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Anglo–Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo wrote seven books before her Booker Prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, catapulted her into the limelight. “I have done the work for people to now engage with it. It’s just the most incredible thing, because at my age – I’m 60 – to suddenly become an overnight success, is very exciting. It’s also a real moment of hope for people who have been writing for a long time and haven’t received the kind of attention they’d like to get. And also, for Black women, and Black British people.” By Ellen van Neerven.

Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo

Author Bernardine Evaristo.
Credit: David M Benett / Getty Images

In October last year, it was announced that Bernardine Evaristo, clad in an incredible hot pink power suit, white shirt, black tie get-up that showed off her stature, had received the Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, splitting the prize with another author.

Don’t mind me. This opening sentence is my journalistic attempt at restorative justice after a BBC presenter, reporting on the Booker result, referred to Evaristo as “another author” while discussing her joint victory with Margaret Atwood. Another author. No name. In response, Evaristo tweeted, “How quickly and casually they have removed my name from history – the first Black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”

Many objected to the judges co-awarding the prize, something strongly against the judging rules, saying that it detracted from the significant achievement of Evaristo and what the history-making win meant for Black women. This was the first time the prize was shared since 1992, despite a rule change banning joint winners. A former judge called it an “epic fail” and “unfair on both authors”. Many questioned whether Margaret Atwood needed the recognition. Whether you think the judges should have gone with two winners or one though, these conversations take away from discussing Evaristo’s book, which is a stunner. Her work is enjoyable, funny, fresh; her characters immediately likeable.

Australian audiences were looking forward to hearing Evaristo in Sydney, where she had been chosen to open the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, before travel had been Covid-cancelled. Although a Booker co-winner, Girl, Woman, Other has the global spotlight it deserves. In the five days after the win, Evaristo doubled her lifetime sales.

“The Booker Prize completely revolutionised my career overnight,” Evaristo says, speaking to me from lockdown in her home in London. “It is my eighth book; I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been in the arts since 1982, publishing books since 1994.”

Like one of her Girl, Woman, Other characters, Amma, Evaristo trained as an actor at drama school, wrote feminist plays and set up a Black women’s theatre in the 1980s. In the 1990s, she moved to poetry and fiction works, featuring a wide range of characters from the African diaspora.

“Most of my books have been very positively reviewed but it seems like that’s not enough to break into wider attention, at least it wasn’t for me. It is almost like one needs to win a major prize or have some kind of massive momentum behind you in order to be wider known. And neither of those things had happened to me so it felt like my work was there to be discovered.

“And then winning the Booker Prize meant that it suddenly was discovered.”

Evaristo’s publisher is reissuing her previous books – which include a novel about a closeted 74-year-old, Mr Loverman; a satirical tragicomic novel set in a reverse world in which Africans enslave Europeans, Blonde Roots; and the semi-autobiographical verse novel Lara – so readers can discover her backlist.

“I have done the work for people to now engage with it,” Evaristo explains. “It’s just the most incredible thing, because at my age – I’m 60 – to suddenly become an overnight success, is very exciting.

“It’s also a real moment of hope for people who have been writing for a long time and haven’t received the kind of attention they’d like to get. And also, for Black women, and Black British people.”

Evaristo, of Anglo–Nigerian heritage, clarifies that not only is she the first Black woman writer to win the Booker, she is also the first Black British writer to win the prize since its commencement in 1969. “I don’t think anyone had realised that until I announced it in my acceptance speech, because I thought, it has to be said.”

The prize has rewarded Black male writers: Marlon James (Jamaica), Paul Beatty (United States) and Ben Okri (Nigeria).

“On the surface, it looks like a prize that’s doing very well for multicultural representation,” Evaristo says. “But not in a sense for Black British writers and Black women writers and now that this has been redressed, I hope it continues to be redressed. I hope it’s not another 20 years before another Black woman wins the prize.”

Evaristo believes it is no coincidence that she was chosen in a year that had four women on the jury, and two women of colour. “Prizes are always about juries. Who gets to decide the value of the work we produce? And in the past, the Booker Prize was judged by traditional literary figures and, you know, conservative politicians. My work would have never gotten near the prize 10 years ago.”

As well as a writer and a teacher of writing, Evaristo calls herself a literary activist for inclusion, and she has founded many successful initiatives for historically underrepresented writers. “My work has always been for the community. Not just myself.”

Thanks to her Booker win, the spotlight has been turned also onto other Black women writers. “That is the joy of having this platform that I have now. So much more attention is on what I do, what I say, what I promote,” she says. “We live in a society where tokenism is rife. Also, a society where there is a star system: a lot of resources and money is invested into individuals to become stars. That hasn’t serviced Black women’s writing in the past. One or two individuals breaking through, becoming international names, has not trickled back down to the other writers who are also producing amazing work. So, it feels like it’s my responsibility, and it has been for decades now, to bring my community with me.”

The idea for Girl, Woman, Other first emerged in 2013 from a commission to write a short story commemorating the 60th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. “It was a huge inspiration for me as a child, and I remember thinking, I’m going to write a short story in verse about four Black women,” Evaristo explains.

“What happened was, when I had recorded it, I thought, I really like the form of this story and I also like these four characters. And I decided one of them was going to be a character in a novel of many different kinds of Black British women.”

Carole is the name of the singular character Evaristo chose to carry over from the story to the novel, a woman whose morning mantra is, “I am highly presentable, likeable, clubbable, relatable, promotable and successful.”

“When I started writing Carole, I thought I’d love to write about a corporate Black woman. What interests me is where do people begin their lives and where do they get to at the point of which they are in the novel?” says Evaristo. “So, in Carole’s case, it was an opportunity for me to look at someone from a poor, working-class, immigrant, Nigerian background who is mentored by a teacher and who goes through a very classical education at Oxford and then ends up in the corporate world. That, for me, was a really exciting story to explore.”

Carole is joined by her mother, Bummi, and school friend LaTisha, who have their own chapters. The three of them are their own unit, they have their own section. The novel features four sections of three characters. All up the book is told through the eyes of 12 Black British characters.

“If it had been feasible, I would have written many more characters,” Evaristo explains. “Creating individualised characters is what I love doing – becoming a character. But as each character became realised on the page, there was this shape of about 30 pages per character. I realised I had to contain it for it to be a cohesive novel. But it could have been twice the size.”

Each of these 12 characters, which represent a diversity of class, generation, sexuality, faith, politics and heritage, for Evaristo, was about populating fiction with stories that hadn’t been explored. “Black British women stories are not out there because there’s so few of us writing novels that you can almost count on two hands the number or the kinds of Black female protagonists in British literature. It’s shockingly bad. We are still only a handful of however many novels that are published each year – a hundred thousand or something.”

I ask Evaristo if this brings the burden of responsibility or a thrilling challenge. It is definitely the latter, she says. “It means that the field is wide open. And the whole of the history of our presence in Britain is wide open for me. It feels like the opportunity and the possibility are infinite because those stories simply haven’t been told.”

Although often discussed as a book of 12 women, Evaristo also chose to include a non-binary character, Morgan, in her cast, and uses 12 “womxn” to be trans and gender non-conforming inclusive. I ask her if she discussed the character with gender non-conforming people she knew.

“To be honest, most of my research was done online. That was the character that was the most problematic for me. Because I needed to understand, at a deeper level, what it was like to feel uncomfortable in the gender you were assigned at birth. And I also needed to write that character with the artistic freedom I give myself permission to do but at the same time being aware that it is a very sensitive subject and I had to be a little careful with it.

“I hope that I struck the right balance. And, in fact, non-binary people have come back to me and told me how much they have enjoyed the story. So, for me that’s a great reward. But at the same time, as a writer, I don’t feel beholden to any community, to have them sitting on my shoulder, and people telling me what to do. I will always take risks.”

When I ask if she would change anything about the book, she pauses. I ask if she’s still there, on the other end of the line. “Yeah, it’s just, I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ve been asked that,” she says.

“It’s not like I could have changed it at the time but while I was writing it we had the Windrush scandal, which was where, you know, people who came in the ’40s and ’50s were then under threat of, or were actually deported. It’s the most awful thing – that people who have been in this country for more than 50 years and have every right to be here were thrown out of the country. And I think if that had happened in enough time, I would have woven that into Winsome’s story, but it was a bit too late for me to do something with that.”

Evaristo chose two senior women to be strong voices in the book. Winsome, in her 80s, who came to England in the 1950s from Barbados, and Hattie, Morgan’s 93-year-old great-grandmother.

“Each woman is so different from the other. I had to do a lot of work to build them.” The unique structure Evaristo designed to house her characters and their interlinking worlds led to less-than-traditional stylistic choices, inspired in part from her experience writing poetry and verse novels.

The book’s distinctive form-breaking style is what Evaristo sees best fitting the story she wanted to tell. “I call it ‘fusion fiction’. It’s fusing elements of poetry into fiction. I pay a poet’s attention to language – my sentences have to be rhythmically flowing. Also, the characters are interconnected so they are kind of fused together in a way.”

Recently, Evaristo says she got an email from a puzzled reader who had sent a complaint to Amazon about the “missing” full stops in the Kindle version of Girl, Woman, Other.

I can’t help but giggle. Evaristo joins me in laughter.

“I haven’t responded yet. I don’t know what to say.”

Evaristo supposes her fusion fiction illuminates the creative process and brings writer and reader closer. “I found it a free-flow writing experience and from what people tell me it is a free-flow reading experience.”

Her punctuation may be slight, but Evaristo has made her exclamation mark on fiction. Her Booker win ensures Black British womxn are permanently fastened in the literary canon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Like no another".

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Ellen van Neerven
is a Mununjali Yugambeh writer and the author of Heat and Light and Comfort Food. Their new collection of poetry is Throat.

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