A Chronicle of Race and Migration

Andrea Levy, Six Stories and an Essay (London: Tinder, 2015); 144 pages; ISBN 978-1472222695 (paperback)

• October 2016

The most recent offering from Andrea Levy, Six Stories and an Essay, is a slight collection full of thematic centers similar to her previous novels. Small Island (2004), Levy’s fourth novel and perhaps her best contribution to date, is structured around four competing narrative voices. Levy interweaves those voices without diminishing the coherence of the novel as a larger project about Windrush migration—a history of the movement of black people from the “colonies” to the mother country, Britain. In Six Stories and an Essay, Levy returns to many of the themes in Small Island, such as nation and empire.

In this latest book, Levy frames each story with brief remarks that tell of its origin. We learn that the stories, for the most part, are not new—some are the product of early writing workshops and some had been commissioned for journals, anthologies, or women’s magazines. These introductions provide perhaps too much insight into the workings of the stories, a task that might be better undertaken by the reader. Additionally, each story is accompanied by a photograph. Some are family photos while others are archival, blending the insights from the family story with that of the black British story. For example, a formal studio portrait of the author’s parents accompanies the opening essay, “Back to My Own Country,” while a photograph of West Indian troops stacking shells guides our understanding of “Uriah’s War.” The photographs alone might have provided the most satisfying presentation of the stories; they would have been sufficient and much less distracting than the written introductions that Levy chose to include.

“Loose Change,” a strong story in the collection, is given too much preface by Levy, as she moves from writing about the immigrant experience to that of the refugee, a story that she wrote, according to her introduction, “after reading too many accounts in the press which seemed to blame the refugees for their plight.” Levy wants us to see the similarity of her plight—“Growing up I was acutely aware of how any act of kindness can mean so much in a hostile land” (79)—but does not allow us to do the difficult work of untangling the complications. In the story, the meeting of two women in a bathroom demands our attention as the writing attempts to articulate the anxiety between looking and seeing. This is significant, since the story is set in the National Portrait Gallery, and the women move from the bathroom to the gallery space, where they observe and judge images.

“Deborah” examines notions of good and evil amid the tensions of everyday poverty and isolation on a council estate. The mundane yet secret world of young children is central to the story. Here, we observe the undoing of Deborah after the precariousness of her life is revealed. “Uriah’s War” takes us into the world of black Jamaican soldiers fighting for Britain during World War I. Levy’s strengths for integrating historical research into her novels—for example, The Long Song (2010)—shine through in “Uriah’s War.” Patriotism and its disappointments are fundamental to this story, and Levy’s exploration of the role of the British West Indies Regiment carries the story through to its devastating conclusion, where the European version of Jim Crow causes the final calamity. While all the stories are of varying success, one of the best in the collection is “That Polite Way That English People Have.” Written while Levy was also working on Small Island, the character of Hortense is presented to us in a short vignette that shows her naïveté as well as her perceptions about belonging. This piece is as much about class, race, and color as immigration to Britain from Jamaica. Hortense is caught up in the fantasy of Englishness and is thus unable to understand that race and racism are central to her journey.

What is perhaps most surprising in the collection is the introductory essay, “Back to My Own Country.” It functions, in many ways, like an excerpt from a German bildungsroman, a novel of education. One imagines that after years of reading, writing, and publishing, Levy might have lost the self-consciousness that she so strongly feels as a black British writer. While she follows in the tradition of Beryl Gilroy, George Lamming, and Sam Selvon, to name just a few, Levy, the reader might be surprised to realize, fails to acknowledge her own contemporaries, writers such as Caryl Phillips and Zadie Smith. Writing as if in a silo, Levy seems not to have embraced the rich community of black British authors that have shaped the literary realm in which she participates.

The essay is divided into two distinct sections. The first details Levy’s childhood and early adulthood, while the second is a primer on Caribbean history and its intimate ties to the British colonial project. One wonders who Levy’s intended audience is for this essay as well as for the short stories that follow. Her literary imagination is one that is conditioned by a coming to blackness, and here we see Levy explaining that process to an audience who is in the dark about what that might mean. At times, Levy’s personal stories are cringe worthy, but they also reveal an intriguing side to the author, one that was often deeply unsure of and conflicted about her identity as a person of color. A well-known incident—Levy has spoken of it in a number of interviews—is about her choice as a young woman to identify as white when asked to place herself in one of two groups, black or white. “White” was where she felt “at home.” After she was called over to the “right” side of the room, Levy confides, “It was a rude awakening. It sent me to bed for a week” (10). There is a trauma hidden in that rude awakening—one that Levy seems to relive with each story that she tells of her own life. She feels the need to explain and tell and show how she came to now understand herself as a black Briton rather than an undifferentiated “London working-class girl” (5).

In the style of a brochure or pamphlet, Levy concludes her essay by again explaining to an unknowing audience the benefits of blackness: “Immigration to Britain since the end of the Second World War has been a final, unexpected gift to Britain from its old empire. The benefits that the labour and the enterprise of immigrants, like those from the Caribbean, have brought to the Britain are incalculable. Their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multiculture” (18).

But for whom does Levy write? When writing The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison decided that she would not try to “explain” black life to a white audience. One is left with the impression that Levy cannot bring herself to do the same; she rehashes the history of the slave trade, British colonization of the Caribbean, and black migrations for a readership she feels might know nothing of those stories. It is here that one might have the most difficulty with Levy’s prose choices. Overall, she is a crafty author who writes well-developed characters in richly conceived settings, but one might wonder, why does Levy continue to be caught up in explaining herself, her life, her reason for being to a readership that still does not know her?

 

Alicia E. Ellis is an assistant professor of German at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Her research interests outside of German nineteenth-century literature include black British writing, Caribbean literature, and gender studies.