The Booker Prize has had a reasonable reputation for diversity over the years, with a fair roster of past BAME winners and shortlistees. It came as a surprise, therefore, to realise that Bernardine Evaristo was the first black woman to win, sharing the honour last year with Margaret Atwood.
The modest cheer for Atwood, who after all was a previous winner, was eclipsed by the roar of acclaim for a British writer who has been steadily gaining in stature since the publication of her first novel, Lara, in 1997. With Melvyn Bragg she retraces her roots as one of eight siblings growing up in Woolwich, south-east London.
With a Nigerian father and a mother from nearby “very, very white” Abbey Wood, it was obvious her family was different. Bricks sailed through the windows on a regular basis, whereupon her father would hurtle outside and chase racists through the streets. Bragg sensitively teases out her conflicted feelings towards a disciplinarian father who kept order with physical punishment. Did that harm her? There’s a long pause before her steady response.
Like many writers, Evaristo was an avid reader, but Jane Austen and the Brontës did nothing for her. Literary influences came instead from poetry, drama and, later, Americans such as Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. Joining the local youth theatre, she was the only black girl (“But I didn’t feel it”), taking the role of Captain Cat in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood — still a favourite.
The acting bug took her to drama school in 1979, after which she and other black students started their own theatre company. Bragg sceptically asks: “What did you do that was radical?” Putting black women at the centre of the narrative was radical, she explains. As for the episodes of direct action: “We were angry and uncompromising — and young,” Evaristo laughs.
Her debut Lara, which recounts her parents’ marriage in the 1950s, was a verse novel, a much less common idea then than now. The Woolwich ferry across the greasy Thames is rapturously reimagined as a voyage to warm climes and palm-fringed islands. (Thor Heyerdahl is a surprising influence.) Evaristo also imagines intimate details of her parents’ life, raising the maternal eyebrow at a sex scene: “Artistic licence, mother dear!”
Discussing the Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo reveals that the playwright Amma “is modelled on my younger self”. On issues of cultural appropriation and writing a non-binary character, Evaristo is careful without sidestepping. With Megan/Morgan, she didn’t want to get it wrong; but on the other hand, when it comes to fiction, she suggests, there is no such thing as “getting it right” either.
On Sky Arts/Now TV on November 29 at 10:45pm
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