Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry, founders of Black Girls Book Club, sit down with Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo to talk about writing Black women, having a slow burn career, and whether Evaristo would rather Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey read her novel.
When we met with Bernardine Evaristo just days after she won the Booker Prize, there was only one way to open our conversation: by embracing her and saying, “Congratulations.”
Some critics may have preferred that we used the opportunity to discuss the furore surrounding Evaristo’s win. Her novel Girl, Woman, Other shared the Booker with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the third time the prize has been split between two authors in its history (but the first time since rules were brought in to ensure the prize could only be given to one book). For some, Evaristo was seen as a controversial choice.
But for us at Black Girls Book Club, her win wasn’t surprising at all. As far we’re concerned, it was a fitting testament to a 40-year writing career that spans seven previous novels, poetry, theatre plays and journalism. Evaristo is Black British literary royalty – and, as she notes, the Booker is an acknowledgement of her “consistency and longevity”, one that confirms her status as one of the UK’s most astonishing literary talents.
We met with Evaristo (or Bernie as she’s known to her friends and supporters – publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove and writer Sara Collins have nicknamed themselves ‘Bernie’s Bridesmaids’) hours before she appeared at a sold-out event at Royal Festival Hall, alongside writer Irenosen Okojie. When we ask whether her career trajectory would have been different had she won the Booker earlier, she jokes that she “would have been richer!”
But while Evaristo acknowledges that it’s “interesting” that she’s won at this point in her career (and laughs when we observe that she’s “been doing this”), she’s amused by the idea that she’s come out of nowhere. In the days following her win, she largely avoided social media – “it’s too much right now” – but still managed to see someone calling her an “obscure writer”.
For Evaristo, being a slow burner has allowed her to grow and nurture her craft whilst continually “exploring and experimenting”. She graciously shrugs off the suggestion that she should have won a major literary prize before 2019, noting that some writers “never get awarded for their craft”. Reeling off the names of authors who debuted alongside her in the early 90s, she laments that some of their voices have faded away – their legacy now a mere footnote in the archives of Black British literature.
Arguably, some of the controversy over Evaristo’s win was fuelled by surprise that the lived experiences of Black and mixed-heritage women were able to inspire a full and rich body of work. Maybe Evaristo’s ability to excavate the Black female consciousness in a way that celebrates strengths, rather than exploiting pain, felt too unfamiliar. Evaristo says her work was birthed from her frustration at Black women’s “absence from literature”; she wanted to write a piece that included “the stories of as many Black British women as possible”. It’s fair to say she did us complete justice.
For Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other was “about making a statement” about the depths of Black womanhood. It doesn’t claim to summarise what it is to be a Black British woman; rather, it is the story of 12 individual characters whose humanity, mistakes, dreams, hopes and flaws make them complex figures with stories worth reading. She doesn’t want to maintain the ‘strong Black woman’ trope, or perpetuate the “expectation that Black women are superheroes” – but she also “never writes [Black women] as victims”, and makes clear that her characters “rise above whatever life throws at them”.
The most astonishing thing about Evaristo? The way she radiates confidence and positivity. We suggest we may not have been so gracious if we found ourselves in the position of having to share a major award, but she puts this down to her age. At 60, she calls herself “living history”, and feels she has lived and breathed Black womanhood at all its stages.
This life experience allowed her to craft the 12 womxn in Girl, Woman, Other, and she is particularly passionate that readers recognise the humanity of the novel’s older characters. “[They’re] strong. They aren’t women that have faded away – especially Hattie, the 93-year-old matriarch.” Her hope is that Black British women will read these stories and “recognise some of those things which come from a lifetime of being a Black British woman, even if they do not see themselves in the characters.”
When asked who she most wants to read Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo mentions Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama and every member of the Tory government. Eventually, she settles on Oprah Winfrey, noting that the media mogul’s endorsement would finally put the experiences of Black British women on the map in the US. Her optimism for the future of Black British womanhood is infectious: while she acknowledges that “we aren’t there yet,” she also believes there are many more stories to write and “everything to play for”. We suspect she has many more groundbreaking novels in her yet.
As we prepare to say goodbye, a Southbank staffer spots Evaristo and prostrates himself before her, a look of adoration on his face. It’s a show of humility and deep respect. We turn to look at each other, overjoyed that Evaristo is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
Queen Bernardine. Long may she reign.
Girl, Woman, Other is out now (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99).
Images: Getty, The Booker Prize