“My husband wants to keep me grounded. He sees that as his mission,” laughs Bernardine Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize last month for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. “You don’t have to keep me grounded. I’ve had a long life, I’m very grounded!”
Evaristo’s novel famously – perhaps notoriously – shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a move by the judges which has resulted in more column inches, flashing pixels and perturbed tweets than any Booker Prize award in recent memory. The thrust of opinion has been that by making the first black British winner, and the first black female winner, share the prize, the judges have diminished both book and author, insulted them almost.
“I don’t feel that,” says Evaristo firmly. “I don’t see it as half a prize. It’s shared and it’s joint, but it’s also mine.” And in any event, she adds, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have won it with Margaret Atwood, because I did win it with her, and the whole thing is completely surreal anyway. You know, I’m going about my daily life, and maybe I’m getting in a bit of a grump about something, and I’ll say, ‘Bernardine, Bernardine, you’ve won the Booker, chill out!’”
It’s fair to say that Evaristo, after almost 40 years professionally in the arts, is thrilled to be in this position. It is about four weeks after the win when we speak and “I haven’t come back down to earth yet, I’m enjoying every moment of it. I’m 60 years old, hell I’m enjoying every moment of it!” And she hasn’t become bored with talking about the novel that catapulted her into the literary A-list, which has just been released in the US a month earlier than planned and with five times the original print run, to capitalise on the appetite among readers keen to see why it has had so much praise in the UK and Ireland.
Girl, Woman, Other was the sensation of the Booker shortlist and a testament to the power of prizes. It was little-reviewed before it was shortlisted, but immediately afterwards became both a critical and popular favourite, in this paper and others, and on the social media circuit. And yet, says Evaristo now, when she started writing the book in 2013, its ambitious story of 12 mostly black women in the UK from the turn of the 20th century to the present day “was not the kind of book anyone was looking for”. Such lives, that is, didn’t seem likely to be of mainstream interest. However, she felt, “the culture had already started to shift halfway through the writing of the book, and I suddenly started to think, ‘Oh, maybe this book will be received differently’, because black women are suddenly on the agenda in a way that we haven’t been before apart from a few token gestures. So perhaps this book will find its readership.” And find its readership it did, with some help from the Booker judges.
The appeal of Girl, Woman, Other is manifold. It tells stories we aren’t used to hearing – “the hidden histories of [the UK]”, as she puts it today – including some which Evaristo found challenging to write, like Grace who was born in 1895 (“I found it hard to imagine her life”) or the transgender character Megan (“It’s a really sensitive subject”). But it tells their stories in a fluid, funny, pleasurable way. We talk about the importance of comedy in Evaristo’s work. “When you’re writing serious books with humour, if you open the reader up to humour, you’re also opening them up everything else that’s in the book.” In Girl, Woman, Other, for example, the character of Amma, a radical theatre director, complains about the “gentrification” of Brixton, and it takes her daughter Yazz to point out that she was one of the first creators of that gentrification. The humour arises “from recognising the contradictory nature of who we are as people”.
She wasn’t always driven to entertain readers. “In my 20s, I was writing poetry and writing for theatre and I was very serious. I drank too much and I smoked too much and I wanted to make people cry with my writing!” Then, in her 30s, “something happened and I just lightened up”. Now, “if there is no humour, I feel my writing doesn’t work in some way”. Rather than literary sources, she cites early French and Saunders sketches as an influence on her comic writing.
In Girl, Woman, Other, the comedy – and drama – is enhanced by the form the book takes. It is written largely without full stops, in lines that float semi-anchored on the page. Evaristo calls it “fusion fiction”, while critics have likened it to free verse or prose poetry. Described like this it may sound fussy, but it is welcoming, flexible and soon unnoticed, and Evaristo expertly uses line length and paragraph breaks to deliver punchlines and turn each character’s story. Her combination of reader-friendliness and formal innovation brings to mind the work of Ali Smith. “I love her work,” says Evaristo. “Her voice is so free but there’s so much complexity and depth and richness and playfulness and everything.”
Evaristo is conscious, and proud, of her own place as a literary innovator. “How many black experimental writers can you name? In terms of form, who is doing that?” She has been writing in a bold fusion of styles from the start of her career. After a collection of poems (Island of Abraham), her first novel Lara (1997) was written in verse, and took in her family heritage in England, Nigeria, Ireland, Germany and Brazil. Her mother was quarter-Irish (Evaristo’s maternal grandmother came to England from Birr, Co Offaly, at the end of the 19th century), and the book takes in the English subjugation of Ireland, including the Famine, but she doesn’t claim any Irish influence on her writing. “I can’t say that at all.”
Another verse novel followed, the lively, funny and anarchically anachronistic The Emperor’s Babe (2001), about a Sudanese woman in Roman Britain. Its epigraph from Oscar Wilde – “the one duty we owe history is to rewrite it” – might be a manifesto for Evaristo’s fiction. However she is not so much rewriting as rehighlighting, by showing us what was really always there: in the case of The Emperor’s Babe, “a black presence in Roman Britain at the beginning of the third century AD, a legion of Moors stationed at Hadrian’s Wall”, which she first read about in Peter Fryer’s book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. “I was delighted but also shocked that we didn’t know this.”
Why is the past important to her fiction? “I think history gives us a sense of our identity as a people and a nation, and if we’re not included in that history, there’s a sense of lack and loss.” Her next novel Soul Tourists is her least well-known: when I admitted I hadn’t heard of it before her Booker win, she laughed, “Nobody has!” In some ways it is her most radical book, combining prose, poetry and script elements, all in the service of a road trip featuring a comically mismatched couple bickering their way across Europe and encountering the ghosts of historical people of colour.
The fluency and fluidity of Evaristo’s voice seems to owe something to her background in theatre: chiming with her character Amma in Girl, Woman, Other, she set up Theatre of Black Women in the 1980s – it “seemed radical, but all we were doing was creating art on our own terms”. She is “very interested in black women and achievement and success and career trajectories.” She explores this particularly in Girl, Woman, Other in the story of Carole, a city banker from a working-class family, who has to abandon her culture to progress. “What is the cost to them of reaching whatever destination they get to?” Does Evaristo feel that she herself has now “made it”? “I’ve never really felt mainstream, but [having won the Booker] I can no longer say I’ve been marginalised!” She laughs.
Part of the narrative around her Booker win was that Evaristo had been plucked from obscurity – though who isn’t obscure next to Margaret Atwood? – and she acknowledges that “in terms of the wider population, most people don’t know my work” but is delighted that “my backlist is going to be revitalised and people are going to pay attention to the seven other books”. When she won the Booker Prize, one of her first expressions of thanks on stage was to her editor and publisher, Simon Prosser of Hamish Hamilton, joking that she had never made him much money. Today she is full of praise for Prosser, whom she has worked with for almost 20 years. “He has never tried to make my work more orthodox or traditional in form or subject matter. He’s always worked with my creative impulses.”
‘Warmth and wit’
For his part, Prosser recalls, via email, that “I heard Bernardine before I saw her – on stage at the Cobden Working Men’s Club in North Kensington. Her unique style was recognisable even then – the flow and bounce of ordinary speech made memorable and poetic, the warmth and wit of her characterisation, the combination of high and low, funny and serious. I loved it.”
Evaristo and Prosser continue to work together. After The Emperor’s Babe and Soul Tourists came Blonde Roots (2008), a satire that reimagined slavery with white people being sold and enslaved by Africans, and was her first novel written fully in prose (“I’d been trying to write a prose novel for years and not succeeding!”). Her novel immediately before Girl, Woman, Other was Mr Loverman (2013), a charming and moving story of a 74-year-old man who, unknown to his wife, has been in a relationship with his best friend Morris for 60 years. As with Girl, Woman, Other, she found it relatively easy to write, at least to begin with (“2½ years, which is quick for me”). But she is never not writing; it is “absolutely” essential. “If I go for long stretches without writing creatively I really feel something missing in my life. It’s my DNA, it’s why I exist.”
Outside her writing, Evaristo has been a longstanding advocate for inclusion in literature, having founded a prize, opened an agency and set up conferences dedicated to helping under-represented groups. Novelist Nikesh Shukla observes “how exceptionally generous [Evaristo is] as a writer, mentor and person-who-holds-the-ladder-for-people-coming-up. So many of us owe her so much.” Even now, in the glow of her Booker Prize win, she is thinking about how it can benefit others. “I think winning the Booker will open publishers up to more of that kind of experimentation from people of colour.”
To reach the top of your profession is one thing, but to do it while retaining the respect of your peers and the next generation of writers: that’s a real achievement.