Freedom writer

Booker Prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo says it can be even harder now for young working-class kids to make something of their creativity while coping with the costs of living 

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More than two decades ago, long before copies of her books brightened up bookshop window displays, Bernardine Evaristo told herself she would win the Booker Prize.

“You’re probably going to have to get a job so your creativity is going to suffer.”

Then in her thirties, Evaristo had discovered “manifesting”, the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts into reality. She jotted down her wishes as truth – writing about them as though they had already happened. Evaristo wished for health, a happy relationship, a home of her own. And she had her eye on one of the most prestigious accolades in literature.

Looking back on the notes her younger self had written after her Booker win for novel Girl, Woman, Other in 2019, at the age of 60, Evaristo’s affirmations had indeed become a reality. She was the first Black British person and first Black woman to take home the award after jointly winning with Margaret Atwood for her follow-up of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments.

Evaristo was catapulted into overnight fame. After working for more than 40 years in the arts, she suddenly found herself being interviewed about her life. Unlike her co-winner, Evaristo was relatively unknown in the literary mainstream, despite the fact she had already published seven books and founded Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company in 1982.

The truth was Evaristo’s path to Booker fame was long and arduous. There had been racist abuse in her childhood, a coercive relationship with a woman twice her age in her twenties, temporary housing, and rejections and knock-backs along the way.

It made sense to Evaristo to write it all down. What follows is her memoir Manifesto: On Never Giving Up.

“I felt it made sense to write a nonfiction book because, for a start, that means the two books can’t be compared, which is a really good thing,” Evaristo tells Big Issue North. “And also, I had been talking a lot about my life. And I’d reached this point in my career where I’d broken through in a very big way. It made sense to reflect on that, and to also let people know about the journey that I’ve taken to reaching this point.”

Evaristo’s story starts in 1959 in South London. The fourth of eight children, she was born to a white British mother and a Nigerian father at a time when biracial families were singled out in predominantly white communities.

Remembering those early years, Evaristo writes: “My family endured the name-calling of children who parroted their parents’ racism, along with violent assaults on our family home by thugs who threw bricks at our windows on such a regular basis that as soon as they were replaced, we knew they’d be smashed again.”

Evaristo’s mother was a schoolteacher with an “earth mother vibe”, while her father was a welder and an authoritarian parent who believed children should be “seen and not heard”.

The racism Evaristo’s family experienced was endemic. She writes that the concept of “Black British” was considered a contradiction during her childhood. Evaristo and her siblings experienced racism on the streets and at school, but perhaps most heartbreakingly they felt the animosity from their maternal family.

Her mother’s family saw her parents’ marriage as an “abhorrent union” and the worst thing to ever happen to the family. Her grandmother remained a loving presence in her life, but Evaristo remembers she never put up photographs of any of her grandchildren in her house, except when Evaristo’s brother married a white woman.

“It’s something that I became aware of, probably when I wrote my book Lara, which is a semi-autobiographical novel about my family history. It was a very long time ago, so it’s hard to know what one was thinking at the time. But as a child, I think I probably didn’t register it. It’s just the way it was. It was only later that I was able to look at it and say: ‘Oh, that was odd, that was really odd.’

“We come from a culture where parents and grandparents and families have photographs of themselves often all over the place. My grandmother had one child, and that child had eight children, and she didn’t put images of us up in the house.”

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo jointly won the Booker Prize 2019
Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo jointly won the Booker Prize 2019. Photo: Simon Dawson/Alamy

Evaristo joined a youth theatre at the age of 12 and in 1982 co-founded the Theatre of Black Women with friends Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall. The three had recently left the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama, where they had trained as actors and theatre-makers on the community theatre arts course from 1979 to 1982. The company’s objective was to produce plays by and about Black British women at a time when parts for Black women were almost non-existent in theatre.

The company folded in 1988, at the same time Evaristo was involved in a controlling relationship with the woman she refers to in Manifesto as “The Mental Dominatrix” – TMD for short.

Looking back, Evaristo recognises the ways in which TMD dampened her creative spirit. She read Evaristo’s poetry out loud in her place at a spoken word event and talked her out of submitting a manuscript to publishers. Over the years she spent in the relationship Evaristo remembers how she lost the capacity to be independent and to think for herself.

Evaristo managed to escape and had to rebuild her life. Now, writing about her experiences in Manifesto, she says she didn’t set out to empower readers to recognise coercive patterns of behaviour in their own relationships, but if the book achieves that it’s a bonus.

“I think when people tell their stories of difficult times in their lives, whether it’s in relationships, or whether it’s experiencing discrimination, or whether it’s the struggle to be creative and solvent, whatever it is, when you talk honestly about that, you are going to communicate a certain thing to people who also have gone through those experiences or who are struggling,” she says.

“If writing about that abusive relationship opens doors for other people and maybe motivates them to leave toxic relationships or even to recognise when a relationship is toxic, and then to leave it before it gets too toxic, then I think that’s a really successful result. But that wasn’t what I was thinking when I was writing. When I was writing, I was thinking about how my creativity has been shaped by my life story.”

Part of that story was forged in the short-life housing where she was able to live cheaply in London during the 1980s and 1990s while honing her craft.

“It’s a big problem that we’re facing as a society,” says Evaristo. “If you think about drama, for example – drama schools became available for working-class students because it didn’t cost anything to go there. Now, of course, there are tuition fees, and then everything else on top of that, but this has meant that drama schools have become more middle class.

“It’s like that period of maybe 20 years where it was more inclusive, we’ve left that behind, and we’ve gone back to what they were like at the beginning.

“How do you live in a city, especially a city like London, and also have a creative life? The thing is that you’re probably going to have to get a job that is going to take up all your time, so your creativity is going to suffer.

“When I was around in the 1980s and 1990s there was a lot of very cheap accommodation. I was living very near Central London for a long time, because it was affordable. And there were all these schemes – so short-life housing, people also squatted or just shared houses. It was affordable. You could be a creative artist, and you could live in the capital city.”

Evaristo has been writing about the Black British experience for more than four decades, but it is only in recent years that the publishing world has started to promote more writers of colour. The release of Girl, Woman, Other, a novel that follows the lives of 12 characters, most of them Black women, coincided with a turning point in conversations about structural racism and white privilege, but Evaristo says there is
still work to do.

“It’s been very interesting the last couple of years, where [publishers] are catching up,” says Evaristo. “George Floyd’s murder was a turning point, I would suggest, for the publishing industry, because they really started listening to the argument that they weren’t diverse enough.

“And I would suggest that it took a long time because there have been campaigns for them to become more inclusive for a very long time.

“But today, I would say I’m more hopeful. I don’t think we’re going to go back to the way that the publishing industry was 10 years ago. But we have to keep up the campaigning so that they don’t slide back to being a very white industry, which excludes all kinds of communities, who should be there inside the publishing houses but should also be being published as well.”

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (Penguin) is out now. An Evening with Bernardine Evaristo, hosted by Jackie Kay and Manchester Literature Festival is available online until 30 Nov. (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk)

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