Bernardine Evaristo was in an ebullient mood when she joined me and an audience at a branch of Foyles bookshop in London, three days after she became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize – jointly with Margaret Atwood, in a rule-breaking decision by the judges. Evaristo, 60, has long been celebrated for her groundbreaking subject matter and whip-smart prose, but her eighth book, Girl, Woman, Other, is her most expansive yet. Telling the stories of a dozen British women, most of whom are black, it spans more than 100 years and deals with identity, ancestry, prejudice, motherhood, sex, politics and art. Initially, Evaristo told us, the project didn’t feel timely. “But then #MeToo happened, and Black Lives Matter, and that shifted the cultural consciousness. By the time I finished, I thought, ‘I think this is going to be really of the moment.’” She couldn’t have guessed quite how right she would be.
New Statesman: What was the genesis of the novel?
Bernardine Evaristo: In 2014 I wrote a short story for the BBC. It was in verse; there was a style that I found that I really liked. I thought, “I want to create four different black women for this story.” I particularly liked one of the characters, Carole. She’s a girl from a working-class Peckham background; her parents are Nigerian immigrants. She attends a really rough state school, but she’s mentored by a teacher and she ends up going to Oxford, and then she becomes a very successful banker. I wanted to explore her, and then see how many other characters I could create. So it kind of grew.
NS: I gather that at one point you thought this might stretch to a hundred characters?
BE: It was a thousand, actually. I was so frustrated that we were not peopling the pages of fiction in this country that I just thought, “I’m going to create as many different characters as I can.” But in the end I thought I had in a sense made my point with 12 of these women.
NS: You said once that behind all your work is this question: “What does it mean to not see yourself reflected in your nation’s stories?” What did you particularly want to make visible in this book?
BE: Well, the thing is, because we’re not really very visible at all, the field is wide open. I decide to write a black character who’s a banker: that’s quite groundbreaking, you know? I have a character who’s a 93-year-old farmer of African heritage, who’s lived all her life on her Northumberland farm, that has been in her family for 200 years: that, I think, is groundbreaking.
I wanted to explore my generation, which I do through Amma and Dominique: two women who are in theatre, as I was in the 1980s, and are very feminist, very lesbian, very political, very vocal. In the 1980s a lot of people who felt they were marginalised got together: there were gay groups, women’s groups, disability groups, black groups and so on. It was a very fertile time, and dear Ken Livingstone at County Hall used to fund a lot of arts groups.
Then there are older women, who are pretty invisible in fiction. We’ve lived long lives; we’ve had so many experiences. We are not all deteriorating.
NS: You set up your own theatre company in 1982. How did that come about?
BE: I was at drama school with five black women, and we realised that when we left, the only work available to us would be stereotyped roles: prisoner, criminal, nurse, cleaner. So pretty much the day we left, we formed Theatre of Black Women, which was Britain’s first black women’s theatre company. We ran it for eight years, and we wrote and performed our own plays. The company grew, and we had an annual budget of about £100,000, which was quite a lot then. Eventually we lost our funding, and then we all kind of branched off.
For the Windrush generation it was really about surviving. But we were the second generation of black people in this country: most of us were born here, we felt entitled to everything the UK had to offer, but we weren’t factored into anything. You didn’t see people of colour in adverts, or black models in magazines. Diane Abbott wasn’t yet the first black female MP.
So, there was this feeling that you had to turn to each other and do your own thing. We gained strength from each other, without having to explain ourselves to anybody else. A lot of those people then went out into the so-called mainstream. Paulette Randall, who formed the company with me, has been directing for about 40 years, and was one of the producers of the London Olympics opening ceremony.
NS: And you had fun at the same time.
BE: Yes. Lots of… drink! Cigarettes! Sex!
NS: It’s still rare in fiction to see a sexually voracious woman, like Amma, who is not somehow punished for her behaviour.
BE: I wanted to explore the idea of a polyamorous relationship as something that is acceptable and part of her life. People are critical, but Amma says, “Well, nobody criticises Mick Jagger or other rock stars who say ‘Oh, I’ve slept with a thousand women.’” But then there are other women in the novel who don’t have sex at all. It’s called Girl, Woman, Other: you see each character as a girl and as an adult, and then they are all “othered”, because they are black, women, non-binary, or because of their class or sexuality, or their immigrant status.
I’m not applying feminist ideology to the book. The characters contradict each other: they are flawed and complex and messy. Some are homophobic, some are feminists, some don’t even know what feminism is. It’s about constant variety and fluidity.
NS: What did your parents make of your life in the 1980s?
BE: Well, my dad, who came over from Nigeria in 1949, was a left-wing socialist and a patriarch. I was gay then, and I was in a television programme called One in Five, which was shown on New Year’s Day in 1983, soon after Channel 4 launched. He saw me in this gay programme, and he didn’t approve at all. He thought gay people should be hung. But he would say things for effect. My mother was fine with it, and then when I went straight, she went gay. But we won’t go there right now… That’s another book.
NS: In the novel Bummi wants success for her daughter but then laments that Carole is “rejecting her true culture”. Do you think that’s a particularly deep gulf between first- and second-generation immigrants?
BE: Bummi doesn’t really understand the society that she’s in. I have Nigerian relatives who have been here nearly all their lives, but they’re not really absorbed in this society: they go to African churches and their social world is completely African, even Nigerian. The one thing Bummi does is to give Carole an English name, because she understands that a Nigerian name will hold her back. Then Carole does get on, and a gulf opens between them.
I’m very interested in power and how you succeed. The question is: how do you assimilate into a society and also hold on to your cultural background? You can code-switch, and separate the two parts of yourself: the part that will succeed in this predominantly white world, and the part that can just express yourself naturally. But Carole doesn’t have anyone to tell her that. You have to be socialised in a certain way to get through the various systems that are in place. I teach a lot of immigrant children at Brunel University: they don’t quite know how to get on, and they need to be shown.
NS: What does the term “identity politics” mean to you?
BE: I think our identities are formed by our backgrounds, by our interests and by how we’re treated – and as people of colour in this society, we are treated differently to white people. Our visual difference marks us out in a negative way, and a lot of white people don’t understand or even accept it, but that is the reality.
There’s a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. In 1959 he went through a chemical process to turn himself from white to black, and then he experienced America as a black man. It shows you how in every way, in every environment, as a black person you are experiencing the world differently to a white person. So when I claim my identity as a black woman, I’m categorising myself according to how society categorises me, but I’m making a positive statement about it. If, say, a white male writer were to write a book about 12 different kinds of white men, the chances are he’s not going to say that they’re white men, because whiteness is the default. I am doing this as a response to how we’re treated in this society. And we know that race does not exist, right? Race is a lived experience, and this is the reality of these women.
NS: Most of the characters in the book come up against racism in some form. When you’re writing about Britain in the 1920s, or about your own youth in the 1980s, and considering the progress that’s been made since, do you feel hopeful or depressed?
BE: I’m very hopeful. What happens when hope goes? You might as well kill yourself. I think we have been at a really healthy point in our society up until quite recently. Race has been on the agenda, and we were starting to confront some of the inequalities in our society. Then Brexit happened, and people’s inner bigots were released, and there’s been a return to front-line, street-level racism, which is terrible. And we know that we have to be so careful about how we handle this situation because of the memories of the 1930s. But yes, I’m hopeful. OK, it took 50 years, but the fact that I have won the Booker with a book about 12 different black women – a very queer, female, experimental book – I think that’s a sign that our society has changed considerably.
NS: You’ve judged many prizes. Did you sympathise with the Booker judges?
BE: I set up the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2012. We began by giving it to one person, and then gradually, we’ve had two or three winners, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s sharing the love.
I personally don’t have an issue with the fact that the Booker Prize went to two winners – especially as I was one of them! We don’t have to look at prizes as honouring one writer as the best, because what’s the best, anyway? A lot of factors are at play: what’s the balance of the judges, what are their interests? I remember the Booker judges years ago: they were all these Tory politicians! You can imagine – I wouldn’t get a look-in, right?
Bernardine Evaristo appears at Cambridge Literary Festival, in conversation with Preti Taneja, on 1 December.