Extract from Andrea Levy's new novel:
The Long Song
THE BOOK YOU ARE now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story—a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son. Her intention was that, once knowing the tale, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters. And so it would go on. The fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica.
It was a fine ambition from a noble old woman for whom many of her years were lived in harsh circumstance. This wish demanded respect.
Unfortunately for my mama, she then proceeded to convey her chronicle to me at some of my busiest hours. Indeed that sweet woman never seemed to grow too tired to seek me out: early morning, at the heat of midday, or late, late into the night; following me about the house while I was in the process of dressing or washing; whilst I waited for a meal to be brought; as I chewed; as I pushed the plate away; as I was deep in talk with my wife; even at my place of work as several of my men waited, curious for my instruction. It shamed me to find that I did not have time enough to give it heed—that on most occasions I feigned listening to her yarn when, in truth, not one word of it was entering my ear or my mind's eye. Oh, how often did I nod to her when a vigorous shake of the head was what was required? I will not here go into the trouble that this caused within my household, but be sure to know there was plenty of it. No, let us pass with pleasure on to the solution that was eventually found.
A chapbook—a small pamphlet. My mama's words printed upon paper, with the type set own in the blackest ink for ease of reading. Upon its cover there could be the ornamentation of a sturdy woodcut—a horse or cart or bundled sugar cane (for I know a man who can render these with such skill as to trick your eye into believing you were gazing upon the true item).
I explained to my dear mama, once spoken these precious words of hers would be lost to all but my ears. If, though, committed to a very thin volume, I could peruse her tale at my leisure and no word would be lost when my fickle mind strayed to some other purpose. And better, for the excess books which would be produced from the press could be given for sale, taken around the island so others, far and wide, might delight in her careful narration.
But my mama began her life as a person for whom writing the letters ABC could have seen her put to the lash, for she was born a slave. The undertaking of committing her tale to words that might be read and set into printed form was, at first, quite alarming for her poor soul. She fretted, following me about the house and town to chatter at me of her anxiety of writing upon paper. She feared she would not have the skill to make herself understood in this form; and what if she were to make some mistake in its telling? Then surely it would be there, for ever and a day, for all to find amusement in her errors!
However, my trade is as a printer. Indeed, although it is not usually within my character to brag about my achievements, I need to explain that I am considered by many—be they black, white or coloured—to be one of the finest printers upon this island. My particular
skill is an ability to find meaning in the most scribbled of texts. Give me writing that looks to have been made by some insect crawling dirty legs across the paper and I will print its sense, clear and precise. Show me blots and smudges of ink and I will see form. Let blades of grass blow together in the breeze and I will find words written in their flowing strands.
So I was able to assure my precious mama that I would be her most conscientious editor. I would raise life out of her most crabbed script to make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language. And there was no shame to be felt from this assistance, for at some of the best publishing houses in Britain—let me cite Thomas Nelson and Son or Hodder and Stoughton, as my example—the gentle aiding and abetting of authors in this manner is quite commonplace.
She thankfully agreed. Then forsook the pleasures of cooking her cornmeal porridge, fish tea, and roasted breadfruit, of repairing and sowing our garments and other tasks which, in truth, were quite useful about our busy household, to put all her effort into this noble venture, this lasting legacy of a printed book.
The tale herein is all my mama's endeavour. Although shy of the task at first, after several months she soon became quite puffed up, emboldened to the point where my advice often fell on to ears that remained deaf to it. Some scenes I earnestly charged her not to write in the manner she had chosen. But, like the brightest pupil with an outworn master, she became quite insistent upon having her way. And agreeing with a resolute woman is always easier.
Now, only one further word of explanation is required from me; although this story was intended to be accommodated within the limited size and pages of a pamphlet or chapbook it, however, grew. Notwithstanding, let me now conclude this mediation so my mama's tale might finally commence.
IT WAS FINISHED ALMOST as soon as it began. Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar's part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. Except upon this occasion, when he finally released himself from out of her, he thrust a crumpled bolt of yellow and black cloth into Kitty's hand as a gift. This was more vexing to her than that rude act—for she was left to puzzle upon whether she should be grateful to this white man for this limp offering or not . . .
Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire.
Go to any shelf that groans under a weight of books and there, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold, will be volumes whose contents will find you meandering through the puff and twaddle of some white lady's mind. You will see trees aplenty, birds of every hue and oh, a hot, hot sun residing there. That white missus will have you acquainted with all the many tribulations of her life upon a Jamaican sugar plantation before you have barely opened the cover. Two pages upon the scarcity of beef. Five more upon the want of a new hat to wear with her splendid pink taffeta dress. No butter but only a wretched alligator pear again! is surely a hardship worth the ten pages it took to describe it. Three chapters is not an excess to lament upon a white woman of discerning mind who finds herself adrift in a society too dull for her. And as for the indolence and stupidity of her slaves (be sure you have a handkerchief to dab away your tears), only need of sleep would stop her taking several more volumes to pronounce upon that most troublesome of subjects.
And all this particular distress so there might be sugar to sweeten the tea and blacken the teeth of the people in England. But do not take my word upon it, peruse the volumes for yourself. For I have. And it was shocking to have so uplifting an act as reading invite some daft white missus to belch her foolishness into my head. So I will not worry myself for your loss if it is those stories you require. But stay if you wish to hear a tale of my making.
As I write, I have a cup of sweetened tea resting beside me (although not quite sweet enough for my taste, but sweetness comes at a dear price here upon this sugar island); the lamp is glowing sufficient to cast a light upon the paper in front of me; the window is open and a breeze is cooling upon my neck. But wait . . . for an annoying insect has decided to throw itself repeatedly against my lamp. Shooing will not remove it, for it believes the light is where salvation lies. But its insistent buzzing is distracting me. So I have just squashed it upon an open book. As soon as I have wiped its bloody carcass from the page (for it is in a volume that my son was reading), I will continue my tale.
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The Long Song
Fruit of the Lemon
Never far from nowhere
Every light in the house burnin'