Bestseller, Activist, Game Changer: Bernardine Evaristo
By Leanne Francis, Jia Wen Ho and Shaniah Shields
Bernardine Evaristo is the first Black woman and the first Black Briton to win the Booker Prize for her groundbreaking novel, Girl, Woman, Other. She has published nine books over her forty year writing career. Her latest and first non-fiction book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, tells of her long journey as a relatively unknown Black British author to winning the 2019 Booker Prize.
The longevity of Evaristo’s career is reflected in the nine novels she has published over almost three decades:
2021: Manifesto: On Never Giving Up
2019: Girl, Woman, Other
2014: Mr Loverman
2010: Hello Mum
2008: Blonde Roots
2005: Soul Tourists
2001: The Emperor’s Babe
1994: Island of Abraham
Her Motivation for Writing
Bernardine Evaristo’s writing is “clearly energised by her own plural, diasporic heritage.” As a biracial woman born to English and Nigerian parents, her work raises crucial questions about the idea of identity and belonging, conveying her own lived experience through the voice of different narrators. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Evaristo spoke about what motivates her to write. Feeling frustrated with the lack of visibility of Black British women in literature, Evaristo felt she “wanted to put presence into absence,” using aspects of her own life as inspiration for new narratives.
The lack of representation in literature gave Evaristo the opportunity to occupy that space in an original and experimental way, blending prose and poetry to create a form she terms "fusion fiction." Her 1997 semi-autobiographical novel, Lara, enabled her to explore more about her own family history through the eyes of Lara, the daughter of an Englishwoman and Nigerian man. Evaristo crafts characters that are complex, full of intrigue, and often cast aside by society. Her writing gives characters the chance to honestly exist, exactly as they are, informed by the experiences that shaped her own life. As she states in her 2019 interview with Vanity Fair, her work is motivated by the assertion that “we are here and this is who we are. And who we are is a myriad of things and not necessarily what you expect.”
The Success of Girl, Woman, Other
In its fifty year history, the Booker Prize announced their first Black female winner, Bernardine Evaristo. Overnight, Girl, Woman, Other became an international bestseller, staying on the bestseller lists for more than ten months. The book has been translated to thirty-five languages and Barack Obama has named it as one of his favourite books of the year. An on-screen adaption of Girl, Woman, Other is highly anticipated after Potboiler Television acquired rights to the novel.
A talented writer and poet, a young Evaristo devoted herself to writing, taking up freelance work to allow time to write. She didn’t receive a proper salary until she was fifty-one, when she became Professor of Creative Writing in Brunel University London. Though her previous books did not gain much mainstream attention, Evaristo kept writing because she found it fulfilling and it sustained her creativity. The success of Girl, Woman, Other was hard earned and deserved. Detailing the difficult ascension on the success ladder in Manifesto, Evaristo speaks of her past experiences: facing racism, her difficult relationships, and her big family of ten, all contributing to her creative process in writing characters. Her success is an inspiration to many, and her writing a great contribution to Black British literature.
In addition to her writing, Evaristo is also a longstanding activist for inclusion in the arts and has initiated many successful projects to address the underrepresentation of people in colour. Evaristo’s activism is as lengthy as her literary career, with her earlier actions including the the co-founding of Theatre of Black Women with Patricia St. Hilarie and Paulette Randall in 1982.
Evaristo is the curator of Black Britain: Writing Back, a new book series published by Assistant Editor Hannah Chukwu at Hamish Hamilton (PRH) which aims to recover and republish decades-old but culturally important Black British titles that didn’t get the publicity they deserved back then. The six initial titles each include an introduction from Evaristo. The publisher has described the project as a “landmark” publication, with titles including Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams and Minty Alley by C.L.R. James returned to print.
In 2012, Evaristo initiated the Brunel International African Poetry Prize with the aim of revitalising African poetry. It has a £3000 prize, and the 2021 winner is Othuke Umukoro. Evaristo also devised The James Berry Prize with Nathalie Teitler. It is open to poets of colour who are UK residents and is the first national poetry prize to offer both mentoring and publication.
Evaristo established Spread the Word in 1995, which is London’s writer development agency and is currently the Sky Arts Ambassador for Literature.
Her extensive activism is not covered here and more information can be found on her website.