3.1Andrea Levy, Small Island: Loyal West Indians with a British Passport: Bittersweet Homecoming
Andrea Levy (1956) is a British novelist of Jamaican background; her own father came to England in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. She asserts that her fiction is about being black and British (Burns).
In Small Island and Fruit of the Lemon, I am going to concentrate mainly on the experience of the first generation and second generation of West Indians in Britain with attention to the evolution of prejudice, stereotype and discrimination.
Small Island (2004) is a prize-winning novel which was adapted for television. Primarily set in 1948, it tells the story of a Jamaican couple who moves to England after World War II. Their story is interwoven with a white couple they come across in London.
Fruit of the Lemon (1999) is a novel about a young Londoner Faith. Faith is a second-generation Briton of West Indian ancestry and after encountering a fair share of racism, she decides to go back to the country of her ancestors, Jamaica.
As for discrimination, Levy saw a profound change from overt to subtle, institutionalised racism in her real life (Burns). Together with writers such as Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi or Meera Syal, she helped redefine the concept of Englishness and acknowledges that social change in terms of just one decade has been enormous (Levy, "Under the Skin of History"). She sees herself as English with multiple roots: "I also have this wonderfully rich heritage which I would like more people to understand and acknowledge" (ibid.), which has become an increasingly popular, transnational, way to identify oneself in the increasingly diverse Britain.
While the success of Small Island was downplayed by some critics to be the result of revisiting colonial guilt, Levy managed to write stories of several people with passion, poise and bursting with down-to-earth humour. The novel was filmed in 2009. The observations the novels' protagonists make are sometimes very philosophical but mostly full of simple notes on life in England, delivered with a touch of poetry, humour or irony; many of them are repetitions of observations voiced by other writers such as Samuel Selvon, E.R. Braithwaite, V.S. Naipaul or George Lamming. The personal histories of men who fought in the RAF during World War II bring history into life but are void of moral judgment or pity nor do they attempt to arouse pity – they rather offer a reconciliatory hand and a minority perspective on the experience of Britain.
A person who has never travelled still believes their mother is the best cook (Small Island 471).
3.1.1Prejudice, Stereotype, Racism and Cultural Imperialism
In Small Island, Levy managed to capture the seemingly innocuous expectations of West Indians coming to Britain and describe the Britons' sense of prejudice in the postwar period, challenged in the aftermath of immigration from the former colonies. To Levy, immigration is a dynamic process; both sides are affected by it ("Under the Skin of History"). Lima points out that many writers of the diaspora choose the form of bildungsroman since the quest for personal and national identity suits the concept of it (58). In the novel, Hortense and Gilbert, a West Indian couple who come to Britain on the Empire Windrush, are both adults; Hortense was a teacher in the Caribbean and Gilbert was a pilot during World War II. Yet their coming to Britain makes them embark on an involuntary journey of re-evaluating what their Caribbean upbringing and education instilled in them.
Racism, prejudice and myths were as common in postwar London as houses infested with rats. Levy not only unveils the racism of the white couple, Queenie and Bernard, that Gilbert and Hortense cross their path with, but also shows why racism and rejection were all the more unforeseen to West Indians in Britain. While being brought up to believe England was their mother country, they find post-war London prejudiced and unwelcoming which is even more heart-wrenching since their relatives fought for Britain in World War II and they were brought up in colonial schools to revere Britain.
Levy contrived to show stereotype and prejudice in many different situations on many disparate occasions. Some seem a bit obsolete to a present reader but it is important to remember the postwar time setting. Many situations or encounters are sad stories of rejection and discrimination but Levy weaved her storytelling from tears and resentment to laughter. Laughter is then a way to fight daily incidents of unfriendliness; many of the stories evoke how mistrust and animosity come with ignorance and lack of information. Nevertheless, Britons put West Indians and Asians into one single category - 'coloured' (which was also used interchangeably with the word immigrant) and ignorance went hand in hand with indifference (Hiro 52). Prejudice and discrimination were not reserved to West Indians only - the word 'coloured' entailed anyone who was not white or Caucasian (ibid., 52).
On the other hand, other stories suggest tolerance's connection to experience, knowledge or open mind. However, the opportunities for travel and information accessibility were also quite limited at the time.
Instead, Britain shows West Indians that they do not belong and have never belonged in spite of their colonial education stressing loyalty to the British Crown. Already at times of slavery, slaves made humour a means of venting frustration and misery and the same tool has been used in Post-Emancipation literature with its self-derisive humour (Hiro 22). Levy also chooses humour in many situations that would otherwise seem utterly tragic and as such, it would be wrong to label her as a writer inciting colonial guilt; instead, humour seems to be a tool of reconciliation with the past. Gilbert states that "laughter is part of my war effort" (Small Island 273) and when Hortense is disconcerted by constant stares in the street, he tells her not to worry since the King of England has the same problem (722).
Small Island is layered with prejudice and exposing it in the same space has shown the force that prejudice, myths or stereotypical representations have. The white Britons fear West Indians in the same way they despise Indians; American GIs are unable to view black GIs as equals, middle-class Londoners would rather if Cockneys and Poles were not in their sight and Jamaicans have their own set of prejudices against West Indians from smaller islands. While signification can assume the role of myth making (with myths being considered "timeless truths"), myths can also inhibit the ability to "interpret cultural meanings" (Cohen and Kennedy 234).
Queenie, the white landlady to Gilbert and Hortense, cannot help patronizing the lodgers and requires no smells (39). Ironically, in history, the white colonizers, aiming to wash themselves from any guilt they could feel; they have created, maintained and spread many stereotypes about black people and these stereotypical representations became engrained in the popular British beliefs and myths (Hiro 3). For those historical reasons, dark pigmentation carried associations of "dirt, poverty, inferior social status, low intelligence, animal sexuality, primitiveness and violence" (ibid., 281). It then seems rather ironic when the uppity Hortense despises Queenie for her lousy house and lack of fashion sense and reckons she will have to live like an animal in her house (Small Island 60) and considers herself superior to her since she is a teacher and Queenie a landlady (364). Both clearly categorize people on different criteria, Hortense is preoccupied with class which, in her interpretation, is inherent in race, while Queenie´s mind is steeped in colour prejudice which is revealed upon her acting on her beliefs. Their mutual contempt for each other does not reveal itself between them - when Hortense sneers at Queenie's "scruffy housecoat", Queenie interprets it as Hortense' anxiety about going public together and tries to reassure her that she does not mind being seen with blacks (518). The absurdity of certain situations fills the novel with humour while revealing each character's beliefs, prejudices or assumptions.
West Indians faced great discrimination in housing (see Blumer 14). If they were able to secure it, they would often have to pay premiums on the rent (Hiro 28). Gilbert secures accommodation at Queenie's house whom he had met during the war in London. Despite the run-down room he gets, he is grateful since "places hard to come by, especially for coloured boys" (Small Island 54). The neighbours put pressure on Queenie since they fear people like Gilbert will turn the area into a 'jungle' (182). The choice of the word 'jungle' resonates with the generalizations born out of slavery. The Empire Windrush, which sailed to England in 1948, carried 492 passengers. Hiro explains that the initial hostility towards blacks has been caused by the anxiety, the "psychological threat of their [West Indians] 'flooding the country'" (37). Yet thirty years later, Margaret Thatcher echoed similar fear when she said: "People are really afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture"(qtd. in Hiro ix).
Society's pressure is a powerful tool and not everyone approved of Queenie renting rooms to blacks. A neighbour tries to threaten Queenie's reputation since a woman alone in a "house of coloureds" does not seem to be very respectable (Small Island 187), especially since they are "worthless" and "full of animal desires" (188). When Queenie counters that one of her lodgers is a nurse on night duty, he almost chokes on his tea (181). The postwar period seemed a fertile land to reaffirm one's sense of belonging by differentiating the ´Other´, building one´s identity upon exclusion of someone else. European boundaries shifted and so did the sense of security; new changes in the British society, worn down by ailing economy, presented another threat which could be contained, presumably, by constantly putting down people who were visually differentiated.
However, "the general British regard for human dignity and a belief in the equality" has existed for a long time (Hiro 10) and in this way Britons could consider themselves as racially liberal (ibid., 10) but they applied their attitudes on the assumption of geographical segregation yet such physical separation was no longer viable - a number of people from the British Empire were no longer geographically separated from Britain due to their immigration - and blacks in Britain were again differentiated, in this case culturally, because they were not "used to our [British] ways" or having the same standards (Small Island 470). Queenie's neighbour asserts such a contradiction while he states: "I have nothing against them in their place" (471) but then he curtails his liberal attitudes when he declares that the Other are just "cunning colonial types" (471). Such semantic disclaimer which establishes positive 'Us' and negative 'Them' (van Dijk 150) or establishes ingroup favoritism with outgroup derogation (ibid., 151) is an example of how language constitutes both the conscious and unconscious and shapes the ideological beliefs. While asserting sugar-coated liberal attitudes, differentiating and thus stigmatizing the ´other´ quite logically leads to prejudice which then transforms into actual discrimination.
The enmity towards immigrants gained another foothold when the news asserted that immigrants were draining the National Assistance. Such unfounded information was even discussed at the highest level of government in 1958, the 'lazy black man' stereotype was still in the collective memory or the British unconscious (Hiro 36). Interestingly, such stereotype again proliferated from the cruel generalizations of colonial history. Queenie's neighbour believes West Indians come to England for teeth and glasses (Small Island 179) and when he meets Gilbert, he cannot refrain himself: "Another darkie, that's what the look on his face said. The motley mixture of outrage, shock, fear, even - nostrils flaring, mouth trying to smile but only managing a sneer" (180). Behind the decent and proper words, there would be the accusation of Queenie for ruining the whole country (180) since the country no longer feels like their own: "All those coons eyeing her and her daughters up every time they walked . . . Hitler invading couldn't have been any worse . . . " (189).
The prejudice's vigor is most profoundly displayed when Queenie gives birth to a mixed-race child and offers the baby to Gilbert and Hortense (811). She claims to love the baby but the power of her prejudice is making her succumb to society's prejudice-based pressure. She is willing to give up the baby since she does not know how to bring up a "coloured child" (813), how to face neighbours (815) and orphanages do not want coloured children (816).
As in Phillips' novels, prejudice bears close connection to sexuality. When Hortense speaks to an acquaintance in Jamaica, she is warned that white women crave men of colour: "You know these white women like to make sure they brown all over" (177).
Levy's Small Island not only challenges stereotypes but also twists the characters' actions and beliefs, deconstructing their ambivalence and contradictory attitudes. Queenie, even though she does not mind being seen with blacks, harbours her own prejudices against them. Bernard also often displays contempt for the 'coloured' even though he does not rank them the same since "coolies" (a racial slur for people of Asian descent) are worse than "darkies" (736). Yet both of them engage in sexual relations with the "other" - Queenie with the black Sergeant of the British Army and Bernard with an Indian teenage prostitute. When Queenie gives birth to a boy of a mixed race, Bernard blames all the 'coloured' for the situation: "It's everything to do with you. You and your kind!" (760). Their contradictory actions expose their prejudices as unfounded and hypocritical. Bernard's classification refers to a term ´collective identities´, coined by Tajfel (1981). Such collective identities are applied on a whole group of people – in this case West Indians - as they get certain treatments and attitudes from other groups; as a consequence, low status or low social prestige is thrust on a particular stigmatised group which reproduces and maintains stereotypes (qtd. in Simon 108)
3.1.3Racism and Discrimination
All together with the above-mentioned discrimination in housing, the discrimination in hiring soared as well. A study of West Indians conducted by Ruth Glass in 1958-9 indicated that 55% had to accept work beneath their qualifications (Hiro 26) which is also Gilbert's case. He is refused in the factory since women are working there as well (Small Island 489) but he finally finds a job as a driver which he amusingly calls "luck England-style" (492). Hortense is told her qualifications from Jamaica are worthless in England (707).
Throughout the novel, numerous racial slurs are used - nigger, sambo, jungle boy, jigaboo, coon, darkie, coolies or wogs. Bernard labels West Indians "volatile creatures" (728) and Gilbert's friend thinks that bloody foreigner is one word since "he only ever heard those words spoken together" (512). A constant differentiation among people by referring to people of colour as "your kind" or "the likes of you" reaffirmed in the language subliminally influences the British subconscious, dividing the British society along the lines of ´Us´ and ´Them´.
While the popular sentiment was not inclined to accept black presence as permanent and continued to view and treat them as second-class citizens, racial minorities were expected to act as second-class citizens. Such action would then confirm their lower status. Queenie's neighbour is dismayed when a couple of black women do not step off the pavement to let his sister pass "undisturbed" (191); implying that minorities' presence works against the sense of peace and quiet in Britain.
West Indians, oblivious to the deep-seated prejudice in Britain, came with little anticipation of colour prejudice. Gilbert is made to realise how his colour matters when he is training in a military camp in the US where the Jim Crow practices were still applied and points out that West Indians were "thinking ourselves as good as any man" (210). However, the racism in the British army was not overt unlike its American counterpart (244). The army was strictly structured and even outside of it, the uniform mattered more than colour (Hiro 14).
Gilbert has shown effective ways of fighting prejudice throughout the novel. His matter-of-fact attitude makes him accept that he is viewed as different but he chooses politeness as a policy: "It makes the good people of England revise what they think of you if only for a second or two" (Small Island 263). His policy requires a lot of willpower since finding work is not easy and when he is bluntly dismissed because of his colour, he muses: "I nearly knock him into an early meeting with the Almighty when he called on God to bless me as I left" (491). When he is bullied at work (499), he knows he cannot get physical since that would only reassure his attackers of the verity of popular myths and prejudices.
While Gilbert and Queenie are in a bakery during WWII and the shop assistant subtly refuses to serve anything to Gilbert, he does not protest. The American GIs in the bakery cannot stand Gilbert and Queenie together but Queenie is completely oblivious to the unfriendliness their stares send (285). When Levy says how Small Island is about white and black experiences of race, class, gender or identity ("Under the Skin of History"), she juxtaposes this experience and alienates her characters into small islands of their subjective and isolated existence where empathy is inhibited due to their limited empathy and perceptions.
To add a light touch of humour to disheartening stories of rejection, Levy adds brief stories of intercultural misunderstanding. Gilbert's friend, completely unaware of what the taxes are, confesses to Gilbert that "a white man rob me" (Small Island 689).
Cultural imperialism correlates with the superiority Western civilisation has tried to bestow upon itself. When American missionaries come to Jamaica, Hortense is surprised that they feel like they have to "help these poor negro children" (74) while they seem to ignore the fact that only the fairest and highest-class children could attend their school (75). The idea of "Western salvation", however, was always joined to domination as Michael Adas and others pointed out (qtd. in Said 159). Hortense constructs her identity in Jamaica on the belief that she resembles white people since her complexion is like "warm honey" unlike the "bitter chocolate hue" (Small Island 63), which in the Jamaican context meant a better position in society. It may be noteworthy to mention that the Spanish word 'blanquearse', to bleach oneself, signifies upward mobility in some Latin American countries (Gordon) which is indicative of the West Indies as well.
Unlike the West Indies, Britain arbitrarily established only two racial divisions - white or 'coloured' while West Indians were used to differentiating between different pigmentation hues (Hiro 24). This is the reason why Hortense feels as if Britain failed her. In the West Indies, she was the impeccable student and an ambitious teacher while in Britain, she is constantly put down because of her skin colour and her qualifications are meaningless. When she fondly remembers her father, she stresses that he was a man of class, character and intelligence (Small Island 61). Her manners and polished language make her act and sound like the Queen of England yet she faces the humiliation of being mistaken for a prostitute on a street (765). The social constructs are exposed as the value of skin colour is arbitrary and fortuitous, different in various time periods and geographical zones.
Levy herself speaks about the lack of interest in Jamaica when she was growing up as a second-generation Briton of West Indian origin: "I was not at all curious about Jamaica as a child," she says. "We were told, not in so many words, to be ashamed of it" (Younge). Yet it is Levy's characters that help deconstruct the official version of Englishness (Lima 57).
3.1.5Myth of England and the British Reality
Similarly to Cliff and Phillips, Levy explores the implications of the myth of England as the ´mother country´ that was created and maintained in the Caribbean. It is crucial to envisage the West Indians' identification with Britain. Hiro mentions the conscious and unconscious attachment to English values and reverence of Queen Victoria (20); middle-class children were often named after British statesmen and soldiers (21). The first wave of West Indian immigration (1948-55) was mainly skilled and middle-class (16). Especially the higher classes of the strictly hierarchical West Indies were refusing to reconcile with the slavery-ridden past:
Migration to Britain was a continuation of the same self-denial, a part of the psychological flight undertaken in the belief that residence in Britain would bestow upon them the inheritance of a Christian-Hellenic civilization, and release them, for ever, from the chains of their African heritage. But discriminatory experiences in Britain led many to examine their past. (Hiro 60)
In World War II, thousands of West Indians fought alongside the British soldiers. The motivation was often economic (Hiro 14) but also moral since they grew up believing England was their ´mother country´. Other West Indians registered as 'Overseas Volunteer Workers' (ibid., 14). Nonetheless, the war brought disillusion to those who thought they were fighting to free the persecuted Jews while they themselves experienced hateful discrimination as Gilbert is forced to realise himself: "If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then . . . I and all other coloured servicemen were fighting this war on another front" (Small Island 281). When Hortense's friend says many West Indian men had to go fight in the war since Hitler's victory would mean reinstitution of slavery (120), Hortense herself feels detached from the past of slavery: "Her skin was so dark. But mine was not of that hue - it was the colour of warm honey. No one would think to enchain someone as I. All the world knows what that rousing anthem declares: 'Britons never, never, never shall be slaves'"(121), which, ironically, depicts Hortense as colour-prejudiced.
The expectations West Indians held for Britain in the postwar period were high which is why Hortense is appalled at the living conditions she has to accept in London (41). Hortense's image of England is not entirely unrealistic but everything about it breathes the influence of colonial education, her lack of acknowledgment for socially predetermined positions and postwar poverty:
A dining-table in a dining room set with four chairs . . . A starched tablecloth
. . . We eat rice and peas on Sunday with chicken and corn, but in my English kitchen roast meat with two vegetables bubble on the stove . . . I sip hot tea by an open window . . . I walk to the shop where I am greeted with manners . . . A red bus, a cold morning and daffodils blooming with all the colours of the rainbow. (165-6)
While back in the Caribbean, Hortense and others used to discuss British historical monuments, fauna or British poets, people in Britain are often clueless about the geographical location of Jamaica - perhaps Jamaica, England or Jamaica, Africa (226)? Gilbert introduces himself as being from Jamaica but his ´Mother Country´ is England (249) which perplexes people who asked about his origin. Such ignorance makes Gilbert wonder "how come England did not know me" (224) and whether Britons could find Jamaica on a map if there was a war (227). Britain's ignorance boils down to Gilbert's reasoning when he no longer sees the ´Mother Country´ as a beautiful woman, "refined, mannerly and cultured" (221), but the glorified cherished illusion transcends into a darker picture, clear of ideological beautification: "The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she . . . Yet she looks down at you . . . and says, 'Who the bloody hell are you?'" (222).
Another of Gilbert's observations is more down-to-earth since he wonders how Britain could build empires with such "crap food" (199). His friend cannot grasp how come some white Britons speak so "low class and coarse as cane cutters" (223) which is a typical observation of a West Indian in Britain, unaccustomed to seeing manual labour done by those of lighter pigmentation hue.
3.1.6Caribbean Identities in Small Island
Lima has claimed that Levy's novels compel the reader to think of identity as a 'production' (as defined by Stuart Hall) and that Caribbean identities are especially fluid since:
the skewed structures of growing up in postcolonial societies, of attempting whatever social rank or position in the racial colour structure, it is not surprising that Caribbean people of all kinds, of all classes, experience the question of identity as an open question. (S. Hall qtd. in Lima 58)
It is a sound argument of particular fluidity of Caribbean identities - the historical chess of different invaders and weather patterns that can take away everything make the West Indians resourceful and flexible. A rebirth is a part of the Caribbean. When Gilbert describes the land after a hurricane had passed, "the world was upside-down" and trees were "ripped from land" (Small Island 93) while mentioning that no living man should ever see the roots of a tree (92). His description encapsulates the West Indians' diaspora in the world - their will to move beyond their islands and thus 'uproot' their insular life even if it means giving up sunshine and encountering rejection. Gilbert has siblings but they are all scattered over the US or Canada (313). After Gilbert's return to the island after the war, he finds it too small:
Everywhere I turned I gazed on sea. The palm trees that tourists thought rested so beautiful on every share were my prison bars. Horizons my tormenting borders. (334)
There is one peculiarity about Caribbean identities which is their insistence on their Britishness although this is hardly surprising due to the institutionalized and promoted loyalty and belonging to the British Crown. West Indians considered themselves to be so unquestionably British that unlike other minorities, they needed "two immigration laws, four race riots and the emotive speeches of Enoch Powell to consider the issue of their origin" (Hiro 59). Furthermore, they came to Britain having loyalties to different islands; a difference which was gradually mellowed due to the shared experience of discrimination (ibid., 41). The insistence on belonging to Western civilization was constantly postulated (ibid., 59) but the experience in Britain made West Indians realize that Western civilization had prerequisites such as white skin (ibid., 60). The Post-Emancipation brought then not only a need to rewrite history and add missing parts of it but also a need to re-establish pride in the elements of creole life which were before dismissed as inferior to European ones (ibid., 61). The consequences were a better understanding of Africa, the word 'black' shedding a pejorative connotation or smaller numbers of West Indian girls in Britain straightening their hair (ibid., 64).
Levy belongs to post-colonial minority writers whose "cultural borderlands" have "depicted the puzzling, amusing, but also cruel ironies of life on the fringes of contradictory codes" (Oliver-Rotger 314) where transgression of borders results in "cultural interaction and hybridity" (Flys qtd. in ibid., 313). In Small Island, the interaction between the West Indian couple, Hortense and Gilbert, and a white British couple of Queenie and Bernard presents a highly communicative and expressive strategy since experiences from different cultural landscapes are brought into light via their interaction.