Introduction time caused alterity. Identity is word often


Nation and Identity are still causing upheaval in contemporary society
as it shapes people’s mindset and determines history. Literature plays a huge
role in this story as it contributes to the way people express and feel, it
unites and even can divide nations and identities. In this paper the role of
Literature in the nation and identity will be explained. To do that with more
clearance, there will be given an example of a literary work where an event in
history is displayed which shaped Nations and their Identities. The literary
work that will be discussed in this paper will be Small Island from Andrea
Levy. Her work focusses mainly on the first major immigration wave to the
United Kingdom in the year of 1948. This work is of major importance because of
its impact on not only British society but also on the world itself. Small
Island engages with the representation of ethnically diverse people in Britain
and can therefore be considered as a landmark in British Literature. Such works
tell us about history in a different way than history books do and can cause
much more turmoil. It is for this important reason that people have to engage
with these works to understand what is going on in their societies and get to know how to tackle
issues of identity. Therefore, this paper will show the importance of literature in the nation and identity to clarify its role
in contemporary society.   

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Small Island from Andrea Levy still influences society

Literature goes way back in influencing
societies, right from the start of the first writings, words have influenced
our way of living. It taught us everything we needed to know about life, it
taught us how to communicate and survive. It contributed to the development of
our contemporary society, but also shaped humans around the world. It created
diverse identities in which people sought refuge and at the same time caused
alterity. Identity is word often hard to describe whereas alterity has a
clearer definition. However, according to the Oxford Dictionary identity means
‘The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.’  This sentence is quite vaguely described, and
the other definitions given do not help either. Who decides what these
characteristics are? Most of the times these characteristics are determined by
people high in power. But it is here where literature kicks in, literature
often decides who’s in and who’s out. A good example of this phenomena is the
book La Colombiade ou La Foi portée au
nouveau monde (1758) From Du Boccage, Madame, which was a plea for the
missionaries coming from Europe to bring civilisation (Catholicism) to the New
World and in particular Colombia. It created the idea of alterity where Catholicism
was the superior force over animism and other faiths.1

As time passes, Europe is beginning to
look more and more like a melting pot where especially the slaves brought from
Africa were starting to make a difference. As Mierau points out in his et al

“Throughout Europe, a new urban,
multi-ethnic culture took shape that, in many ways, can be regarded as
producing the first ‘modern’ European subjects.”2  

These new urban, multi-ethnic cultures
were changing people’s perspectives on events and made way for new ideas such
rationalism. European societies started to engage with non-European cultures
and began to develop more knowledge about them. This also led to critical
papers in which individuals criticized European stance towards non-Europeans.  A great example of one of these papers is Voyage
à l’Ile de France (1773)  from
Bernadin de
Saint-Pierre. It depicts the torture which Africans went through to make the
luxurious goods that were sold in Europe. Such a work as Voyage to the Ile de
France can be
considered a predecessor of later post-colonial works suchlike Small Island and Brick Lane.   



As the Age of Enlightenment passes,
innovations and technologies started to grow, especially in Britain. The Age of
Enlightenment made way for the Industrial Age, a period which has been marked
as one of the most important turning points in history. Again society changed
and urbanisation grew like never before. In England the population doubled
between 1750-18503
which contributed to a more dense society where literature could flourish even
more. Due to the growth of density in Britain school establishments grew and
illiteracy diminished4. This
led to a better spread of knowledge and resulted in more engagement of people
in society.
But the Industrial Age is also marked for its growing chasm between the rich
and the poor.
A period where Romanticism arose due to will to escape from the daily grind of
society. Britain became a role model for other countries in the World. It made the foundation for
non-British societies and especially the British colonies, to look up to
Britain. This foundation is of great importance because it shows how the
inferiority complex of the British colonies developed.  This kind of inferiority complex is still
present in our contemporary society. There are still non-Europeans who believe
that Europe is in every way better than their own culture.

The famous book Small Island from Andrea Levy is structured around this concept as
it depicts the first major immigration wave to Britain. She reciprocates to the
literary and ancestry of diaspora and Windrush migration, but Levy generally
confronts accepted narratives of the socio-historical cases of identity
realignment in Britain and therefore challenges established narratives of
As Alicia E. Ellis describes in her article about Andrea Levy:

“Levy’s work serves as an act of
reconstruction, a belated intervention, which is both sequel (epigones) and
prologue to the story of the Windrush Generation.”6

It shows a multi-perspective structure
of correlative and imaginary credentials, conveyed as one over the discussion
as a area of confrontations that calls awareness to the diverse, in some cases
adverse visions about Britain’s multicultural construction. 7




The subject of
the Small Island, the Windrush of 1948 is an event that often
is interpreted differently. Hence, the arrival story is broadly accepted as masculine.
The motivations for these are historical and often political. In the article of
Sandra Courtman, she brings up the observation of Mattew Mead about Windrush. According to Matthew:

“The cultural memory of the Windrush often fails to represent accurately
the far from homogenous group of migrants who came to Britain. Historically,
post-Second World War migration from the West Indies was part of a wider crisis
in British national identity.”8

He continues to argue that this ‘crisis
in British national identity’ was the result of an empire that no longer could
afford and devastated losses of the Second World War. This crisis in British
national identity is key to understand the other identity crisis’s in the
world. The British economy was weakened and almost on its end of running. The
cheap labour that came with the Windrush
was needed to boost the British economy. This was not an exceptional way of
dealing with a failing economy, as other European countries did the same thing.

But this enormous wave of migrants that would boost the economies of European
countries brought also a feeling alterity with them. As Courtman points out
further in her article,

“the Windrush provided the media with a focus for anxieties surrounding
black, and initially male, immigration from Britain’s colonies.”

Again, this is not an exceptional
reaction, as most of the European countries reacted in the same way towards
their migrants.

However, in contemporary society,
people, especially the British look towards Windrush
has changed. It shifted to a national imagery to indicate an epoch where the
accomplishments of that generation to make Britain multicultural are
And it is right here, for this very reason why books as Small Island are of importance and still influence people around
the world. Small Island represents an
event in British history which often has been silenced or been taken for
granted in the history books. But as Andrea Levy herself points out in an interview
with María Helena            Lima:

“for me Levy
the starting point of writing books has always been about wanting to make the
unseen visible, wanting to show the experience of my parents’ generation and
the children that came after, having to live in this country, quite a hostile
environment, and how they cope with that”10


Fast forward to the present and we see
the same process repeating itself. In a rather different form than in the late
40s but the same reactions have occurred. Since the Arabic Spring of 2010 there
has been an influx of migrants from the Islamic world to Europe. Instead of
being brought to the European continent they risk their lives in small boats to
reach Europe. And already there are books written about this event as well. One
of the most famous at moment is ‘The
Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir Who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe’ (2013) by
Roman Puertolas. The media has spent and is still spending a lot of attention
to these migrants waves which led to the grow of alterity across Europe. It
also brought identity crisis’s with it, there is even a Dutch saying about the
Dutchmen which implies that there is no ‘real’ Dutch identity anymore due to
multiculturalism. It was said by the current Dutch Queen Maxima, who isn’t from
the Netherlands herself. She substantiate it with the argument that the
Netherlands is way too diverse to stereotype into one identity.11 It
was intended to help the integration process of migrants coming to the
Netherlands but in the end actually backfired. Right-winged-populist parties in
the Netherlands are now using this sentence for their campaign to advocate for
closing the borders.

As mentioned before, books shape minds
and create certain attitudes towards experiences/events. They can represent
different groups, in the case of the books of Andrea Levy representing the
black community.12
They can unite and divide groups, identities and even nations. And it is for
this very reason that we have to engage with these works to create
understanding and clarity for those who are dissatisfied with their social
situation. Literature has all the solutions in its grasp and we only have to
grab it to fully understand the world around us.  

(p. 5, line 31-32)

(p. 7, line 27-29)

3 Wilde Robert,
“Population Growth and Movement in the Industrial Revolution”


5 E. Ellis Alicia Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea
Levy’s Small Island, 2012  (p.69,
line 3-6)

6 E. Ellis Alicia Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea
Levy’s Small Island,  2012 (p. 70,
line 16-18)

7 E. Ellis Alicia Identity as Cultural Production in Andrea
Levy’s Small Island, 2012 (p. 73 line 39-42)

8 Courtman Sandra Women Writers and the Windrush Generation: A
Contextual Reading of Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children and Andrea
Levy’s Small Island, 2012 (p.86 line 17-19)

9 Courtman Sandra Women Writers and the Windrush Generation: A
Contextual Reading of Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children and Andrea
Levy’s Small Island, 2012 (p.86 line 26-28)

10 Pérez Fernández
Irene Representing Third Spaces, Fluid
Identities and Contested Spaces in Contemporary British Literature, ATLANTIS. Journal
of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies, 2009 (p.146, line 24-27)

11 Van onze verslaggever, Dé Nederlandse identiteit bestaat niet,


12Pérez Fernández
Irene Representing Third Spaces, Fluid
Identities and Contested Spaces in Contemporary British Literature, ATLANTIS. Journal
of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies, 2009 (p.146, line 19-20)