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Off the Page: Andrea Levy

With Andrea Levy
Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize
Thursday, June 24, 2004; 1:00 PM

Andrea Levy, whose fourth book, Small Island, won the Orange Prize for Fiction two weeks ago, was online Thursday, June 24, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about her winning book.

Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents, and says her fiction has always been about being black and British. Small Island looks at a couple from Jamaica who immigrate to Britain after World War II (when her own father immigrated) and the white couple from whom they rent a room.

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The Guardian review called Small Island "both dispassionate and compassionate," and predicted this was Levy's big book.

The Orange Prize, begun in 1986, is awarded to a novel written in the English language by a woman. Previous winners have included Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Carol Shields' Larry's Party. The cash prize is 30,000 British pounds (about $52,000).

Read the transcript.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to "Off the Page." Today Andrea Levy, the winner of this year's Orange Prize for Fiction, is our guest, ready to answer questions. And we'll get started.

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Carole Burns: Andrea, I imagine that your title, Small Island, refers to both Jamaica and Britain. Can you tell us how you think each place is a small island, and how they are small in different ways? Andrea Levy: SMALL ISLAND, the title, refers to Britain and to Jamaica, and it also refers to the people. During the Second World War, it became clear to people in Britain that they were a small island, at that time the empire was starting to shrink back to its center, which is Britain. Instead of being a nation that colored the world pink with all the lands that it owned, the empire started to crumble and it shrank back to being just a small island. So that's the British part.

The Jamaican part, in the Caribbean, the word "small island" is used for all the other islands that is not Jamaica. In the Caribbean, Jamaica is a big island, and it was rather a disparaging term to call someone a "small islander." So the Jamaicans, having grown up with the notion of being the bigger island, during the Second World War again, a lot of the men left to fight in Europe and to America to work, and when they returned, they returned to what felt like a very small place.

Also, Small Island refers to the four narrators of the book, who are all telling their tales, from their own persepctives. It could refer to that you've got four narrators who are small islands in themselves, they're just telling their tales.

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Washington, D.C.: Is your book going to be for sale in the United States?

Andrea Levy: Yes, SMALL ISLAND should be published early in 2005, either in February or March, by Picador U.S. That was arranged before I was given the Orange Prize, but after I was short-listed. At this stage, I don't know quite what has been planned for a reading tour, but I hope to come to the country to do some reading at some point. That would be nice.

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Arlington, Va. : What racism have you experienced as a British citizen? Have you been to America, and how was that different?

Andrea Levy: Obviously, growing up as a minority in a majority-white culture I have at times experienced racism. And when I was younger, it was very overt. People would call you names in the street. As I've gotten older and as there are more minorities in the country, and we're a more multicultural place, the racism tends to be more subtle now and more institutional. I don't define myself by racism. That's just a part of life that we have to get rid of.

I have been to the United States. I haven't been a lot--I have family in Los Angeles, Florida and New York, and I personally have never encountered racism in the States, but my understanding is that people live in a more segregated way, in communities, more than they do in Britain. But I'd have to spend more time in America to be able to really discuss that.

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Carole Burns: You've talked about how the immigrant experience affects both sides of the equation -- both the immigrants themselves and the country, and people, among whom they are now living. Can you talk about this more? Andrea Levy: When I set out to write this book, the catalyst was my parents coming to Britain from Jamaica in 1948. There was an event in 1948, where a ship called the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean to Britain. On board were about 500 West Indians or men from the Caribbean, who were coming from there to start a new life in Britain. This event caused a great stir at the time, in 1948. There was talk of having the ship turned back, of not letting these men land. But the ship arrived, and its arrival has come to be seen now, rightly or wrongly, in British history, as the point where Britain began to change into a multicultural society. And my dad was on that ship.

So I wanted to look at that immigration. But one thing that I remembered whenever my parents talked about their early days in England was that they always mentioned the white people who took them in. And so from then, I always realized that immigration is a dynamic. It's about the people who came and the people who they came to. And so I wanted to look at the whole situation, and not just from one point of view.

And so in my book, there are two black narrators from Jamaica, called Hortense and Gilbert, and two white English people, Queenie and Bernard. Hortense and Gilbert come to live in the house of Queenie Bligh. And the book is about their meeting, that point of contact. And what happened to these people before they met in 1948. Queenie's husband, Bernard, was hosted to India during the Second World War with the Royal Air Force, and he hadn't returned after the war's end. Gilbert was in the RAF, too.

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Washington, D.C.: What writers, both current and classic, do you like most, and why?

Andrea Levy: I tend to like books rather than writers. A top 10 list always goes on in my head of my favorite. I'll give you the first three. In at number 3, is Philip Roth and The Human Stain. A brilliant piece of work, breath-taking. Just fantastic. At Number 2, is English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale. And I like this book because it tells a story, a ripping good story, at the same time as giving you information and education about what was happening with the British Empire in Australia during the 19th century. So that's my sort of book. And in at Number 1, is The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. For a writer, I think it's a gem as a book. There's not one single word out of place. I think it's a real jewel, and a real interesting story, again, with a historical element.

I love books that you feel once you've read them that they've added to the sum total of who you are. That you've learned something or you've been taken somewhere that was really worth going, because you understand something better now. I never read a book a fiction until I was 23, I only read non-fiction because I thought you couldn't learn anything.

I read a book called The Women's Room, by Marilyn French. And it was the first time that I'd read a book which spoke to me, entertained me, told me stories in a way that changed the way I felt about something. So it was a profoundly moving thing. I didn't realize books could do that before. I'd grown up with having to do examinations in the British classics, and having to try to read Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. And I thought that was all that book was about. They were about hard work. And now I don't think that.

I didn't start writing fiction until I was in m early 30s. But I became an avid reader from the age of 23, and now trying to go back over all those classics that I didn't get round to reading for school. I'm currently reading Middlemarch by George Eliot. It's a fantastic book, absolutely fantastic. As a writer, she was absolutely at her peak, and she seemed like she was enjoying it as she was writing it. It's wonderful.

But I do have a writer I really like, and that's Ian McEwan. I think he's an absolutely fantastic story teller. And also a very clear, interesting and concise writer. I like that in writing. Not too baggy.

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Carole Burns: Congratulations on winning the Orange Prize. Do you think it's important to have a prize for women, or do you think it risks ghetto-izing women writers? Andrea Levy: The prize was originally set up because there was one year where the Booker Prize, the major prize in Britain, had no women at all on the short list, out of six. It was felt that women's writing wasn't getting the serious attention that it deserved. And so the prize was set up in order to draw people's attention to what women were writing, and give it a fair airing.

I think the Orange Prize has done a fantastic job in bringing women's writing to the fore. It's also opened up women's writing as well. Women's writing at one point was seen as introspective and domestic only, and while that is still going on and should be applauded too, women are also taking on bigger themes and being a little more ambitious, and that is one of the results of the Orange Prize. There's more ambition in a lot of women writers. And people say to me, if it's done its job, is that the end of it? But I wouldn't like to take my eye off the ball, and it can still be there serving that same purpose. Because I'd hate to go back to seeing no women on the Booker short list again.

And also, it's great fun. The party is marvelous. It has no stuffiness about it. And every year, somebody gets into a lather about the fact it's a women-only prize. Let's keep having the debate.

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Washington, D.C. : What are you working on now, if you don't mind me asking?

Andrea Levy: I won't tell you! I'm very superstitious about talking books out of me. And so I get asked a lot, what am I working on. And I just say, another novel. So, another novel.

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Arlington, Va. : Have you ever written short stories? Which do you prefer to write, and to read?

Andrea Levy: I have written short stories, not very many, maybe five. I find them more akin to a poem than a novel, because they're so short and tight. So I enjoy writing them but they take an enormous amount of time for me. Ten pages of a novel would not take me nearly as long as 10 pages of a short story. People will say, can't you just knock off a short story, and I just look at them. I need the time to write a short story. And I can't do the two at once.

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Carole Burns: Have you ever lived in Jamaica, and if not, would you like to? Andrea Levy: I've only been to Jamaica once. I wouldn't like to live in Jamaica, mainly because of the mosquitoes. I come up in great welds. I find it too hot, and too many mosquitoes, for me to feel comfortable. And after living in Britain, it's a tougher life, which I'm not sure--I'm a bit of a sissy now. I'm not sure I could do it. But I'm looking forward to visiting there early next year, to do some research. I'll be there a few weeks, and I'll see my family as well.

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Carole Burns: That's it for today. Thanks so much for coming online, Andrea. I hope you all log in in two weeks, when we have as our guest Dan Chaon, author of the acclaimed short story collection, AMONG THE MISSING. He will talk about his first novel, YOU REMIND ME OF ME. Thursday, July 8, at 1 p.m. ET.

Remember, you can get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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