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Manifesto: Unalloyed insights into the making of a writer

Book review: Bernardine Evaristo’s memoir is a moving and highly readable account of a creative life

Bernardine Evaristo: “The idea of black British writing wasn’t just marginalised, it was barely on the radar of a literature sector that couldn’t quite grasp that such a demographic existed.” Photograph: Penguin
Manifesto: On Never Giving Up
Manifesto: On Never Giving Up
Author: Bernardine Evaristo
ISBN-13: 978-0241534991
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Guideline Price: £14.99

Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo’s new memoir, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, offers unalloyed insights into the making of a writer, illuminating the artistic journey of the author in an important and refreshing perspective on publishing and creativity in Britain in the last 40 years.

“Preparing to write this book, I dug out some letters I’d written to myself as a record of my life at particular times,” she writes of self-correspondence whose contents augment her memory of her father, a Nigerian of Brazilian heritage who had sailed to Britain on the Good Ship Empire in 1949.

Also referenced are letters that serve as a “written record” of a fondly remembered relationship with a woman she had met in Amsterdam. And letters to Nigerian relatives, and school reports that in their own way foretold the future; and photos proving she didn’t quite blend into the background at the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre as she recalled, but got her time in the spotlight. “Ah, fickle memory!” she marvels.

It is the kind of openness that enlivens this exhilarating memoir about how the author rose to the pinnacle of the publishing world at the age of 60 – as joint winner of the Booker in 2019 for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. She recalls the moment – shared with Margaret Atwood – in Manifesto, indulging none of the controversy about why the first black woman of the prize had to share the accolade. Simply, for Evaristo, “It was a landmark historical moment for literature and for the sisterhood.”


Sisterhood has always been important. “My female friendships – reliable, steadfast, communicative, appreciative – sustained me and kept me emotionally afloat, and vice versa,” she writes. Evaristo had cofounded the Theatre of Black Women with friends in the 1980s, in a less inclusive theatre environment. Earlier, coming out of school after studying Community Theatre Arts, she had surveyed the scene and judged that “the future looked bleak”.

Everything she has done in four decades in the arts - from poetry to theatre and fiction writing – has been to push against closed doors and limited horizons, rendering herself unstoppable. It is a word that comes up several times in Manifesto – unstoppable. “I said I felt unstoppable, because it struck me that I had been just this, ever since I left my family home at eighteen to make my own way in the world.”

Evaristo grew up in a large household that endured racism, with bricks thrown at the windows on a regular basis. When she was 15, three-fourths of her classmates said in a survey that they would not like to live next to “coloured” families. “There was nothing in the British society of my suburban childhood that endorsed the concept of blackness as something positive,” she writes.

With remarkable candour and humour, she charts her family’s history, her artistic trajectory from youth theatre to poetry and beyond, and a movable feast of lovers of both sexes in a romantic life whose ambition veers towards the epic. At every point, she ties it all back to how these experiences have made her the writer she is today.

“My creative life has been inextricably interwoven with my romantic entanglements with other people those for whom I have stored up reservoirs of emotion and released gallons of tears,” she reflects. The confluence is evident in one toxic relationship, where getting away from the domineering partner becomes a fight for personal as well as creative autonomy – the freedom to be, to write.

Manifesto is a moving and highly readable account of a creative life, atomizing the hard graft of writing as experienced by an author who was growing up at a time when the term, “Black British” was seen as an oxymoron. As she recalls, “The idea of black British writing wasn’t just marginalised, it was barely on the radar of a literature sector that couldn’t quite grasp that such a demographic existed, or was worthy of publishing. Editors told black writers that there was no market for our voices, which demonstrates the extent of our marginality.”

Evaristo persevered and eventually triumphed, thanks to the sheer refusal to take no for an answer, what she calls her “unstoppability gene”. Girl, Woman, Other has now sold more than a million copies in every format.

While there is much more to be done to open up the space for a more diverse publishing industry, Manifesto is a timely reminder of just how far we have come.