Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea Levy's Small Island
Author: Alicia E. Ellis
Source: EnterText, “Special Issue on Andrea Levy 9,” (2012): 69-83.
Andrea Levy's Small Island (2004) presents a counter-history of the period before and after World War II (1939-1945) when men and women from the Caribbean volunteered for all branches of the British armed services and many eventually immigrated to London after the war officially ended in 1945. Her historical novel moves back and forth between
1924 and 1948 as well as across national borders and cultures. Levy’s novel, written more than fifty years after the first Windrush arrival, creates a common narrative of nation and identity in order to understand the experiences of Black people in Britain. Small
Island—structured around four competing voices whose claims of textual, personal and historical truth must be acknowledged—refuses to establish a singular articulation of the experience of migration and empire. In this essay, I focus on discrete moments in the
“Prologue” in Levy’s Small Island in order to think through the formation of discursive identity through the encounter with others and the necessity of accommodating difference. Small Island forecloses the possibility of addressing modern multiculturalism as a purported ‘happy ending’ in light of Levy’s formulation of the Windrush moment as disruptive, violent, and overwhelmed by flawed characters. Yet, through the space of writing, she also invites the reader to experience moments of encounter and negotiate the often competing claims on nationhood, citizenship, and culture.
Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea Levy's Small
Alicia E. Ellis
Windrush migration sparked new encounters among peoples as well as debates about citizenship, access to public spaces, housing, and employment, transforming British society and culture in the process.1 Andrea Levy’s work responds to the literary and historical genealogies of exile and Windrush migration, but she frequently challenges accepted accounts of the socio-historical processes of identity (re)formation in Britain and thus also contests prevailing accounts of Britishness. As I will demonstrate, Levy represents Windrush migrants and their descendants, including herself, as epigones, a term referring to followers or “those who are born after.” Epigones also refers to “that which comes after.” I take this meaning of the term to Windrush as an historical event that not only marks the rise of multicultural Britain (at least, in the popular imaginary) but also follows a long history of migrations to Britain, especially on the part of Afro-Caribbean and other colonial subjects, and encounters on the island among peoples from different places. Small Island brings together four intersecting stories, including those of Queenie, a white British woman; Bernard, Queenie’s husband, Gilbert, a black Jamaican migrant; and Hortense, the wife of Gilbert, an Afro-Caribbean woman who follows her husband to
Britain. Through the space of writing, multiple identities converge. Levy’s work serves as an act of reconstruction, a belated intervention, which is both sequel (epigones) and prologue to the story of the Windrush Generation. As I will show, Small Island presents multiple, often contesting, representations of a fraught historical moment of racial/ethnic and gender conflicts, but at the same time the discourse functions as a space of potential reconciliation among various competing views.
Andrea Levy's Small Island2 moves back and forth between 1924 and 1948 and across national borders and cultural moments, including the Empire Exhibition of 1924 at
Wembley3; London immediately before the outbreak of World War II; Jamaica during the war years; the England and America of the Jamaican airmen during the war; and Calcutta after VJ Day (Victory over Japan). In this article, I argue that Levy’s