Andrea Levy's "The Long Song" is an intimate look at slavery and its end in Jamaica in the early half of the 19th century. Told from the point of view of a slave called Miss July, Levy's fifth novel follows July from birth to the point where she's a grandmother, with her son urging her to write her memoirs. As grim as the realities of slavery are, July never lets her mistreatment by her fellow man break her spirit.
Levy is in town this week, along with hundreds of other authors, for the PEN World Voices festival, an annual gathering of writers from around the world. As a British-born child of Jamaican parents, her work is very concerned with filling in some of the overlooked holes in history.
"I'm about sort of trying to give voice to people who have not had a voice because of some sort of oppression," said Levy, espousing the type of mission that PEN was created to celebrate.
We spoke with Levy about her latest book.
I was surprised to learn so much about the British involvement in the slave trade from your book. In school, we only ever learned about the American history of slavery. Clearly, the slavery in America started with the British doing it. And then there was slavery in the Caribbean, and it was there for 300 years. But because it was so far away from Britain ... there is a sense in Britain that it's nothing to do with them. ... You can't look at American history without talking about slavery; in Britain, you certainly can. And I think that that has to change.
Was there anything you learned that surprised you in researching this book? Lots - one of the main things being that it was 300 years. There was always this sense when you learn about slavery in Britain ... it always felt that slavery was just a fleeting moment in history. And then, gosh, having to read all of the stuff - it's really quite shocking what humans do to each other.
Your writing seems to be motivated by your personal history. Would you say that's true? Absolutely. A lot of my work is just me trying to find out about my own heritage. My parents came from Jamaica, and they came to Britain and I was brought up in Britain, and I was very uninterested in where my parents came from because it wasn't even a little bit glamorous. As I've gotten older, my interest has just grown and grown and grown, but I had a lot of ground to make up.
Don't miss: PEN World Voices runs through May 1. For more event info, visit pen.org.
The Moth at PEN World Voices: The Cooper Union, Saturday, 6:30 p.m., $30. A night of stories on the theme "What Went Wrong." Featuring Jonathan Franzen and others.
Wole Soyinka lecture: New York Public Library, Celeste Bartos Forum, Sunday, 6 p.m., $25. The Nigerian poet-dramatist and Nobel Prize winner gives a lecture on censorship and a writer's responsibilities in hostile climates.
Writing Wrongs, Righting Wrongs: High Line, Friday, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m., FREE. Reservations required. Salman Rushdie and others are on hand for a series of intimate discussions among authors. For more information, contact Stacy Leigh at 212-334-1660, ext. 109.