Every Wednesday afternoon I attend university for my MA Writing seminar. It’s always something I look forward to.
I usually go in early to meet and have a drink with friends I’ve made on the course. I love being in the company of other writers who understand what it’s like to be a writer, both the good and bad. Sometimes we workshop our writing, other times we just talk. We meet at the university café which does a very nice hot chocolate. I’m also rather fond of the Yorkshire crisps. It’s fair to say that Wednesday has become a treat day.
This week I was meeting Karen, a friend who is in the later stages of the course. She’s completed the taught course and is now well into the writing of her novel, so I don’t see her very much. When I arrived Karen was reading, absorbed in Andrea Levy’s Small Island.
‘I loved that book,’ I said.
‘It’s been on my shelf for years,’ Karen said. ‘But I’ve not got round to reading it.’
Immediately I started thinking of the characters – Hortense and Queenie and Bernard. It’s actually more than 10 years since I read Small Island, but I could remember the characters like I’d only just finished reading – definitely a sign of a good book and a good writer.
After a chat and hot chocolate with Karen I headed off to the library, with Andrea Levy and her novels on my mind. Having read Small Island and Every Light in the House Burnin’ I enjoy Levy’s writing and I’m very interested in the themes she addresses in her work.
When I found a collection of Levy’s short stories, Six Stories and an Essay, I decided to give it a try. Even before I started reading I liked the design and layout of the slim collection. It begins with an essay about Levy’s writing experience and how writing has helped her to explore and understand her heritage. Levy writes about her life growing up on a council estate in Highbury, North London. She tells how her parents moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s and of her feelings of ‘outsiderness’.
‘We were immigrants. Outsiders.’
‘The racism I encountered was rarely violent, or extreme, but it was insidious and ever present and it had a profound effect on me.’
In her efforts to be British Levy says she was ‘indifferent to Jamaica.’ It wasn’t until a Christmas visit to the Caribbean that Levy discovered her family.
‘I realised that I meant something to people who lived on the other side of the world. I realised for the first time that I had a background and an ancestry that was worth exploring. Not only that but I had the means to do it – through writing.’
In the rest of this collection, Levy writes a brief introduction to each story, explaining the ideas behind the stories and their target publications. She writes how ‘The Empty Pram’ was never published, rejected by an editor of a women’s magazine for being too controversial. Levy’s stories are about people and society, often the aspects of society and human nature that is difficult to acknowledge. They may not make for comfortable reading, but that’s what makes this collection work.
Each story has something to say – immigration, growing up on a council estate, war heroes. Levy makes the reader think. The stories stay with you, which is exactly what a good story should do. Reading Levy’s collection made me remember why I enjoyed Small Island all those years ago. She writes with honesty and humour. Her stories, like her novels, are compelling, addressing difficult issues in a subtle yet powerful way.