Writers & Company

Bernardine Evaristo on black British identity and her Booker-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other 

The award-winning British author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about amplifying the voices of marginalized people through literature.
Bernardine Evaristo is a British author who has written eight books. (Jennie Scott)
Listen to the full episode56:09

When Bernardine Evaristo won the Man Booker Prize in October 2019 for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, she was the first black British winner in the Booker's more than 50-year history. In a surprising move by the jury, the prize was shared with Margaret Atwood, marking the first split decision since 1992 — when Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth were both honoured.   

Girl, Woman, Other has garnered international acclaim for its ambitious storytelling. The novel follows the interconnected lives of 12 black British women, from ages 19 to 93, going back more than a century. Playwright Tom Stoppard named it his favourite novel of the year, for "changing [his] thinking." 

Born in London to an English mother and Nigerian father, Evaristo focuses on characters in the margins of mainstream history. Her previous books include Mr. Loverman, The Emperor's Babe and Lara, her semi-autobiographical novel-in-verse. 

She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London. 

Unapologetically Amma

"The character, Amma, in Girl, Woman, Other, is a woman in her late 50s, possibly early 60s. She's been in theatre for 40 years as a theatre director and a theatre maker. She ran her own theatre company called Bush Women Theatre for many years.

"She's always been somebody who would be considered working on the fringe — creating alternative theatre not occupying the main theatre spaces in the country. She has some degree of resentment about that. She's also somebody who has stuck to her principles and created the kinds of theatre that she wants to see from a black woman's perspective.

"Amma is an interesting character. She is somebody who is loosely based on my younger self when I was coming of age in the 1980s. I was also a theatre maker; I co-founded Britain's first black women's theatre company. We were out there putting on our own plays because nobody was going to employ us anyway.

"Amma is somebody who had a similar sort of start in her career to me, but stayed a marginalized figure."

Woman warriors

"I grew up in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s. We had a very white education system. It's changed somewhat now, but it was incredibly white. The history that we were taught was white British history. I had no sense, as the daughter of a Nigerian father and a white English mother, of African history. I didn't know it even existed. We weren't taught it. 

I had no sense, as the daughter of a Nigerian father and a white English mother, of African history. I didn't know it even existed.- Bernardine Evaristo

"My father didn't really know it himself to be honest. There were no books about African warriors, African queens or African kingdoms. In the 1980s, when I became really politicized —  and I started to dig deep and research into black history and African history — it was a revelation to discover that this continent, that had been really invisible in the British imagination in terms of its education system, was such a rich and varied place.

"To discover that there had also been powerful women as part of some of these African societies was absolutely mind blowing. When I decided that Amma was going to have a play premiere at the National Theatre, I thought that the subject matter that I could give her would be the theme of women warriors. In a way, she is a woman warrior herself —  she's somebody who has fought to lead a creative life, on her own terms, for so many years."

'Neither of us expected to win this,' the Canadian author said of her and her British co-winner's rule-defying victory. 0:57

Mixed-race and marginalized

"I grew up with a father who was quite patriarchal in the way he raised his children. He was a very strict disciplinarian. I'm not being critical of him because I understand fully now — coming from a family of eight children, mixed-race black children, growing up in the 1970s — that he had to be disciplinarian in order to protect us and keep us on the straight and narrow path. But it felt quite oppressive. He was quite punitive toward us and he didn't really know how to relate to us. 

The writers who struck a chord with me were African-American women writers; they were almost the only ones publishing anywhere in the world.- Bernardine Everisto

"When I went to drama school, which is now-called the Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance, I encountered other black women other than my sisters for the first time. We got together and became very politicized as a group because we could relate to all kinds of things about our backgrounds and our position in society that only we really understood.  

"That was a rich and exciting space to be in as a young woman of 19, who is beginning to understand that she's grown up in a society where she has been marginalized although she hasn't been able to articulate that.

"At the same time, I was being introduced to feminist literature, feminist poetry. The writers who struck a chord with me were African-American women writers; in the early 1980s, there was not a body of black British women's writing. So we looked to the American writers who were being published in the U.K. —  Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou and obviously Toni Morrison."

The emergence of black British literature

"As a British citizen of African ancestry, we are a minority in this country of 60 million people. I think there are less than two million of us — and even less of us who are born and raised in this country.

"I am a woman of 60. I have lived here all my life. For all of my adult life I have witnessed how culturally — and to a certain extent politically — certainly African-American culture has predominated and has been revered in a way that sort of British-born culture isn't. 

"I'm not saying there isn't a reason for that, particularly when you think about America and American history, the 400 years of continued presence of African-Americans and the way in which that society has evolved. It's very different to the UK.

"While we have this very deep history going back to the Romans, it's been a history where no single person can trace their lineage back, in terms of the African ancestry, to beyond the late 19th century. African-American culture is embedded, deep and a very rich culture. 

British publishers were not interested in publishing black British writers — and that only began to change in the late-1990s.- Bernardine Evaristo

"But it has meant that it has pushed aside the development of black British culture to a certain extent. That was definitely the case in the 1980s when all these amazing African-American women writers were published and the publishing industry was very excited by them.

"But they had, of course, achieved success in America before coming here. British publishers were not interested in publishing black British writers — and that only began to change in the late-1990s. We're still not there yet."

Bernardine Evaristo's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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