Stephanie Taylor writes about the author Andrea Levy.
Andrea Levy who died this week, has been deservedly celebrated in a number of articles and obituaries. She is probably best known as the author of the prize-winning novel 'Small Island'. Open University students may also be aware that she received an OU honorary doctorate, awarded in March 2014, and I am writing now to recall her acceptance of the degree. The speech she gave was very warmly received and it reminded me of another of her novels 'Fruit of the Lemon' which is built up as a succession of distinctive British and Caribbean voices.
In the speech, Andrea Levy introduced the voice of her mother, Amy, a teacher who came to the UK in 1948 with a secret ambition to attend university here. However, Amy's initial experience was more about the closing down, not opening up, of opportunities because her Jamaican teaching qualifications were not recognised. She obtained other work and eventually did enter tertiary study, at the OU. In those pre-computer days, some course material was broadcast, usually late in the evening. Levy described her younger self coming in to see what her mother was doing, and finding her watching 'some hairy man' lecturing on tv. (At this point in the speech, everyone in the hall automatically looked at the bearded PVC who was chairing the ceremony. He blushed.) Levy went on to describe how her mother persevered with her studies and eventually completed her degree, becoming one of the OU's first graduates. The conclusion of the speech was enacted as a conversation between mother and daughter, in their respective Jamaican and British accents. The daughter announced that she was accepting this honorary doctorate in memory of her mother, then voiced the imagined Amy's indignant response: 'So they're giving it without you doing any of the work!'.
The audience at the ceremony loved the speech. It made us all laugh, it showed that the brilliant writer was also a highly skilled performer, with superb comic timing, and every OU graduate appreciated the recognition of their own hard work to complete a degree. We were also privileged to experience an original piece of Levy's writing. The backgrounding of the story and the small imagined dialogue connected her and us, now and then, the ways that family and society encircle our own life experiences. We were lucky to be there!