Bernardine Evaristo on race, identity and her new memoir as she heads to Yorkshire

The year 2019 was a pretty momentous one for author Bernardine Evaristo – she won the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, making history as the first black woman to have done so in the prize’s 50-year history.

Prizewinning author Bernardine Evaristo is coming to Ilkley and Sheffield this month. (Picture: Suki Dhana).
Prizewinning author Bernardine Evaristo is coming to Ilkley and Sheffield this month. (Picture: Suki Dhana).

It was a landmark moment and it propelled her into the public consciousness. Evaristo’s journey to that point is mapped out in her latest book – an inspiring memoir entitled Manifesto published this week.

In her introduction she notes wryly that following the Booker win she ‘became an overnight success after forty years working professionally in the arts’. The book’s subtitle is On Never Giving Up and it is a brilliant account of tenacity, self-belief and determination.

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“I hadn’t been thinking about writing a memoir, some of my friends had done it and it seemed such a big undertaking, but through talking about myself so much after the Booker it just made me think about putting things down on paper,” she says.

Bernardine Evaristo with the Duchess of Cornwall and Margaret Atwood in 2019. (Getty Images).

“I have been in the game a very long time and I found that when I was asked about it, I began to say that I felt unstoppable. I could only say that because I had reached a certain point so I wanted people to know what it took for me to get here and hopefully also to inspire people to keep going, especially those working in the arts.”

The book is divided into seven chapters covering areas such as Evaristo’s family and heritage, places she has lived, men and women she has been romantically involved with, the importance of theatre, poetry and politics in her life, education and language, ambition and activism.

It is a wide-ranging, candid, generous and totally engaging read that offers insight into Evaristo’s character, influences, personal relationships and writing processes. I wonder if she had any hesitation or misgivings about some of what she has included?

“I asked myself ‘am I going to be self-protective or am I going to open up a bit?’ And I thought I had to open up a bit because what is the point in writing a memoir protecting yourself and not revealing anything,” she says. “I wanted people to feel like they know me better after reading the book.”

Evaristo’s parents came from very different backgrounds – her father was a Nigerian immigrant and her mother was the only child in a white working-class family. They met at a Commonwealth dance in central London in 1954, fell in love and – despite opposition – they married, going on to raise eight children. They were, Evaristo writes, ‘unstoppable in their love and determination to spend the rest of their lives together’.

“Writing this book, I thought on a new deeper level about my parents and how remarkable it was that they chose the life they did,” she says.

“My father experienced injustice and racism first hand but he also became involved in local politics – he was trying to make life better for other people. My mother rejected her background and chose to follow her heart. They were both socially and politically engaged; they were not content with accepting the status quo.”

Evaristo writes eloquently and affectionately about how her parents’ example shaped her own activism and commitment to social change. For many years she was a campaigning theatre maker.

After training as an actor at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama (now Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance) and specialising in community theatre, she founded the Theatre of Black Women, the first company of its kind, which devised and produced theatre that explored black female stories. Drama school was a hugely significant formative experience.

“It helped me to grow into my black identity and my feminist identity,” she says. “And to become a critical thinker. I was given the skills to think critically as an arts practitioner and that became a foundation for my career as a writer.”

She first encountered theatre as a teenager when she joined her local youth drama group – Greenwich Young People’s Theatre (now Tramshed). “In terms of my involvement with the arts, it began there and it changed my life,” she says.

“It was incredibly engaging and I loved it. It fired my imagination, there was a great community of children there and it was a very safe space.” It was a place where she could thrive.

As a mixed-race child, Evaristo and her seven siblings had to deal with racism at school, at church and even from some members of her own family. She writes unflinchingly about this in the book describing how ‘profoundly affected’ she was by it and how with time she ‘developed a self-protective forcefield… which persists to this day’.

“I sometimes catch sight of myself in shop windows and I think ‘you look fierce’ but I do think that is a survival technique that you have to adopt, especially brown people of my generation and earlier,” she says. “When I met my husband who is a white middle-class man, I noticed that he had none of those self-protective traits – he fits into society very easily, so he doesn’t have that carapace.”

As a writer Evaristo has always been fearless and not hemmed in by convention. She has moved between literary genres and forms, creating work absolutely on her own terms. She describes herself in the book as ‘a rebellious writer’, ‘a freedom lover and disobeyer of rules’. “Whenever I tried to be more conventional in my approach it didn’t work. I just had to accept that I need to do things differently.”

Girl, Woman, Other was Evaristo’s sixth novel and her eighth book. It became a Sunday Times number one bestseller spending 44 weeks in the top 10 and has now been translated into numerous languages, alongside many of her other books.

It brought her the recognition as a writer that she so clearly deserved and her work received the attention she has long desired for it. Evaristo was 60 when she won the Booker Prize, which she feels was “the perfect time”. “I have often been asked if I wished it had happened earlier,” she says. “I think it is amazing that it happened at all but I am really happy it happened when it did.”

She adds: “It is such a big prize it can blow people off track but at this stage in my career I already have a reputation and a backlist. I have a work ethic that has been built up over decades – I know what I want to explore as a writer and I know I will continue to write other books.

"There is sometimes a voice in my head that says ‘will they like my next book as much as Girl, Woman, Other?’ but I have to dispel those little devils. I have always written the books I wanted to write and that’s what I will do with the next one.”

Manifesto is out now. Bernardine Evaristo appears at Ilkley Literature Festival on Oct 14 - and at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield, on Oct 19