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A Tribute to Andrea Levy

The Stuart Hall Foundation celebrates the acclaimed writer and former trustee

Andrea Levy. Image courtesy the author's website.

Andrea Levy was a friend of the Stuart Hall Foundation and served as a trustee in its crucial first years. Together with many others we mourn her death.

Her books made her distinctive voice, a black British voice, widely available and the work that she did, especially through Small Island and The Long Song, has been a vital part of the effort to recover forgotten histories. Small Island brought the experience of her parents' generation, the Windrush generation, into full view, their hopes and disappointments, the harshness of the encounter with the ‘mother country’ and their routes to survival. This was a story known from her own family. The Long Song was something different. Having made the decision that she needed to know more of the long history of the connections between Jamaica and Britain she spent several years reading materials on slavery and its aftermath – a voyage of discovery which she found extremely painful. A strange experience long after the publication of the book alerted her to the ways in which she had known about slavery, without knowing what she knew. She was able to access new archival material that confirmed for her in a deeply personal way episodes that she had already written as fiction – a somewhat otherworldly experience. Her recognition of the trauma of slavery was combined with her determination to show the capacity of her people to make lives for themselves, even in the most difficult of circumstances, and not to allow their personhood to be destroyed. Her commitment to telling those stories, family stories across generations, stories that had been unremembered in History with a capital H, is beautifully conveyed in the opening sequence of The Long Song:

The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story – a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son. Her intention was that, once knowing the tale, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters. And so it would go on. The fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica.

Andrea made a vital contribution to the launch event of the Foundation when she read from Stuart’s memoir, Familiar Stranger. A Life between Two Islands. She chose to read from the passage about his love of Jamaica, its tropical excess, its noise and colour, its distinctive cuisine, the ways in which those memories were engrained in his consciousness, carrying with them a deep sense of loss. It was a moving experience to hear her reading those words, about a place she had never lived in herself but had occupied imaginatively. She understood what it meant to be an exile, forever an outsider. As a trustee she was an important presence, bringing her critical knowledge of the workings of the media and the art world to our meetings, committed to building a serious digital presence, and to intervening as best we could in the continuing under-representation of people of colour in education and the cultural industries. In 2017 she left the board, having decided to focus her energies on the BBC production of The Long Song, aired before Christmas, the upcoming production of Small Island at the National Theatre and a range of other initiatives associated with her writing. In the wake of her death it has been wonderful to see the scale of her impact. She will not be forgotten.

– Catherine Hall