This picture is one of my favourite from the Storying Sheffield exhibition that I wrote about here. It turns out it’s also an apt illustration for the book I finished just a day later – The Long Song by Andrea Levy.
The Long Song is a powerful novel about a black woman living through slavery in Jamaica. No obvious link with Storying Sheffield there, but in fact both have similar issues at their heart: how do we tell stories and what happens when we do?
In particular – how can people who lack power tell stories? In The Long Song, the people with power can paint over the bits of a story that they don’t like. So the white painter refuses to include ‘the disgusting negro hovels’ in his depiction of the plantation. And the plantation owner’s sister retells a suicide event as a story of murder, framing an innocent black man in the process. But even when the black, female narrator is in court and being harangued about the importance of telling the truth, she is not given a proper chance to speak.
In an interview at the end of the book, Levy describes how her research into the history of slavery revealed very few surviving documents where black slaves speak of and for themselves. ‘Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists,’ she writes.
For Levy, fiction can provide an answer. ‘Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,’ she says. ‘I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.’
This is an interesting angle on the historical novel, that strange and fascinating blend of the recorded and the imagined. For Levy, the combination of historical research and her own imagination meant she could ‘breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events’. Her central character, a black house slave called July, leaps from the pages as a passionate, charming and often cunning woman. Dramatic events like the Baptist War happen around her, but they are not as prominent as her strong and captivating telling of the details of her life.
By giving a voice to one, fictional woman and the people she has contact with, the novel explodes the conventional narrative, summarised by Levy as ‘almost … a morality play with the planters as the villains, Wilberforce as the white knight and the slaves as simply a mass of wretched voiceless victims’. Instead the reader enters a complex, unique society full of strong and vibrant characters getting on with their individual lives, even in circumstances where their very humanity is denied.
For Levy this creative act gave her a new perspective on her ancestors. Her determination to trawl through mountains of racist documents for her research is frankly amazing, but at the end of her afterword she describes how the experience of writing the book left her with a sense not of horror but of awe.
‘Our slave ancestors were much more than a mute and wretched mass of victims and we do them a great disservice if we think of them as such,’ she writes. ‘If history has kept them silent then we must conjure their voices ourselves and listen to their stories. Stories through which we can rememember them, marvel at what they endured, what they achieved, and what they have bequeathed to us all.’
Levy’s tone is upbeat. Nevertheless, there is something heartbreaking about people having to have their stories imagined for them because they were never allowed to tell them when they were alive.
That’s one of the reasons why Storying Sheffield is so important. People who have previously been unheard get a voice, and because the university is supporting them, the whole profile of storytelling is raised. There’s an enormously positive vibe around the project. For me, this is at least partly because it connects with something deep within the psyche, something that recognises that to tell our own stories is both a right and a necessity. The best stories are the ones that belong to you.