City Lit Blog

Andrea Levy

Story added 21st Feb 2019


Our much-loved friend and former student, the best-selling international author Andrea Levy, who has died aged 62, honed her writing skills and confidence on classes at City Lit and remained a great supporter of City Lit throughout her life. In 2016, Andrea was awarded a City Lit Lifetime Fellowship in recognition of her commitment to adult education in the UK, and the huge inspiration her writing and career provides City Lit students.

Andrea studied here for six years, and recalled that starting writing classes here at City Lit was both ‘terrifying and thrilling’. She remembered thinking, as her new fellow learners arrived, ‘I bet their writing is better than mine’. She says the City Lit classes were all about ‘building confidence, finding your voice, finding what it was you wanted to talk about, who you were going to be expressing, who you were going to be as a writer’.

Andrea met her fellow author and another Lifetime Fellow, Malorie Blackman in the queue when she enrolled. In those days, you signed up in person, and the students queued all around the building. Malorie was behind her and Andrea recalled hearing her say she’s written 52 books, and thinking, ‘wow!’. Both then studied in the same class for a time.

Andrea said ‘I can’t express how strongly enough, how important City Lit was in my career. It made me realise what writing was.’ In an interview with City Lit Principal Mark Malcomson to receive her Lifetime Fellowship, Andrea said she barely used her degree and felt passionately that it was her adult education at City Lit that was the real professional catalyst: ‘My two hours a week at City Lit has made me into a best-selling international author. Who knew it would be that way around?!’

Andrea was born in London in 1956, growing up black in what was still a very white England. This experience was hugely influential in forming her perspectives on the country of her birth.

Six years earlier, her father had sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush, and her mother joined him soon after.

It was in her thirties that Andrea started writing. At that time there was little written about the black British experience in Britain. In her biography on her website, Andrea said she began to write the novels that she, as a young woman, had always wanted to read – entertaining novels that reflect the experiences of black Britons, that look closely and perceptively at Britain and its changing population and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean.

Andrea describes the themes she explored in her first three novels - from different perspectives - the problems faced by black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), tells the story of a Jamaican family living in London in the 1960s. Never Far from Nowhere (1996), her second, is set during the 1970s and tells the story of two very different sisters living on a London council estate. In Fruit of the Lemon (1999), a young black woman, visits Jamaica after suffering a nervous breakdown and discovers a previously unknown personal history.

With her fourth novel Small Island, Andrea won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Novel Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Orange Best of the Best, and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize.

Examining the experiences of those of her father's generation who returned to Britain after being in the RAF during the Second World War, it’s more than just the story of the Jamaicans who came looking for a new life in the ‘Mother Country’. Andrea’s writing explored the adjustments and problems faced by the English people whom those Jamaicans came to live amongst. Andrea felt that immigration changes everyone's lives and she examined not only the conflicts of two cultures thrown together after a terrible war, but also the kindness and strength people can show to each other. Andrea’s writing acknowledges the ‘role played by all sides in creating the multi-cultural society Britain has become’.

Small Island was made into a BBC mini-series in 2010, which won an International Emmy Award.

Her novel, The Long Song, goes further back to the origins of that ‘intimacy between Britain and the Caribbean’. The book is set in early 19th century Jamaica during the last years of slavery and the period immediately after emancipation. The Long Song was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and was the winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Six Stories and an Essay, is a collection of short stories written over her career, along with an essay where she talks about her Caribbean heritage and the motivation this has given her to write.

As a Londoner, Andrea lived and worked in the city she loved and also used London as the setting in many of her novels.

We plan to honour Andrea and her life as a cherished student and friend of City Lit in an appropriate way after discussion with her family.


See our interview with Andrea: 

This article includes some details reproduced from Andrea’s official website. You can read more about Andrea’s life and work there: