Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’

This is an article that was published in 2012 after a truly rigorous peer review process.

Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea Levy’s Small Island

Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004) presents a counter-history of the period before and after World War II (1939-1945) when men and women from the Caribbean volunteered for all branches of the British armed services and many eventually immigrated to London after the war officially ended in 1945. Her historical novel moves back and forth between 1924 and 1948 as well as across national borders and cultures. Levy’s novel, written more than fifty years after the first Windrush arrival, creates a common narrative of nation and identity in order to understand the experiences of Black people in Britain. Small Island—structured around four competing voices whose claims of textual, personal and historical truth must be acknowledged—refuses to establish a singular articulation of the experience of migration and empire. In this essay, I focus on discrete moments in the “Prologue” in Levy’s Small Island in order to think through the formation of discursive identity through the encounter with others and the necessity of accommodating difference. Small Island forecloses the possibility of addressing modern multiculturalism as a purported ‘happy ending’ in light of Levy’s formulation of the Windrush moment as disruptive, violent, and overwhelmed by flawed characters. Yet, through the space of writing, she also invites the reader to experience moments of encounter and negotiate the often competing claims on nationhood, citizenship, and culture.