblin, her partner and later her husband, with whom she had formed a graphic design company. However, she had considerable difficulty finding publishers who were willing to believe that novels about the lives of black British families would be of interest to a general readership.
Another turning point came when in 1996 she decided to visit her mother’s family in Jamaica, where, according to Levy, she realised for the first time that she had “a background and an ancestry that were fascinating and worth exploring”. In Six Stories and an Essay (2014), Levy described how that visit changed her attitude toward her Jamaican heritage from shame to pride, and how writing gave her the means to explore that heritage.
She gained wide recognition as a writer with the publication of her fourth novel, Small Island, in 2004. Intertwining the stories of two couples, one white British, the other Jamaican, and their struggles to survive and come to terms with one another in Britain during and after the 2nd World War, Small Island was awarded the Orange prize, the Whitbread prize and, the following year, the Commonwealth literature prize. Ten years later, it was voted the Best of the Best Orange prize novels.
Although she hoped that her novels would encourage conversations about Britain’s colonial and postcolonial history, including its involvement in slavery, Levy did not wish to be seen as someone who wrote about race. She wished to create stories which sought not to change people’s minds but to open them.
“For me, writing has always been a journey of discovery about my past and my family,” she said in a 2015 interview “All my books look at what it is to be black and British, trying to make the invisible visible, and to put back into history the people who got left out – people like my dad.”
Lenny Henry, who played Godfrey in the televised version of The Long Song, said of Levy’s fiction: “She tells hard stories with humour and compassion.”
In 2008 Levy was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was declared incurable five years later. “I accept that I am going to die of it,” she told Alan Yentob for a 2018 programme in the ‘Imagine series’, “but while I am living, I live.”
Lynne Innes – The Guardian