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Bernardine Evaristo at ILB 2022: “I grew up in a racist society”

British author Bernardine Evaristo was one of the big stars at this year's ILB. Here she reflects on growing up in the UK.

British author Bernardine Evaristo in Helsinki, Finland on 13th May, 2022. Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto

At age 60, British author Bernardine Evaristo became the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other in 2019. As one of the big draws at Berlin’s International Literature Festival 2022, she read passages from her most famous novel to a sold-out, 1000-strong audience of young people, before discussing her recent memoir Manifesto: On Never Giving Up with moderator Zara Rahman.

Here are some highlights from that discussion, in which Evaristo touches on internalised racism, her family history and winning the Booker in her seventh decade.

Bernardine Evaristo on Lara, her 1997 semi-autobiographical verse novel…

Lara, one of my earlier books, goes back about 150 years into my family history in Britain, as well as my father’s ancestry in Brazil and Nigeria. It looks at my experience of growing up mixed race in London in the 60s and 70s.

It explores key figures in my ancestry from my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents on my mother’s side. Digging into that history and having an understanding of who they were and also writing them as characters – getting inside their skin.

It gave me a really strong sense of my identity as a person coming from this very multicultural ancestry. By the time I finished it, I felt completely integrated into my identity as a person of mixed heritage, but also as a British Londoner. Somewhere in that I became unassailable in my identity, which has been the case ever since. And that was about 25 years ago. So, this book wasn’t really about me finding myself and my identity. It was more an exploration of who I am, of where I come from and my creativity.

But my father wasn’t a storyteller at all. He didn’t actually talk to his children – literally did not talk to us.

I grew up with my father and my mother, and my mother is a storyteller. And she’s the kind of person who if you ask her anything about history, she’s so happy to go into great detail. And I’ve probably inherited some of that storytelling from her. But my father wasn’t a storyteller at all. He didn’t actually talk to his children – literally did not talk to us. I probably had my first conversation with my father in my mid 20s. 

He was a figure of fear in our household. He had come from Nigeria in 1949 and struggled because he was at the forefront of really hostile racism in Britain. And he had left his culture behind and he believed that his children – my parents had eight children in 10 years – should be integrated into British society. He didn’t see the point of passing on his culture. The truth is, it was probably very difficult for him to do that. He was very busy: working, looking after eight kids, so it’s not like he was going to have time to sit down and pass on his Yoruba culture to us. 

But he didn’t pass anything on to us, really nothing. He didn’t teach us anything, any aspect of his language whatsoever. And so I grew up not not knowing anything about our heritage. My surname is a Portuguese surname. But until we were in our early 20s, we thought it was a Nigerian Yoruba surname because we didn’t know that my father had been part of the migration of Brazilians who’d returned to Africa after the end of slavery in 1888. 

When I tried to interview my dad, tried to talk to him about his history, he just didn’t tell me anything. You know, I discovered that his father had died before he was born. He didn’t actually know his father. But we had this photograph of my grandmother, which my father had, and his grandfather, and they’re beautiful photographs. 

My grandmother looked beatific, motherly, gorgeous and very, very young. And I wanted to know more about her. And when I asked him, he said she was very nice. And I said yeah, but what was she like? She was very nice and that was it. Literally that was it. 

So when I went to Nigeria for the first time in the early 90s and I asked the relatives about her, they couldn’t tell me anything apart from: She was very nice. 

That to me was very sad. I still feel the loss of not having known her, and also the loss of my father really not telling us about his culture. 

So you grow up in this society, as I said in the book, where everybody treats you differently, but actually you don’t know the culture they’re associating you with because you literally know nothing about it. 

London today is multi-culti… Back then, you were seen as alien, an outsider.

You don’t really belong. Even though you like the same bands, you read the same books, you wear the same clothes, you look different. Especially at that time. London today is multi-culti. It’s not utopia, but it’s very, very different [to how it was]. Back then, you were seen as alien, an outsider, and then you don’t have a culture to hold onto. So I think that was very alienating. 

Was the writing process different for Manifesto and when you’re writing fiction?

Very different, because when you’re writing nonfiction, there is no filter between you and the story you’re telling. Nothing is fictionalised, or it shouldn’t be. It might be dramatised, but it’s not fictionalised. It should be the truth as you know it. Of course, that truth depends on the perspective of whoever is revealing. I have seven siblings and my mother is still alive, so I have my truth about my childhood. A couple of them were reading it before it was published and they would disagree with me on things. But it was my truth.

I come from migrants, people who travelled from one country to another or from the city to the town, which was huge during the industrial revolution in the 19th century. And also I have a German great, great grandfather who arrived in Woolwich. The book made me meditate on what we inherit from our ancestors that we don’t know we’ve inherited.

There’s a little physical example. My grandmother had a particular gesture that she used to do, which I remember very well.

If you called her, and she wasn’t facing you, she kind of had this strange way of looking behind her. 

And then I noticed my mother does it. 

And then I noticed my sisters doing it. 

And then I was filmed for something: I noticed I was doing it. 

Now that is a physical manifestation of something hereditary. And I’m thinking, what else has been passed on that I don’t know? You know, that’s in our DNA? It’s in patterns of behaviour and that that was very, very interesting for me. 

With the book I also wanted to address living situations, because I had a very peripatetic life. For most of my adult life, I lived in lots of different homes. I didn’t have any money. I was always having to move on from one place to the next and I thought that was really interesting to look at in terms of my creativity.

I was committed to my creativity, which meant that I didn’t take a more conventional job, which meant I didn’t have much money, which meant that the answer was moving around. And one of the things I look at in the book, is how it kept me very alert and it nurtured my ambition. 

I’ve been with my husband since 2006, but until that point I had relationships with women.

I also look at relationships. It’s very interesting to look at ’cause I had lots of relationships. I’m married to my husband, we’ve been together since 2006, but until that point I had relationships with women. So there was my lesbian era, as I describe it. So I had all these relationships and I was very free and I look at how that helped me. I mean, this sort of prism I look at it through helped me understand human psychology, that the intimate relationships deepen your understanding of who we are as people. 

You’ve talked about how, after winning the Booker Prize, you felt much more free telling people things about your life. It’s usually the opposite. People tell everyone everything and they get famous and then they get more private. But did that change when you won? 

Yeah, it’s very strange. I don’t fully understand it myself to be honest. 

I have been a very private person. I’ve been with my husband David since 2006, but I never talked about him. He was just not in my life in a public way at all because I was very protective of the relationship , but then I suddenly didn’t feel self protective about it at all. 

But you’re right, you know, sometimes people do break through into the mainstream and then they learn to be very private, whereas I have been very private for a very long time and then I felt I could be more open about myself. 

Bernardine Evaristo at a photocall for the 2019 Booker Prize shortlisted authors, at the South Bank centre in London. Photo: IMAGO / PA Images /Matt Crossick/Empics

Now I’m 63. As an older woman, I thought it was really important to show people that I’ve had this really long, I think a very interesting life, very creative life. 

People said to me: don’t you wish you’d won this earlier? But actually, no. It happened because I never gave up. 

Do you think if you were coming up in 2022 as a budding writer you’d have a very different experience?

I think the the writers coming through now just don’t know they’re born, really. 

It’s the best time ever for Black writers in Britain and Black women to be published and women of colour generally, people of colour generally in Britain.

That’s not to say this is going to be embedded in the culture, which is what we want. We want it to be not a fashion or trend, but for it to be part of literary culture, but certainly the last few years and even before George Floyd, suddenly publishers were realising that there were demographics that they were ignoring and. 

You know, we use this term ‘underrepresented writers’, and that includes queer writers, working-class writers, neuro-diverse writers, writers of colour, writers that have traditionally been excluded from the publishing industry. 

With exceptions, of course, because there are always token gestures. There have always been one or two writers of colour who’ve done very well. You know, one or two Black women who’ve done very well, but the industry thought that was enough, you know, and then the the rest were kind of ignored. 

So the doors have opened, the publishing industry is interrogating itself and also looking at making sure that the workforce is diversified. At every level. 

Because what often happens with the arts is that the the producers, the gatekeepers are often still white but the artists aren’t. 

There was this assumption before that if you write a book and you’re a Black person that only Black people are interested in reading it, and that’s nonsense. 

But for the system to really change, then we need to really be inside the Citadel, operating at every level, commissioning editors, chief executives.

Are there things as an activist that you have in your sights? Like these are the things that we need to get done? 

I think as a writer of colour, you’re always the person being asked what the solutions are. And racists and white people will say, what can we do not be racist? It’s like, well, why don’t you ask yourself that question?

One of those areas is you talk about your own internalised racism as a child. How did you get over it?

I grew up in a racist society. I internalised it. My father was a very dark-skinned Nigerian man and I was ashamed of him, you know, to be seen out with him. I was ashamed once I became aware, you know? Probably at the age of maybe 8-9 onwards. 

I was embarrassed to be seen with him. But my father was, he really was the embodiment of everything that was racist about this society. And I remember I would cross the road to pretend I hadn’t seen him. I didn’t want to be associated with him, but I didn’t understand why.

For a long time I didn’t, but now I understand it was because I was I was suffering from internalised racism, and there were no positive images of black people in Britain at that time. 

My father was a very dark-skinned Nigerian man… and I was ashamed to be seen out with him. 

If you look at our current Tory government, if you look at the Cabinet, there are about seven people of colour. The Chancellor of Exchequer is a man whose family is from Ghana. It’s extraordinary. 

Back then the only time we really saw Black people in the press or on television was like Michael Jackson, you know, maybe African American entertainers. Or if somebody was a criminal. 

Now we have somebody called Edward Enninful, who’s this incredible editor of British Vogue. He’s been the editor for five years. He has revolutionised the depiction of women of colour in Vogue. Until his appointment we were almost completely invisible in the fashion industry. His predecessor who was there for 25 years, and I think she she published about 300 issues, and she only had I think six women of colour on the cover in that time. 

He has brought women of colour to the forefront and because it is the fashion Bible, it’s had a ripple effect. 

In my childhood blackness was ugly. If you are Black, you are ugly. 

If you even if you are mixed-race, you are ugly. Growing up in a society where there is nothing validating you as a person of colour, you internalise it. 

With your Booker Prize-winning book Girl, Woman, Other, the male characters are relatively weak. Could you speak a little about that and explain your process for the book?

The women are the centre of attention. I bring them to life. 

You get inside their skin, you know their mind, you know their emotional world, you know their history, you know their relationships. The men are marginal to that. So I don’t think they’re necessarily weak. I just think that I haven’t realised them as much.

In fact, Roland, who is the gay father of Yaz. He did actually have his own section in the book, and I really loved Roland because he was just so funny and quite ridiculous. But my publisher, when we came to editing it said you know, this is really a book about women and the non-binary character so he throws it out of whack. So as much as it pained me his section was was taken away from. 

It took a long time to write the book, 12 characters. I sort of created this style, which I call fusion-fiction. Not many full stops, and I had to juggle all these different characters. All of them were written separately to each other. You know, so I’d start on one character and then move to the next. Some of them were easier to write than others. 

And then one character would lead to another – I didn’t know who these characters would be at the start.

I had to make it very easy to read and it had to be logical. It had to make sense and that was really hard because it was very messy in its early stages. And I actually needed my editors to help me kind of get the timelines right.

The process at the beginning was quite exhilarating because I removed the full stops and I didn’t stop, literally. Just kept going. 

It allowed me to do various things with the characters, and it allowed the novel to be a novel and not a book of short stories. And then one character would lead to another character – I didn’t know who these characters would be at the start.

But you know, I would start with the daughter and then the mother would appear in her story and then I think, OK, the mother has their own section.  And I knew that I wanted it to be a wide scope in terms of ages, cultural backgrounds, preoccupations, sexuality, all of those things, so that you just felt something of the infinite possibility of who we are. 

Read more from ILB 2022: Jay Bernard: “I’m haunted by history but I also haunt it back”