Bernardine Evaristo: "People expect tragedy. I give them reality."
The award-winning British author's bestseller Girl, Woman, Other is being published in German. We met to discuss the future of literature for Black writers.
Berlin-British author Bernardine Evaristo broke into the literary mainstream when her novel Girl, Woman, Other won the prestigious Booker Prize - making her the first Black woman to do so. The German translation of her book (Frau, Mädchen, etc.) is about to hit the shelves. We met her - via Zoom - to talk about politics, funny women, and of course her book.
Bernardine Evaristo, people often mention that you are the first Black woman to win Britain's most important literary prize. Does that mean a lot to you?
It matters a lot. It's about the value the judges place on the literature, because there are always really great books that could win the Booker that don't win. Some of those books have been by Black writers in the past, British writers, women, and they haven't won because other books won. It's not as if we haven't produced the work, it's just that the judges haven't chosen the work. The year I won it, there were four women judges and two women of colour. It made a difference, I think. But as I said at the time, it was bittersweet because obviously it shouldn't have taken 50 years. What I said when I accepted the prize was that I hope it wasn't going to be too long before another Black woman won it.
The Black Lives Matter movement has grown immensely in the past year, but has been growing for several years now. Do you think the fact Black authors are better received now has anything to do with that?
I think the first Black Lives Matter movement was about 2014, and I think that didn't have the same impact as the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. But suddenly last summer, the institutions, the publishers really were waking up to the fact that they hadn't done very well with Black writers or even Black people working within the industry. Books are written into a particular culture at the time, and the culture at this time is one that is more receptive than it's ever been to Black women and women of colour. Those outside voices are coming to the fore now, and I am one of those outside voices, even though I'm now kind of establishment as well - but what I write about are the marginalised in our society.
You often say you have a radical heart. How much does it hurt to now talk about yourself as part of the establishment?
You know, I can't say anything other than that about myself, because if I say I'm an outsider, everyone is going to look at me and think she's mad, because that completely changed when I won the Booker - just in terms of book sales and the recognition that I get. I'm winning other awards and also the various positions I hold; I'm an honorary fellow at Oxford University and president of a drama school. All these things are really establishment positions, so I have to claim it. But as I say to everybody, I am in the establishment, but my radical heart still beats. I'm not there to endorse the status quo. I'll try and change things from within through my writing, obviously, and through everything else that I do.
Winning the Booker as a Black woman is like pushing the door open further for other Black women. Do you think it will be much easier for them to be published in mainstream fiction now?
I think it's been happening for a few years - not enough though. The thing is, when something like this happens to me, people think that's it, now Black women have broken through, but that's not reality. Zadie Smith became a huge star 20 years ago, but it wasn't as if then lots of Black women were published. It's really important that we keep up the lobbying to make sure that more Black women are published.
How do you go about that?
I'm part of the Black Writers’ Guild, which was set up in the summer as a new organisation. For the first time, publishers are being held to account by this organisation and it has about 200 Black writers on its membership. So more Black women are going to be published - they have been recently - and they are going to be published for sure. But we need to make sure that this is a permanent situation and not a passing phase.
Your book Girl, Women, Other, which won you the Booker Prize, has been a huge bestseller. Let’s talk about that title. Who are the “others”?
The German translation is “etc.”, because they said there wasn't a direct translation of “other”. The “other” in this book is the fact that there are women, because women are othered in our society in some contexts, because we're still living in a patriarchy and we have characters who are othered because they are people of colour. It might be because of their sexuality, their gender or class or immigration status. All of those kinds of othering are happening in the book.
The German translation, Mädchen, Frau etc., translated by Tanja Handels, is published by Tropen Verlag, Berlin 2021.
About the author: Bernardine Evaristo was born in London in 1959 as the fourth of eight children. She has been writing for 40 years.
The title certainly sounds fitting, especially after reading the book. But it still wasn’t your first choice.
No, my original title was Afro-Saxon Amazons. But the first person I told said, well, it's like Amazon, the online retailer.
That was my first association too.
They took that name from the warrior women! They've hijacked that name and other people said it sounded too academic, but I loved it. I can't remember very clearly when I came up with this title, but it might have been in the last 18 months of writing it.
Both titles sound very feminist. Your characters talk a lot about Black feminism as well. Was this the audience you had in mind?
I tend not to have an audience when I write. I really try not to think about that because I discovered many years ago that if I did, that would then shape the work. I don't want the work to be shaped by anybody other than myself. I write the books that I want to write, and they will land where they land. That’s how I try to approach it.
And was that approach successful with this book?
This book is about Black women, and I also want it to be for Black women, even though I wasn't necessarily writing for Black women, if you see what I mean. But I was thinking, wouldn't it be lovely if this book could be a gift for Black women and people. A lot of Black women have said they feel seen in the book.
I realised when I read the book that I was entering a quite unfamiliar world to me, even though you portrayed 12 quite normal everyday characters. Am I just blatantly unaware of my surroundings or is this also a sign that modern day Britain or Germany is just not being portrayed in literature?
Britain isn't portrayed like this. I can't think of another Black British novel that has a theatre director and arts schoolteacher, a banker, a farmer, a barista. It's just not there. So it's not your ignorance as such.
Does it bother you that Black people must constantly educate white people about their lives and their privilege, or the absence of such?
It's also about the power of literature to introduce people to lives outside their own and to broaden our understanding of other communities around the world. This book has done that to open people up to some of the possibilities of Black British women's lives, and I think that's wonderful. But a lot of people have said to me that they found it educational, which I find very interesting. I don't object to that, but I didn't write it as an educational tool. I wrote it because I'm a creative person and I like to tell stories and I like to tell stories about the African diaspora.
It's noticeable that every article about you and your book focuses in particular on the theme of Blackness.
White people write about whiteness, but they don't say that. When you are in a minority, you spell out that this is what I'm doing. What you're doing is you're writing your white stories, but you don't call them your white stories. Because there are so few stories out there by and about us, that's what I was doing, and the characters were the characters from my imagination. The result has been that people feel really illuminated - they said to me things like the scales have fallen from their eyes. These are people living in London, which is a multiracial city, and yet they realise they don't really know the people around them. Some of them might even have Black cleaners, for example, but they don't know these people's lives. What this book has done is opened up their lives to them, to the reader and to me. That's a result, if you like.
Is that why it's been so successful?
I think that's part of it. But I also think that the characters do come alive in very real ways. There is so much diversity in the book among the women, all these different relationships and all the different ways in which the women are different from each other. There are lots of mother-daughter relationships in the book, main characters and subsidiary characters. That's always interesting to people. And I think possibly also the fact that there is humour and people don't expect the humour.
Because they don't think Black women can be funny?
People do still today say to me they expect it to be a book about suffering. Why? Why would you expect it to be a book about suffering? Because it's about Black women. If somebody says to you, I've written a book about 10 white women, you wouldn't think that. You'd think, oh, what's that about? But when it comes to Black lives, they expect tragedy and we're going to give them tragedy. I give them humour and I give them reality and lots of different aspects to people's lives. And yes, there is an element of suffering in some of them. But that is not the overriding atmosphere in the book.
So it was a very conscious choice for you that you didn't want to victimise them, even though your characters do experience rape and domestic violence?
I'm not interested in writing victims. Even though somebody might be a victim of circumstance in a particular situation, I want them to triumph over it, even if that triumph is through their personality. I don't like the victim story at all. It has been a bit of a trope in the past with African writing and some African-American writing that it's about Black suffering and Black suffering is not useful to anybody. They have obstacles, but they do overcome them.
I have two favourite characters in the book. Carole, who becomes more and more “white” the more successful she becomes, and Dominique, who as a confident woman gets trapped in a violent relationship. Do you have a character that’s particularly close to your heart?
They're all close to my heart. I'm a very good mother in that sense. But I do like Yazz in particular. She makes me laugh. Even though I'm her creator, I still find her entertaining. When I went on tour for the book, I would often read from Yazz. She's just a wonderful young woman. But then I also love Hattie.
She's 93, the oldest character in the book.
Exactly, 93 and formidable. She's an idealised character, someone who is of a great age, who has lived a really long and interesting life. She knew a deep love with her husband but lost him. But she is so independent and determined to stay where she is and not go anywhere. She's got a really strong mind.
The book starts with Amma, who seems to have an awful lot in common with you.
Amma was the easiest to write because she's my age and we share some things from our early life. Morgan was hard to write because I was having to understand at a deeper level how transgenderism works, why somebody would choose to not accept the gender they were allocated.
You write about 12 women. Was there a reason behind that exact number?
That's how it emerged in the end. It could have been 100, or 1,000, but by the time I got near number 12, I thought, that's it. I don't want to write a book that's a brick and people are going to spend two months reading it. It just felt that I covered enough ground in terms of all the differences that I wanted to explore, the ages and the regions that people come from.
All the characters have flaws, but they can also be seen as role models, overcoming those obstacles you’ve given them. Did you feel any kind of responsibility to write Black role models?
No, not really. I wouldn't have used that language, but people have said that to me. But I am aware that I'm writing against invisibility in fiction and also writing against sterotypes. I was very clear that I was not going to create a character who in any way fitted in a stereotype. The character LaTisha has lots of children with different men and I was very aware that that is some people's idea about young Black women. I'm not saying that's the truth but even in spite of that I thought I've got to have somebody who kind of messes up in that way.