Bernardin Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize for her novel “Girl, Woman, Other”. She has a new memoir, “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up.”
She is also an activist and works to ensure that unknown and underrepresented black British writers find an audience. In a conversation for “To the best of our knowledge,” I spoke with Evaristo about her inspirations and how she lives in her imagination.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Shannon Henry Kleiber: I love your confidence in your memoir and your life. So many artists question themselves and accept rejection and erase it, but you have such a cheerful tenacity. Where does this come from?
Bernardin Evaristo: I was born into a tenacious family. I come from a mixed marriage. My father was Nigerian, my mother English, and they married in the 1950s in the face of enormous social and family disapproval, especially on my mother’s side. And yet they loved each other. So they were going to get married and they had eight children in 10 years. They were people who followed their hearts and lived the life they wanted to live.
SHK: Your parents became activists. Has this influenced you in your activism?
BE: I think so, definitely. They were left socialists and very active in the unions where they worked. My father was a local politician in the region. Political conversations took place around our table.
Also, when you grow up in a racist society and you’re a person of color, I think you have a choice whether you’re going to be someone who fights against that or whether you’re going to be someone who continues his life and try to keep your head above water and not put your head above the parapet. And you know, my parents are people who put their heads above the parapet.
As soon as I could, when I went to drama school – a very political drama school – I did that too. I became someone who was willing to stand up for what I believed in, which at the time was about race and feminism.
SHK: Your novel, “Girl, Woman, Other” is so innovative in form and art and punctuation and groundbreaking in so many ways. It has 12 characters, 11 women and one non-binary character. How would you describe the book?
BE: I call it “fusion fiction” in terms of form, because of the way it merges different stories and the way I used the language on the page. It’s a book that is, in a way, an ode to black British women. It’s a book that travels 100 years, well over 100 years. So it’s like a tapestry.
SHK: And then he won the Booker Price in 2019. You said you weren’t an overnight success, obviously, but everything changed overnight. So what has changed?
“Girl, Woman, Other” sold over a million copies in English alone, compared to the sales of my previous books which were often critical hits, but they just didn’t sell beyond that. of a few thousand. The reach of my work just exploded. The image I had of myself as a writer literally changed overnight, and suddenly I was considered a heavyweight. And it’s not that no one thought I was a lightweight before, but I often wasn’t included in the way I wanted to be, in terms of the literary culture here. And also, I now have a huge platform that I didn’t have before, as an activist.
SHK: There is a long tradition of political writers, from Aristotle to Ray Bradbury to Margaret Atwood, and their work as a form of activism and social consciousness. And part of the story. How do you see your place in this part of the ongoing story?
BE: I am very aware that as one of the few black British novelists, I write our stories in history. I correct our absence, our stories, the absence of our stories in literature in Britain. And if it’s not in Britain, it won’t be anywhere else either.
So I’m very conscious that I’m making history – not in the selfish sense of, you know, “I’m so famous, I’m going to make history” – but that I’m rewriting history. Reinventing history through my work, but also as a writer doing what I do. I also struggle with invisibility.
SHK: Do you remember the first time you thought of writing as a political act?
BE: The first poem I wrote was a poem about suffragettes. I was about 14, so it was around 1974. It was in a school magazine. I went back to my old school last year, and they pulled it out of the archives and gave me a copy, and it was just wonderful to see it.
I thought, ‘My God, Bernardine, you thought you had become a feminist when you went to drama school. But it’s such a feminist poem.
And so that was it. Back then, when I was 14, I was already a political writer.
SHK: Is being a political writer any different today than it was in previous generations?
BE: The first thing to say is that all writing is political. Someone like Margaret Atwood tackles the really big issues of the day and imagines our society in a truly dystopian way.
When I go back to the writers who inspired me as a young woman – Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Michelle Cliff, Audre Lorde – these are very political writers in America who write stories about black women. And they were the first generation to do so in large numbers, in fact all over the world.
SHK: Let’s talk about your Black Britain writing project. What you’re doing with this is really introducing a whole new canon of underrepresented writers to the audience. Some of these writers, maybe all of them, would be unknown without this project, and you give them voice, and you give them life. Can you tell us a bit more about some of them?
BE: The project is called Black Britain Rewrittenand the idea is to bring back writers who have been forgotten or disappeared for more than a century.
I think the two books that stand out are “Cultivating black hair and black pride in the 60s” written by Barbara Blake Hannah, which is an absolutely fantastic memoir of her time in London in the 1960s. She is a Jamaican woman. She had been here for about two decades. She became Britain’s first black journalist to She had two jobs in television, and she lost both jobs because the racists objected to her appearing on their screens, and they campaigned against her. got rid of her, and she went back to Jamaica and became a Rastafarian. And it’s a beautiful book. the writing is so dynamic and lively.
And there is also “A black boy in Etonby Dillibe Onyeama, who was the first Nigerian, the first black to graduate from Eton College, which is the most elite school in this country. It is probably the most famous school in the world, and he was a student there in the ’60s. He wrote a memoir about his time there which was published in 1972. It’s brilliantly written, but also really shocking in terms of the racism he experienced at that school of super elite., and the book was kind of ransacked by the media. Eventually, he returned to Nigeria.
What I find so interesting about his book is that Eton College has produced 20 British prime ministers, including one current one, so it really is the seat of the establishment in this country. It is the nursery of the elites of this country. And when you read about his treatment as a Nigerian boy in that school at that time, it really makes you think hard about the nature of the people who then led this country in all the major areas, over the 50 last years. or else, because they were the boys he went to school with.
SHK: How do you continue? You say you’re stubborn, and it’s clear from your memoir that you’re not going to give up, but you encounter racism, ageism, and misogyny throughout your life. Is this what drives you forward, or what drives you forward?
BE: In fact, what motivates me is that I love what I do. It’s a very good incentive, isn’t it? I love creativity. I have led a creative life all my life. I like to write. Yes, sometimes it’s frustrating and a bit difficult, and it might not work for a while, but basically I love it. I don’t know how I would function if I didn’t have creative expression in my life through my writing and creating other worlds and other people’s stories.
Above all, I write about these other imaginary lives. I live in my imagination. And it’s a wonderful place. It is very liberating, exciting and adventurous. Yes, there are always obstacles and certainly obstacles in my past. When I finish my books, I don’t always think they’re great, but there’s such a degree of satisfaction that they are what they are. I hope they’re doing well in the world – I know I put my all into them, and that’s exciting.
Being a writer for me is so exciting. It is magnificent work. This allows me to continue.