Bernardine Evaristo Speaks on Representation for Black Writers in British Publishing

Bernardine Evaristo Speaks on Representation for Black Writers in British Publishing

Novelist Bernardine Evaristo spoke to Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online this evening about her groundbreaking novel Girl, Woman, Other.

The novel, which charts the intersecting lives of twelve characters who, through differing individual experiences, stories and perspectives, offer deep insights into womanhood, race, sexuality, feminism and class in modern Britain, won the 2019 Booker Prize.

In a conversation that covered life after the Booker Prize, Black Lives Matter and the politics of story writing, Evaristo remarked that writing was not on her agenda when she was younger: “If someone had said that [I would win the Booker Prize] to me when I was a teenager… I would have just thought that was the most ridiculous thing that they were saying, because it was so far removed from my reality.” She started to write for theatre, before turning to poetry in 1994 and her first novel Blonde Roots wasn’t written until 2008. Girl, Woman, Other – which, she revealed, took her five years to write – is her eighth novel.

When Sturgeon asked if Evaristo would describe Girl, Woman, Other as her best work so far, she replied, “No, I don’t think so… I love the idea that all kinds of people are reading this book who wouldn’t normally know about my work or be particularly interested in reading my work. But when I wrote it, I just wanted to write about these multiple stories about black British women… Even though this is the book that most people have read, I don’t know if I can say that it’s my finest work, because I will stand by quite a few of my novels, and I think they all do something different.”

She also reflected that she’s never seen herself as a mass-market or commercial writer, but that’s what the book has become, to which Sturgeon responded “‘and deservedly so! It was undoubtedly my favourite book of last year.”

During the hour’s conversation, Evaristo revealed that she wrote the story with the direct intention to write “as many fictional characters who are an expression of black British womanhood… in a single novel.” Filling the noticeable void of black, British, female characters in British literature: “Often the black British-born story gets lost… we have African-American fiction, and we have African fiction, but the British story, which is the thing that I’ve been championing for a very long time… we’re not seen to be that interesting, and I think we are as interesting as everyone else.”

When asked if she thought that society was becoming better at understanding the fluidity of our identities whether in terms of race, sexuality, class or gender, Evaristo responded that in the world of academia, and arts and culture, possibly, “But beyond that, I’m not 100% sure… we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that the kind of really progressive politics that I definitely believe in, is something that’s been taken up by the country as a whole.” She revealed that she had received abusive emails having presented two episodes of A Point of View for BBC Radio 4 – one on Black Lives Matter, the other on gender.

When asked if her fiction was written to be overtly political, Evaristo replied, “The starting point is political… but I wouldn’t say the fiction itself is overtly political… we’re writing the stories that we feel need to be there but aren’t being told, and that I think is a political act… I am a black British woman, I’m a feminist, I have a working class background, I’ve got an activist background and that all feeds into my creativity… I can’t help but be political… but I think literature can shape our ideas... which is why it’s so important that it needs to be more inclusive than it is.”

She added that she was moved by the reading lists being circulated on social media during the heat of the Black Lives Matter campaign following the death of George Floyd in May. “People were coming up with reading lists around race and books by black and Asian people, and they were saying ‘I want to educate myself’. And I remember thinking, well if you’re going to read these 12 books… then you are not going to be the same person – if you are open to what you are going to encounter – … you are going to have a different perspective on some of these issues, perhaps, and definitely a deeper and broader perspective. So in that way, yes, literature can shape us. But I think literature shapes us in all kinds of ways.”

Sturgeon agreed with this sentiment, adding that reading literature is vital to deepen the empathy between people, saying “For me the whole point of reading literature is to learn about things you don’t know from your own experience. Learn about people, countries, cultures, times in history that you don’t know about. And the broader the diversity of that the better for all of us.”

The conversation moved onto representation in the publishing industry, and how the Black Lives Matter movement was a wake-up call.  Evaristo hoped that publishers would now recognise the commercial potential of books written by black, British women,  commenting “when the industry only publishes a narrow range of literature, it’s completely… underestimating the kind of appetite of readers to read way beyond their demographic, to read all kinds of literature. Because good literature is good literature, that’s it.”

The Booker winner finally revealed that her career has changed beyond recognition since winning the Prize, and that Barack Obama naming Girl, Woman, Other as one of his books of the year was the icing on the cake: “I still can’t imagine Obama reading my work ... But you know great leaders are great readers!”

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This event was sponsored by the Open University in Scotland. You can watch it again in full on our website: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/bernardine-evaristo-with-nicola-sturgeon-the-triumph-of-girl-woman-other/player

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