In conversation with Bernardine Evaristo

Posted on 14 December 2021

In the last of our Mishcon Academy series of the year, Jenna Oppong sat down with British award-winning author, teacher, and activist Bernardine Evaristo, to discuss her latest projects and first non-fiction book Manifesto: On Never Giving Up.

The discussion focuses on:

  • How to be unstoppable
  • Her journey to becoming a trailblazing writer, teacher and activist
  • How her interest in the African diaspora has influenced her writing and projects
  • Favourite genre of books, poetry, essays
  • Being the first black British person in fifty-years to win the Booker Prize in 2019.
  • What it is like being a professor of Creative writing at Brunel University London.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Jenna Oppong

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session.  I’m Jenna Oppong and I will be hosting today’s event.  I am delighted to welcome Bernardine Evaristo to the Mishcon Academy.  Bernardine is an internationally renowned author of ten books, a Professor of creative writing at Brunel University, an editor, critic, poet, mentor and literary activist.  Bernardine activism for inclusion in the arts for people of colour has seen her amongst other things co-found theatre of black women, Britain’s black women’s theatre company, create The Complete Works, a mentoring programme for poets of colour and established a Brunel International African poetry prize.  Bernardine is well-known for her eight books of fiction focussing on stories of the diaspora and won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her eighth novel, Girl, Woman, Other, making her the first black woman and first black British person to win the prize in its 50 year history.  She was also awarded the British Book Awards Fiction of the Year and Author of the Year and the book placed number 1 in the Sunday Times Best Seller for five weeks making her the first woman of colour to achieve this position in the paperback fiction chart spending a total of forty four weeks in the top 10.  Bernadine was also recently appointed the President of the Royal Society of Literature for the term 2022-2026 making her the first writer of colour and second female President in the Society’s 200 year history.  Bernadine tells us about her journey to becoming unstoppable and making history in her first non-fiction book, Manifesto on Never Giving Up, which was published in October 2021.  The New Statesman summarised the book perfectly and I quote, “Manifesto is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest book about never giving up even when it feels like you are writing into a void.  It is also meditation on personal transformation, cultural and equalities, activism, belonging, love and friendships and above all, the power of creativity.”  Welcome Bernardine.

Bernardine Evaristo

Hi, good to be here, good to talk to you.

Jenna Oppong

Thank you so much. I think the best place to start is why did you decide to write about your life experiences and why now?

Bernardine Evaristo

Well you know, as you mentioned I won the Booker Prize in 2019 and I you know, I’ve been around a very long time, I began in theatre in 1982 and there was so much media interest in me that I was talking a lot about my life.  I literally have given hundreds of interviews in the last two years and people were interested in where I had come from, my, my background in the arts, just everything about me really in terms of my professional life and when it came to deciding about the next book I would publish with my publisher, I, I wasn’t planning to write a memoire but I thought it would be perfect to write down some of the things I had been exploring and talking about during, during these interviews and also, so people who don’t know me and a lot of people didn’t know me, it would show them how I got to this position and the journey I have taken to reaching this position and I thought it might surprise people.  You know, there are aspects of my life over the last forty years but also my childhood that wouldn’t necessarily lead to this point that I have arrived at with my career and so it just felt like the perfect book to follow on from Girl, Woman, Other because also Girl, Woman, Other has been you know, hugely successful and it is quite hard to follow a book like that you know, because people will have huge expectations for me or for the book and so I thought well I’ll just… I won’t produce a book that can be compared…

Jenna Oppong

Right.

Bernardine Evaristo

…to Girl, Woman, Other.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

But it is a book that actually can contribute to the context of Girl, Woman, Other.

Jenna Oppong

You mentioned your childhood so starting from the beginning then, what was it like growing up?  You were one of eight children raised by a black father, Nigerian father and a white English mother, what was it like growing up?

Bernardine Evaristo

I grew up in a place called Woolwich which is rapidly becoming gentrified now but it was certainly just the sort of working class south-east London town and we were as you say a family of eight children.  Woolwich at that time was a very white area, anybody who knows Woolwich today will recognise it as one of London’s most multi-cultural districts but actually it wasn’t like that and my father was literally the only black man in the village for most of my childhood and it was, it was yeah, it was complicated because we stood out as a family.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

You know, this inter-racial family in this white suburban area where you know, as I say in the book, racism was still legal you know, for the first seventeen I think years of my life so people could behave exactly as they pleased and they did, you know and my father was at the front… on the front line of racism especially when he arrived in 1949 during the 50s and 60s and I think, I think young people today probably don’t have that perspective because things have changed so much since my childhood and of course there are a lot of mixed race people in this city now.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

Let alone it being a very multi-cultural city and actually to a certain extent a multi-cultural country so, so I think one of the defining things of my childhood was growing up in a family where you felt like an outsider and you were treated as outsiders by the people around you.  So they used to smash our windows in for example.

Jenna Oppong

Wow.

Bernardine Evaristo

For no other reason that we were you know, a black family and… but that was just part of my childhood, that’s something we just lived with and through.

Jenna Oppong

You’ve obviously started the first theatre for black women, what lead to you deciding to do that?

Bernardine Evaristo

Yeah so, 1982 I left drama school – where you even born then?  No?

Jenna Oppong
 
No.

Bernardine Evaristo

Yes, grandma’s in the house.  It was, like I said, it was very different, it was very different to today, we are not living in a Utopia obviously that doesn’t exist but, but it was very different to today and there was very little work for black actors in this country and my generation known as the second generation of people who either had one or two immigrant parents who had come from the former colonies, we, we trained to be actors but then there was literally hardly anything available for us in the industry, either on television or in theatre and definitely not in film.

Jenna Oppong

Right.

Bernardine Evaristo

So I was at drama school with five black women in my year, I was one of five and that was revolutionary for that time because drama schools didn’t like to accept people of colour because they said, ‘well there’s no work for you so we are not going to train you’, right and in actual fact there is something I mentioned in the book, Michaela Cole, everybody knows Michaela Cole now.  When she went to Guildhall she was the first black person in five years right and she was there not that long ago.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah. 

Bernardine Evaristo

So that’s shocking.  So even though the situation when I was applying to drama school was really difficult, it would I would say, probably only started to change in the last few years.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

And certainly not when she was at drama school.  So, so there were five of us and you know how it is, we kind of got together and then when we left we thought why don’t we create our own theatre company.  Initially we wrote and acted ourselves and then we employed other people and then after about six years it folded for various reasons and… but it had served its purpose for the time and it was the first time there was a theatre dedicated to black women and we had a lot of opposition to what we were doing.

Jenna Oppong

Wow.

Bernardine Evaristo

So people said, ‘why are you separating yourselves’ and you know, ‘why, why…’ – we were feminist and people would say, ‘well feminism is a white disease’ for example and the sort of general mainstream of theatre completely I would say, ignored us, you know, we were the dirt under their feet so we, we really did feel like this marginal kind of cultural theatre company struggling to, to be heard in a society that was essentially quite hostile to us.

Jenna Oppong

It seems that, that was the first time where you had formed something to deal with the under representation of black people in the arts and your body of work interestingly does focus on the African diaspora and marginalised voices.  Would you say then that your literary activism and your storytelling are one and the same or separate strands of your career?

Bernardine Evaristo

They come from the same roots.

Jenna Oppong

Right.

Bernardine Evaristo

So as a writer I am very interested in the African diaspora.

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

And that’s what I explore in every way imaginable, past, present and what else do I say, past, present, real, imagined and people, people sometimes say to me, ‘are you going to go beyond that’ you know, ‘are you going to, are you going to stop writing these black stories’ as if, as if whiteness is, is some kind of objective, that’s the objective default that we should all aspire to.

Jenna Oppong

Right.

Bernardine Evaristo

And that when you are writing about black lives somehow it’s a niche interest that you should at some point get over as if there aren’t over a billion Africans in the world.

Jenna Oppong

Exactly.

Bernardine Evaristo

Well over a billion Africans in Africa and then you talk about the diaspora and blackness is as, as multiple and heterogeneous as any other so-called race in our society so for me exploring blackness through all the different ways that I do is about exploring the huge possibility of who we are in the world.  That absence of our voices in literature traditionally, originally in the arts is also the route of my, of my activism you know, wanting to create projects and initiatives that give people of colour opportunities where we have been under represented for a very long time.

Jenna Oppong

You have a very unconventional style of writing which of course has led to you winning the Booker Prize.  I want to talk about the fact that you mention you’re an experimental writer, what does that mean?

Bernardine Evaristo

So I do things differently.  So an experimental writer is somebody who doesn’t follow any of the sort of traditions that exist in literature and Girl, Woman, Other for example, is I call it a fusion fiction, it’s an invented term to describe the form that I use to tell the story but almost all of my books are experimental and that really has its roots in the fact that when I started writing for theatre I didn’t feel part of the establishment, theatre world in this country.  I didn’t feel that it, I didn’t feel that I was part of any traditions in this country and I didn’t feel that I wanted to aspire to write according to any of the conventions that existed at that time.  So the only thing to do from my point of view was to try and find a different way to tell the stories that I wanted to tell as a theatre maker and then that has also spilled over into my, into my books.
Jenna Oppong

Was it a possibility when writing Girl, Woman, Other that you said this might be the book to win the Booker?

Bernardine Evaristo

I, I, what I thought was because this book took over five years to write and I was thinking when I started it, nobody was interested in black women’s stories right, there really wasn’t a lot of interest and… but Me Too happened in Black Lives Matter.  Suddenly the conversation changed and you know, and social media kind of exploded as well so people were forming communities on social media and the kind of so-called kind of like, traditional media was being side-lined to a certain extent in terms of these conversations and then it started listening to social media so, so this was happening during the writing of the book and so at one point I thought if this book doesn’t, doesn’t kind of land more than my other books have landed in the past then something’s wrong because it felt like it was capturing the zeitgeist.

Jenna Oppong

In terms of Manifesto on Never Giving Up you obviously talk about all parts of your life. Were there any bits that you found a hard time writing or disclosing?

Bernardine Evaristo

I really like it when artists are very frank and open about their lives.  I thought with this book I want people to know who I am to a certain extent and so I did go there with it but I had to make a decision at one point that I would.

Jenna Oppong

Okay.

Bernardine Evaristo

But I am still withholding 20 or 30%.

Jenna Oppong

If it’s okay I will take one question from our Zoom audience and so Shamantka asks, ‘what is the first classic novel you ever read?’

Bernardine Evaristo

You see it depends on what, is that she?

Jenna Oppong

Yeah.

Bernardine Evaristo

What she means by classic you see because there is the sort of what people would consider to be the sort of cannon, the western cannon of literature and then there are alternative cannons.  So I think the first classic book I read was The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta which is a book written in the 80s I think and she was a Nigerian writer and she arrived in Britain in 1960 and she published about twenty novels and she’s been well overlooked and her books are classics.  They are classic texts of world literature.  So I want to say Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood which is an amazing novel about a woman growing up in Nigeria in a very traditional society as colonialism comes in and society changes and it’s also about her fate as a woman in that society and a mother.

Jenna Oppong

The final question before we close is going to be, are there any up and coming authors we should be looking out for?

Bernardine Evaristo

Yes.  So up and coming…

Jenna Oppong

Or any authors that you think we should be reading their work.

Bernardine Evaristo

…any authors, well you should read Diana Evans whose, she’s no longer up and coming but she’s published three, three novels now and she’s just the most amazing writer, British writer.  There is also Roger Robinson who’s a poet who won the T S Elliot Prize three years ago with his book, Portable Paradise, just the most beautiful, exquisite poetry.  Sara Collins is a new novelist who is publishing great works.  Irenosen Okojie, another writer, very, very interesting magic realist writer, yeah those are just some of the names.

Jenna Oppong

Thank you so much and thank you Bernardine for joining the Mishcon Academy today.  Please can we all give Bernardine a round of applause.

Bernardine Evaristo

Thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


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