Deborah Levy: I used writing as therapy to help me talk again after jailing of my father


Show caption Deborah Levy told Desert Island Discs that she used writing as a means to deal with childhood trauma in South Africa. Photograph: Amanda Benson/BBC/PA Deborah Levy Deborah Levy: I used writing as therapy to help me talk again after jailing of my father Acclaimed novelist reveals she became almost silent as a child due to stress Vanessa Thorpe Sun 16 Jan 2022 00.01 GMT Share on Facebook

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Novelist Deborah Levy first discovered writing as a kind of therapy when her voice disappeared as a child, she has revealed.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the popular British writer, acclaimed for her Booker Prize-shortlisted novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk, said her voice gradually got quieter during her schooldays in South Africa.

Born there in 1959, Levy was the eldest child of anti-apartheid activists Norman and Philippa Levy and when her father was arrested five years later, she became almost silent in response to the stress.

“It’s curious. I wasn’t exactly a mute; it was just the volume of my voice got lower and lower and lower until no one could hear me,” she said. “The kids at school used to say to me, ‘are you dumb?’, and I used to nod because they would leave me alone.”

Her father was held in prison for four years and her silence became a habit. Levy, now 62, recalled: “It was really about being totally overwhelmed by everything, not believing that my thoughts were in any way valuable to anyone, probably very frightened thoughts, and so I just stopped speaking.”

The breakthrough came when a school teacher encouraged her to write down her thoughts: “So I had a go and I discovered my thoughts were quite loud.”

The therapeutic exercise, resulting in an essay called A Record of Things I Don’t Know, which covered her father’s plight, sparked a love of creative writing that has dominated her life. “Then I invented a cat that had yellow eyes, very lonely, and could fly and do summersaults, and of course the cat was myself and I began to understand at quite a young age that you could find an avatar to be you and give it your thoughts, problems and opinions, so really that was the beginning.”

Norman Levy with Nelson Mandela. Photograph: Courtesy of family

The family moved to Britain when she was nine, following her father’s release from prison, and settled in West Finchley, north London. Here, it was a chance encounter with a famous film director that inspired her early professional career.

As a teenager Levy worked as a cinema usher and met the late experimental film maker Derek Jarman. His words of advice persuaded her to change her plans to study English Literature at university. Instead she learned how to write for the stage and performance at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.

Pax, Levy’s first commissioned play in 1984, was followed by more than a dozen dramas, but in the late 1980s she switched to writing novels. Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, initially failed to find a publisher. Its eventual success marked a new era. “That changed my life. To be valued, respected and read is an incredible privilege, it is an extraordinary feeling,” she said, explaining it came at the time she divorced from her husband, playwright David Gale. “It had been a long relationship of 23 years and it is very hard to believe that a life you had made together is not going to continue.”

Levy says from the first, she saw her novels as an “opportunity to walk female subjectivity right into the centre of the world”.

Last spring Levy published Real Estate, the final instalment of her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy of memoir.