Women’s Prize for Fiction 2004: Andrea Levy, “Small Island”

Andrea Levy was the first woman of color to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2004 with her novel Small Island, which began as a story between a white woman and a Jamaican woman in a house in London post World War II, and quickly became what Levy herself described as an attempt to retell the story with the Caribbean experience included. And it’s true—how many people are actually aware that dozens and dozens of Jamaican men volunteered in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during WWII, only to be discriminated against not only while they were on active duty, but also afterwards, when many decided to remain in the UK? Not me.

Levy was born in London to Jamaican immigrants, and Small Island is not her only book that deals with British Jamaicans and their negotiation of racial and national identities; indeed, it is a theme throughout the majority of her work, which includes five novels in addition to Small Island. As well as winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Small Island, often referred to as her ‘big book’, also won the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Levy has also won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010. Both Small Island and another of her novels, The Long Song, were adapted for television in Britain.

What I found most compelling about Levy is that she began her career in costume design, and upon having a racial and gender awakening in her early 20s, read her first book at the age of 23 and subsequently discovered that there was a lack of contemporary British literature by women of color, and decided to fill that void. Her writing career took off in her mid-30s, and much of it is semi-autobiographical, focusing specifically on women and children, and the generational differences between the parents who immigrated and the children who felt themselves, rightly, to be both British and Caribbean.

Levy died just this year in February after living with breast cancer for more than 15 years.

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