Originally published in Literary Hub.
It’s been a year since British-Jamaican author Andrea Levy died, leaving the world short one more literary icon. Learning of her death that day I was thrown into mourning for a woman I’d never met but who truly knew me as a Caribbean immigrant living abroad.
Much of Levy’s work reflects the experience of black Jamaican Britons, and the struggles of postcolonial immigrants facing exclusion from the British society they immigrated to from the so-called motherland. Levy’s own life history is often presented in her work, and a reflection of her second-generation experiences can be found in Fruit of the Lemon. Second-generation experiences, particularly for Caribbean immigrants, are similar in the US to the UK, as immigrants struggling with identity risk losing their own history through constant migration.
Although Fruit of the Lemon hasn’t garnered as much attention as Levy’s other work, Small Island, I identify most with this novel because of one particular scene I’m sure is familiar to many immigrants but is rarely explored in literature: encountering a non-immigrant’s detailed family history, the kind of home museum display that spans many generations.
Second-generation children of immigrants like Faith and myself often lose our history through our families’ transitions. Our families uproot themselves from their countries and lives—their stories, their culture—and leave their histories behind. The pressures of assimilation often force you to look forward rather than back. As they are forced to move from one place to the next, the only thing from their old lives in Faith’s parents manage to hang onto is a white ceramic dog.
Last year while in Rome, I visited a friend’s home and was awestruck to see his family lineage displayed around the house in the form of pictures and other detailed memorabilia, all of it telling the story of his Italian ancestry. It was my “Faith” moment, and it thrust me back into Levy’s novel, further forcing me to face the reality that I don’t know much about my own heritage. When I returned to New York, freshly energized by my friend’s relationship to his own family history, I bombarded my parents with questions and began recording whatever they were able to tell me.
“Jack Rock, they named that after your great-grandfather,” my father said proudly about a massive rock out in the ocean behind our home in Trinidad. “Did you know that?”