Author Bernardine Evaristo On Her Game-Changing Joint Booker Prize Victory

As the leading prize for fiction is awarded jointly to two books - Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ and Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ - Bernardine talks about her historic win


Bernardine Evaristo pictured at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019. Photo / Getty Images

The morning after the Booker Prize ceremony finds Bernardine Evaristo still “giddy” with excitement and operating on two hours’ sleep. “My mind is completely muddled,” she laughs. “I haven’t had time to process any of it because I haven’t stopped. But it’s a game-changer for my career. I just feel absolutely delighted.”

Her novel, Girl, Woman, Other, spans generations, geography, sexuality and social class, from a Northumbrian farmer in her nineties to a London theatre director, by way of a City banker and a schoolteacher. All are black or mixed race. Reading it is a reminder that the vast majority of middle-class characters in fiction are white.

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“I’m not interested in any stereotypes whatsoever. I just wanted these characters to expand in people’s minds the idea of what black British women can be,” says Evaristo.

“And class is one of the tropes running through the book; I’m interested in where characters begin and where they end up.”

At book signings, she is approached by readers who say they recognise parts of their own histories in the characters. “I’m also getting it from white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Seriously! I mean, why shouldn’t they? But I find it quite surprising because, for me, it’s such a female book.”

Evaristo, who is 60 but could easily pass for 15 years younger, grew up in Woolwich, south-east London, as one of eight children born to a white, English mother of Irish descent and a Nigerian father.

They experienced their fair share of racism — they were churchgoers, but the priest would not speak to a mixed-race family, and Evaristo’s father “slept with a hammer under his bed all his life” — but she does not recount this in misery memoir style.

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Kids would regularly smash the windows, but “my dad was very fast and he had been a boxer and he was fearless. He’d be down the alleyway, grab them, haul them to their parents’ house and make them pay for the damage.” She laughs at the memory. “Can you imagine that happening now? He’d be arrested!”

Evaristo joined a youth theatre group, acted for a few years, then co-founded a theatre company. She is regarded as a trailblazer. She began writing poetry, then novels and Girl, Woman, Other is her eighth work of fiction, written in her customary experimental style.

Becoming the first black woman to win the Booker Prize is “bittersweet”, she says, because “it’s taken this long. There is something sad about that.”

Evaristo, who is a professor of creative writing at Brunel, says that the need for diversity must extend to university syllabuses, and believes it is possible that some English undergraduates can study for three years without coming across a single black author.

“That’s not to say some of the canonical writers taught on traditional English literature courses shouldn’t be taught,” she says firmly. “But I think it’s totally inexcusable in the 21st century to have reading lists that are predominantly white, predominantly male, completely heterosexual, completely middle-class, written from that perspective and about those lives, and say the reason this choice has been made is because this is ‘great literature’ and that’s the end of the issue. Even that term ‘great’ grates a bit.”

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Evaristo thinks it is good for authors to keep a foot in the real world by hanging on to the day job, because otherwise “you can just disappear up your own fundament, to be honest”.

Winning the Booker, she says, “is absolutely seismic in a sense. Because it’s saying these stories are as important as any other story.” She insists she doesn’t mind splitting the prize. “Honestly, if there was no money attached to it, I’d be just as happy and excited.”

She insists that she is happy to share the prize with Atwood. “Of course Margaret’s a superstar writer. But we’re an interesting pairing, aren’t we?”

— The Daily Telegraph

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