After she won the Booker Prize in 2019, becoming the first black woman and the first black British person to do so, Bernardine Evaristo described herself in Red magazine as an “overnight success”. That statement, however, does not give the full picture. Evaristo’s new book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, is a testament to her long, arduous journey of four decades in the arts.
Born in south-east London in 1959 to a Nigerian immigrant father and an English, Catholic mother, Evaristo grew up in a society where she was regarded as “half-caste”. The family, including its youngest members, struggled in an environment where racism, class discrimination and all kinds of stereotypes abounded. Being born biracial shaped the way people saw – or failed to see – Evaristo and her seven siblings. As a female, working-class person of colour, she was “destined to be regarded as a sub-person: submissive, inferior, marginal, negligible – a bona fide subaltern”.
From an early age, theatre offered her freedom; it was the way she expressed herself and connected with the world at large. Created in the early 1980s, her company Theatre of Black Women collaborated with many other artists and disciplines, but sought out its own autonomous voice. “We excavated and reimagined histories and explored perspectives, cultures and stories that placed the periphery in the centre.” It was this company – and the personal and the artistic experiences she acquired there – that both broadened her intellectual horizons and emboldened her ability for critical thinking.
Throughout, the book deftly combines the personal and the political. Much has changed since the time of Evaristo’s birth, when there were 14 women MPs compared to 630 men. But much more has remained the same, or not changed fast enough: class prejudices, regional disparities and layers upon layers of discrimination. Intersectionality runs through this book like a quiet but mighty river. I particularly enjoyed the stories about the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, including the underground queer subculture. These are all influences that have shaped the course of Evaristo’s life and the depth of her literary vision.
She recalls the time when she was a sixth-former at Eltham Hill Girls’ school and allowed to wear her own clothes: a friend’s mother tells her to tone down her “wacky dress sense” because it might make her the target of racists. “I laughed her off,” Evaristo writes, “much as I do bad advice today. I wasn’t going to become less of who I was – to make myself invisible – in order to try to live a risk-free-life.”
Diversity is treasured in this book but there is an equal emphasis on equality and inclusion. Evaristo advocates for multicultural children’s books “because children need to see themselves reflected in books as a validation of themselves, to feel that they belong to the stories and myths of their countries.” She does not shy away from difficult debates on who has the right to tell which story. “I give myself complete artistic licence to write from multiple perspectives and to inhabit different cultures across the perceived barriers of race, culture, gender, age and sexuality.”
[See also: Your very own Sylvia Plath]
It has always troubled me how often function is attributed to fiction, especially if the author comes from a non-Western or a minority background. An Afghan woman writer, for instance, is not expected to write science fiction, or avant-garde literature. If she does so it won’t be “authentic”. Instead she is required to “educate” her readers about the conditions of women in Afghanistan. Many authors from black and brown and immigrant communities are similarly expected to educate their readers about racism, displacement and inequality. Some authors might choose to do so, others might not; artistic freedom is something we should never allow anyone to take away from us. Evaristo makes it clear that not everything she writes is about “identity”. She is equally critical of the deep-rooted assumption that whatever story women writers produce must be, inevitably, autobiographical.
Writing never gets easier. It is always a struggle – and an even bigger one if you have to also fight for your right to write. Manifesto is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest book about never giving up, even when it feels like you are “writing into a void”. It is also a meditation on personal transformation, cultural inequalities, activism, belonging, love and friendships – and above all, the power of creativity.
Manifesto: On Never Giving Up
Penguin, 224pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future