Andrea Levy - Biography

Andrea Levy

As a young black woman growing up in England, Andrea Levy’s life was full of hitches. Ain’t it always like that? Her walk of fame is a little bit unusual, since she never started writing until her post 30s. Let’s just say that she never had a bone for the usual pen and paper combo because of her family and lifestyle. However, when she DID revert to writing, her world finally changed – she has everything now; fame, money and a reputation.

This is her biography, the rise to a threshold that everyone craves for…

Levy was the youngest of four siblings. She’s a pure Afro-Jamaican descendent, with a small element of Jewishness in her profile. The credit goes to her paternal grandfather, who was a well-known Jew of his time. Andrea Levy was born and bred on the 7th of March – 1956, in the colonial London regions. Her parents emigrated from Jamaica, never too proud of their cultural heritage, and they always kept a low keynote in the family circle.

Young Andrea was raised particularly in a Government approved public housing scheme – in Highbury – North London. They were the only black family in the neighborhood; hence the expression “Apple of everyone’s eye” was quite applicable back then. The only snag was that the “Apple” would sometimes turn sour when exposed to racist comments and snobbish attitudes of the white folks around this Jamaican family.

The post-World War II era oversaw a frenzy of changing events. Seeing to the mass immigration trend, Andrea Levy’s parents packed up for England in 1948. Her father, Mr. Winston, was among the first wave of immigrants who had their families hauled on a boat of 492 backpackers. They all wanted to taste the widely heard British multiculturalism hype. Andrea’s mother was a teacher by profession, and London was a harsh place for her to set her feet.

After a bit of a struggle, she filled up a Deputy Headmistress’s vacancy at local school. Unlike the traditional “Black” families, this Jamaican family’s skin color was fairer in complexion. They were “colored” but it wasn’t that much intensive. Hence, Mr. Winston had high hopes of settling in a well off manner in England. He expected the Great British lifestyle to suit his family and envisioned better livelihood prospects for all.

The reality, on the contrary, was quite harsh. They were all sized up as BLACK folks; 3rd grade citizens and always faced open ended discrimination series. In an interview with the London Guardian, Andrea Levy expressed her views about childhood - No one inside the family talked about racism. The elders wanted to keep it to a minimal. “I wasn’t at all curious about Jamaica as a child. We were told, in so many words, to be ashamed of it.” – Jan-30th – 2010.

Knowing that quality education was their only way out, Levy’s parents were quite insistent on the pursuance of a sound academic career. Alas… Levy was never too keen on keeping up with her schoolwork. At any normal day, she’d rather finish a soap opera or watch a random game show on TV. (Don’t get the wrong idea; she did finish her schooling and graduation degree program. But she never followed books willfully) All thanks to late night history channels, Levy stumbled upon something that linked back to her history. The program was about the same migration ship that her father boarded in 1948. At that time, the information struck her like a hammer on a chalice. She thought of her old man as a glamorous figure.

While in London, she finished up with her studies at the Middlesex University by taking Design and Weaving as majors. She used to work part time in the various costume departments of the Royal Opera House and the BBC. At the age of 26, she volunteered to aid in a nonprofit organization project. They were running a task on racial awareness and asked the group members to split up in White and Black. Not knowing her cultural roots, Andrea Levy joined the white people’s group. Her tan skin was often misunderstood as if she was an Italian or a Spanish native. Someone from the black side pointed out Levy’s “mistake”, which caused her to realize the racial disparity in the country.

Soon enough, she started joining seminars and civil rights activism step up programs. The same woman, who never took to reading as an inspiration, was now going through a dozen books in a week. Levy grew an affiliation towards the works of Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr. and W.E.B DuBois. It was in her mid-30s that she turned to fiction in order to discuss the black British experience. Just a few months before 1994, her first novel “Every Light in the House Burnin’”, was written. It had a semi-autobiographical tone, which related to the story of a family that was living its life in London in 1960s.

Writing always came to Levy as her second nature. She attended a workshop, but found herself doing better than her classmates. She was hopeful about her first novel’s success but the initial lot of publishers blew her away. “They were worried that I’d be read only by black people – less than a million in Britain at that time. My attitude is that I’m going to get these novels published. I’d love to have them pawing at my door because no one as a Black British writer, was successful when it came to writing about everyday things.” – Andrea Levy, Interview with Guardian on March 4, 1999.

Fate was in this woman’s favor because people loved reading her work. She was right in knowing that a very small amount of light had been shed on the life related experiences of black people. Her first three novels are appended below:

Every Light in the House Burnin' – 1994
Never Far From Nowhere – 1996
Fruit of the Lemon – 1999

These novels were well received and well-reviewed but they didn’t get her voice heard. Her 4th novel: “Small Island (2004)” was something that shot her to the 9th degree of recognition and widespread repute. The book is centered on the lives of two couples; one white, the other one black Jamaican. They went through a series of life changing experiences as the racial renaissance age gripped the whole globe.

“Small Island” brought this authoress an international prestige (Orange Prize, Whitbread Novel Award and Commonwealth Writers Prize) in the higher echelons of writers. If you happened to read any of Andrea Levy’s books, you’ll notice a constant even handedness in them. This is something quite rare of a good writer. It is definitely the exact element that helped her achieve her goals. On June 12, 2004 – Marianne Brace of the Independent wrote, “All her characters can be weak, hopeless, brave, good, bad—whatever their colour.”

Levy is one of the 19th century’s invaluable assets. Her latest work is in the form of a well versed novel: “The Long Song (2010)”, which led her to receive a tremendous degree of readership. The authoress is currently residing in London, with her husband: Bill Mayblin, who is a graphic designer by profession. Levy is a loving step mom to Mayblin’s daughters: Hannah and Maya.