Tales of Immigration by Levy and Ali

It seems pertinent this week to review two books which take immigration to the UK as one of their central themes. The first is a timely reminder of Britain’s appalling behaviour in the world and that Jamaicans fought alongside us in both wars and then were encouraged to come to the UK to make up labour shortages following World War II. The second is as much about gender as it is race and considers what it’s like to establish a life so far from home.


Six Stories and an Essay – Andrea Levy

In the essay which begins this slim volume, Levy recalls her childhood, using it to examine the disparity between her parents arrival in Britain and her feelings on the integration of the Caribbean community in the UK.

They believed in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. Clean the front step every week. Go to church on Sundays. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.

Teenage Levy’s sense of being an outsider comes from her working class upbringing. It isn’t until she’s on a racism awareness course at work and joins ‘the white side of the room’ that she begins to explore her experience of being black in Britain. This coincided with her taking a writing course as a hobby.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer, and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another.

She points out that the social mix created from the relationship Britain developed with the Caribbean – one of slavery and exploitation initially, followed by a whole range of people moving to the islands – has been erased from our history books.

Levy states her aim for this book (and, I assume, the rest of her work) at the end of the essay:

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

The stories that follow revolve around ideas of power, of fear and of erasure. The first two, The Diary and Deborah show the power of secrets and how they can be used to get what you want – through a diary belonging to a famous actor and extracting violent retribution on a friend in fear of what your father might do to you.

The Polite Way that English People Have introduces Hortense from Small Island on the boat on her way to England. Here she realises her status is going to be reduced in the UK and in The Empty Pram a character who could be Hortense discovers the suspicion she’ll be subjected to simply for being from another country.

Loose Change takes a refugee from Uzbekistan and puts her in conversation with a woman who has the power to help her, while February reveals the erasure of Levy’s mother’s experience by a white teacher and the collection ends with Uriah’s War where the experience of two Jamaican soldiers in the First World War is erased by a sergeant on their return.

Levy introduces the reader to a range of characters and situations. What they all have in common is a sense of erasure or othering by someone, largely due to race but with regards to class. It’s an interesting mix of subjects and one in which Levy begins to explore Caribbean narratives which are expanded upon in Small Island.

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.


Brick Lane – Monica Ali

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 (yes, it has taken me this long to read this book), Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen’s marriage to Chanu and their move from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London in 1985.

When they arrive in London, eighteen-year-old Nazneen can say only two words in English, sorry and thank you. She is befriended by the rebellious Razia and by Mrs Islam who ‘knew everything about everybody’ but is largely confined to the flat.

Forty-year-old Chanu is pompous. Considering himself an intellectual, he invites the local doctor for dinner, assuming he can see his way to helping Chanu get a promotion at work. While he desires something better for himself and, therefore, his wife, he doesn’t understand why Nazneen would want to learn English. She spends her days looking forward to letters from her sister and seeing that Chanu’s needs are met.

‘Ish’, said Chanu, breathing sharply. ‘Did you draw blood?’ He looked closely at his little toe. He wore only his pyjama bottoms and sat on the bed. Nazneen knelt to the side with a razor blade in her hand. It was time to cut her husband’s corns again. She sliced through the semi-translucent skin, the build-up around the yellow core, and gathered the little dead bits in the palm of her hand.

The couple has two children and the novel follows Nazneen and Chanu as their children grow. Chanu is determined that they will know about their heritage and determinedly teaches them about Bangladesh, much to his daughter’s irritation. His plans to improve their situation in London lead to him becoming entangled with Mrs Islam and her business interests whilst Nazneen discovers what it’s like to be in love.

Ali explores identity and how it’s formed. She considers how relationships are formed far from home when you find yourself part of a community living closely with some you might not have socialised with in alternate circumstances. She portrays a marriage without love but with some affection and the conflict that children can bring as they grow. Brick Lane is an engrossing read and an interesting portrait of a young woman discovering who she is and what she wants from life.



My Plans for #ReadDiverse2016


I don’t do New Year resolutions. I learnt some years ago that those vague statements – I’m going to do more exercise/eat less/learn a language – don’t last beyond mid-January. But goals do, at least specific ones you can work towards and extend, if necessary, or not beat yourself up about if you don’t quite fulfil them do.

Last year, I set a goal to read more books by women of colour. I joined Eva Stalker’s #TBR20 project with the caveat that I’d continue to read review copies I was sent as well. I still haven’t completed all the reviews of those books yet but the main effect it had was I paid attention to what I was reading, specifically who the writer was. In 2014 10% of my reading was by writers of colour, in 2015, it was 32%. The unintended consequence of this, however, is that the number of books I read by writers from LGBTQIA communities plummeted from 6% to 0.5% and books in translation from 11% to 0.6%. (The latter was partly a consequence of me not really taking part in #WITMonth due to personal circumstances but still, it’s poor.)

The plan for this year then: more reviews of books by women of colour; more reviews of books by women who identify as LGBT; a proper focus on women in translation in August.

I’m aiming for 50% of my reviews to be of books by women of colour. I’ve changed the focus from the percentage I’m reading with the intention of even coverage on here. What I noticed last year was that although I was reading books from my #TBR20 stack, when I got back to reading and reviewing after my break in the summer, I was focusing on books by white women, the ‘big titles’. As a consequence, I have a stack of review copies by women of colour. These are now at the top of the pile.


I’ve also created a new #TBR20 pile focusing on writers from the LGBT communities. And here they are…

IMG_0335Half of the books (those on the left, except Anaïs Nin who appears to be in the wrong pile) are by women of colour. I used several sources to help me compile the list: More than 50 books by Queer People of Color by zarahwithaz; 10 Novels & Memoirs By and About Black Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women on Autostraddle;100+ LGBTQ Black Women You Should Know: The Epic Black History Month Megapost also on Autostraddle, and the Wikipedia list of LGBT Writers.

Elsewhere, you might have seen on social media that Media Diversified have created Bare Lit Festival (@BareLit). ‘A literary festival focused entirely on writers of colour’, which will run from the 26th – 28th February 2016.

We want to counteract the trend of equating literary merit with whiteness by highlighting the amazing variety of work currently being produced by BAME writers. That’s why we’ve put together an exciting programme of performances, panels and conversations — such as ‘Second-Generation Poets in Exile’, ‘What Does Liberation in Literature Look Like?, Sci Fi vs. Afrofuturism’ and much more.

I’ve already bought my weekend pass and you can support the festival by buying passes or single event tickets now and helping them to raise the cost of running the event. Find out more on their Indiegogo page.

Mention of Media Diversified brings me to this interesting piece, posted a couple of days ago: Decolonise, not Diversify by Kavita Bhanot. I agree with everything she says.

Speaking only for myself, I didn’t get involved with #diversedecember because I thought it would change the world but I did hope it might lead some people to question their world view or the view the white-dominated world imposes upon us.

During December, Salena Godden (@salenagodden) posted a video of her performing her new poem ‘I Count’. ‘I have become a woman that counts…’ she begins. Yep. I became a woman that counts when I started this blog. I don’t think it’s a solution and it’s certainly not going to bring about one on its own, but while ever white/male/hetero/cis domination exists, I’ll count. For me, #ReadDiverse2016 (@ReadDiverse2016) is about hoping you’ll join in that count too.

Small Island – Andrea Levy

Small Island tells the story of four people whose lives intersect in London following the end of the Second World War. Those people are Queenie and her husband Bernard, white Londoners, she working class and he middle class, and Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaicans who’ve come to London after Gilbert’s time in the RAF. The novel is narrated from the points of view of each of the four characters and both from the ‘now’ of 1948 and the past that each character has lived through.

The book begins with a prologue in which Levy makes clear the key theme of the novel. Queenie says, ‘I thought I’d been to Africa’. She tells her school class this until her teacher points out she’s been to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. From the first line of the novel, Levy highlights the British ignorance of Africa and its people. At the exhibition, Africa’s represented by a jungle village and a woman and a man.

A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with a sooty cork. The droplets of sweat on his forehead glistened and shone like jewels. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn sheep. His nose squasher flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me.

‘Would you like to kiss him?’ Graham said. He nudged me, teasing, and pushed me forward – closer to this black man.

…The inside of his mouth was pink and his face was coming closer and closer to mine. He could have swallowed me up this big nigger man. But instead he said, in clear English, ‘Perhaps we could shake hands instead?’

The first chapter has Hortense arriving at a house in London, straight from the docks where Gilbert’s forgotten to meet her. The house belongs to Queenie who’s taken in lodgers – most of them black, much to the vexation of her neighbours – since the war ended and her husband failed to return. The first chapter sets up Hortense’s expectations and shows how quickly they are disabused. The dialogue between Hortense and Queenie on the doorstep is particularly well done, showing a number of misunderstandings between the women based on accent and cultural knowledge.

The sections set in the present day – which are spaced throughout the novel, between the ‘before’ stories of each of the main characters – deal with relationships, both those between husband and wife and those between white and black people during this period. Both are often fractious with the parties lacking understanding of each other. Queenie and Bernard have dark secrets they know how to share with each other. Hortense doesn’t know how Gilbert can live as he does, Gilbert doesn’t know why he married her and why the UK’s so hostile after he played his part in the war effort.

For the teeth and glasses.

That was the reason so many coloured people were coming to this country, according to my next-door neighbour Mr Todd.

‘That National Health Service – it’s pulling them in, Mrs Bligh. Giving things away at our expense will keep them coming,’ he said. He might have a point except, according to him, they were all cross-eyed and goofy before they got here.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes,’ he assured me. ‘But now, of course, they’ve got spectacles and perfect grins.’

What’s particularly impressive about Small Island is that Levy allows each character to tell their story – and their side of the present day story – in their own voice. Each is distinct and convincing. Each story is equally interesting too. I sometimes wondered whether the structure of the novel, where each character tells their back-story in full (sometimes stretching to ninety pages), could have been divided into smaller sections. However, I can see how Levy uses each story to contribute to further understanding of the characters and how their stories come together in a surprising way.

Small Island is a good novel, exploring a country in the midst of great change, attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the war. Levy does this largely through the private – the individual stories – but very much shows how the private is political. It’s a perfect book for a long, indulgent read that will satisfy you in terms of character and plot but also lead you to consider current attitudes to race. I found it particularly poignant as the general election draws closer in the UK and anti-immigrant rhetoric is spouted from several parties. Like Levy, I’ll give Hortense and Gilbert the last words:

Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. ‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white.’

In the Media: 23rd November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been Ursula K. Le Guin’s week. Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she gave a widely praised speech about the need for freedom. You can watch it here, or read the transcript here. She’s interviewed on Salon, in The Guardian by Hari Kunzru and there’s a piece on where she gets her ideas from on Brain Pickings

Arundhati Roy and Megham Daum are the women with the second most coverage this week. Roy’s in Prospect, talking about ‘India’s Shame‘ and the caste system and interviewed in The Observer, where there are plenty of unnecessary comments about her looks. While Daum is interviewed on FSG’s website, in The Guardian and on The Cut.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week:

In the Media: 16th November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Photo by Wayne Thomas

This week, there’s been lots of discussion on my Twitter timeline about an article by Joanna Walsh, writer and creator of #ReadWomen2014 on ‘Why must the “best new writers” always be under 40?‘ prompted by Buzzfeed’s ‘20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading‘. Traditionally, these lists have disadvantaged women who, for a number of reasons, often publish their first novel later than many men. So, although it’s arbitrary/silly, this week’s top slot is going to pieces by or about those who published their first book at 40 or over.

We have Linda Grant (first novel published at 44) on why she’s hooked on the Serial podcast in The Guardian; Joan Chase (47) in her own words and Amy Weldon on her both on Bloom, a site dedicated to writers whose first major work was published at 40 or over; Ruth Graham tells the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (65) on Slate; Alexander Chee looks at Penelope Fitzgerald (59) via Hermione Lee’s biography of her on Slate; there are interviews with Lissa Evans (42) on the One More Page blog, Helen DeWitt (43) in BOMB magazine, Meg Rosoff (48) on Rebecca Mascull’s blog, Katherine Boo (48) on the theatre production of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the Independent and Donna Douglas (40) on Female First; while Bobbie Ann Mason (42) has a new short story ‘Ready‘ on TNB Fiction and the first chapter of Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye (51) is up to read on One Book Lane; finally, you can find out why middle-aged women are dominated self-publishing according to The Guardian.

At the other end of the spectrum, writer Nikesh Shukla supports young writers in Bristol. They publish online magazine Rife. Here’s Sammy Jones’ ‘The Five Stages of Street Harassment‘ and Jess Connett on ‘Hidden WWI: Teenagers at War‘.

There’s also been more gender discussion. Time magazine added the word ‘feminism’ to a list their readers could vote on to ‘ban’. Roxane Gay responded in The Washington Post; Hannah McGill discussed gender depiction in Sci-Fi in The List; Jess Meacham critiqued Suzanne Moore’s column on selfie’s being anti-feminist and her use of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in ‘The Eyeing of my Scars‘ on her blog, while Non Pratt looked at gender representation in Young Adult books in We Love This Book.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Amanda Palmer, whose book The Art of Asking was published on Tuesday. She’s in The Guardian following a live web chat; interviewed by Maria Popova of Brainpickings on YouTube; has written an article for The Independent and been interviewed in Billboard.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

This week’s ‘Who is Elena Ferrante?’ piece is by Jane Shilling in the New Statesman

If you want some fiction to read:

Or some non-fiction:

This week’s lists

In the Media: 9th November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s awards time again this week. Congratulations to Helen Macdonald who won the Samuel Johnson Prize with her stunning memoir H is for Hawk. There’s an article about it and an interview, both in The Guardian. You can also listen to interviews with all the shortlisted writers on BBC Radio 4.

While in France, Lydie Salvayre won the Prix Goncourt with Pas Pleurer.

The Green Carnation shortlist was announced this week and there are four women on the shortlist of six – congratulations to Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh and Laurie Penny. Prior to the announcement, Antonia Honeywell wrote her thoughts on the longlist.

The National Book Awards (UK) shortlists were also announced this week. Lots of books by women worth a read on there too.

And the Saltaire Society shortlisted a self-published book for their First Book AwardThe Last Pair of Ears by Mary F. McDonough. The first self-published book to be shortlisted for a Scottish Prize.

That might make you think about Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake which was the first crowd funded novel to be longlisted for The Man Booker Prize earlier this year. Well, Unbound, Kingsnorth’s publishers have announced a Women in Print campaign to try to increase the number of female authors published.

This week has also seen The Bookseller’s report on diversity in publishing – still not good enough, is the overriding conclusion.

It wouldn’t be an average week these days without a Lena Dunham story. Accused by a right-wing journalist of sexually molesting her younger sister following a confessional passage in her book, discussion ensued from Emily Gould, Katie McDonough, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Carolyn Edgar on Salon; Sarah Seltzer on Flavorwire; Emma Gannon on The Debrief; Grace Dent in The Independent. To cheer you up after that, here are 37 Funny and Inspired Thoughts from her book tour on Buzzfeed.

In more cheering news about prominent females, Mallory Ortberg, founder of The Toast, had her book Texts for Jane Eyre published in America this week. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Mesle wrote a stunning essay/review about the book’s feminist credentials. She’s interviewed on Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. And you can read an extract, 7 Brutal Literary Breakup Texts on Buzzfeed.

And the Amy Poehler stories are still going. The woman herself answers the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair. Here’s 5 Unexpected Things Marie Claire learned from Poehler’s book. Jessica Valenti has (mis?) read the book and declared ‘bitchiness’ the secret to Poehler’s success in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Hadley Freeman told us ‘Why Amy Poehler is the Ultimate Role Model for British Women‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

In translation:

  • Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) ‘Homesick for Sadness’ on the fall of the Berlin Wall in The Paris Review
  • Julie Winters Carpenter interviewed about translating Japanese poetry on the Asymptote Blog

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the 13 (I tried to keep it to 10 but it’s been a very good week) best things I’ve seen this week:

In the Media: 26th October 2014

In the media is a weekly round up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.


This week there’s definitely a celebration of feminist role models happening. At the forefront (mostly because her book Yes, Please is out in the US on Tuesday and the UK the following week) is Amy Poehler. Bustle have 15 Quotes that Prove She’s Our Brilliant Fairy Godmother; Popsugar have 19 Times Amy Poehler Said What We Wish We’d Said, while People have her answering questions people posted on Twitter and Facebook. Amanda Hess, in Slate, wrote about Poehler joining the famous women’s comedy/memoir/advice-book club; Lydia Kiesling wrote in Salon about how Nora Ephron presides over Poehler, Dunham, Fey and Kaling’s books, while Sam Baker in Harpers Bazaar wrote about Fearless Feminist Reads and why they’re important for teenage girls as well as adults.

Someone else who’s been written about as a feminist role model this week is Jane Austen. Jane Austen: Feminist in Action by Sinéad Murphy ran on the Huffington Post blog; Alexander McCall Smith explained why he’s modernised Emma on the Waterstones’ Blog; Sarah Seltzer on Flavorwire wrote about ‘Why We Can’t Stop Reading – and Writing – Jane Austen Sequels‘, while on Something Rhymed, Emma Claire Sweeney wrote ‘In Praise of the Spinster‘ about playwright, Ann Sharpe, Austen’s family’s governess.

Another amazing woman, Joan Didion, is also being celebrated this week. Her nephew is making a documentary about her. You can watch the trailer here. He’s decided to raise funds via Kickstarter which led to Flavorwire publishing Some Other Joan Didion Kickstarter Rewards We’d Like to See and Vogue re-publishing her 1961 essay ‘On Self-Respect‘.

It would be wrong not to mention Hallowe’en this week, particularly as there’s been a group of pieces around that theme. Wired’s podcast, which features Lauren Beukes, is What’s Scarier, Haunted Houses or Haunted People?; Electric Literature have published ‘“Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them”: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations‘, looking at Diane Cook and Helen Oyeyemi amongst others; Sarah Perry has written on The Gothic for Aeon, and Kate Mayfield who wrote the memoir ‘The Undertaker’s Daughter’ is on For Books’ Sake talking about How Not to Write a Memoir and in The Guardian talking about ‘Growing Up in the Family Funeral Parlour‘.

Talking of scary, Gone Girl‘s still a hot topic this week. Tana Wojczuk wrote ‘Gone Girl, Bluebeard, and the Meaning of Marriage‘ in Guernica in response to Elif Bautman’s piece ‘Marriage Is an Abduction‘ from last week’s New Yorker. Amanda Ann Klein wrote about the ‘Unbearable Whiteness of Gone Girls‘ for Avidly, and Steph Cha wrote about ‘Laughing at “Gone Girl”‘ in the LA Review of Books.

This week’s other notable essays/articles:

And the interviews:

In translation news, I’ve seen no articles this week about the identity of Elena Ferrante – hurrah! But I have seen that there’s a new imprint called Periscope devoted to translating poetry by women – hurrah!

If you’d like some fiction to read/listen to:

Or some non-fiction:

This week’s lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week: