Bernardine Evaristo has become the first black woman to win a Booker prize. Picture: DAVID LEVENSON/GETTY IMAGES
Bernardine Evaristo has become the first black woman to win a Booker prize. Picture: DAVID LEVENSON/GETTY IMAGES

Bernardine Evaristo did not set out to write a “state of Britain” novel.

“I just wanted to write a book that featured lots of different black British women and didn’t know quite how I was going to do it or how it was going to turn out,” she says.

Six years on, Girl, Woman, Other, a vivid and infectious account of the lives of 12 mostly black, mostly female characters whose paths criss-cross through relationships, generations and geography was named joint winner of this year’s Booker prize for what the judges called a “must-read about modern Britain”.

Their judgment makes Evaristo the first black woman author to win the prestigious prize, something which for decades she felt was “unattainable”. It’s a fact that prompts mixed feelings: happiness and pride at being the first; sadness that it has taken so long; and hope that others will follow soon.

Catching up the morning after the prize ceremony — Evaristo has had only a couple of hours sleep after celebrating in a Mayfair nightclub and a relentless schedule of media appearances (“My mouth has not stopped moving”) — she reflects on the fate of Girl, Woman, Other from its origins to award ceremony. “During that period Black Lives Matter happened and the #MeToo movement happened and there was a shift in national consciousness around issues to do with race and gender,” she says. People, issues and stories that were previously marginalised or not heard are now part of mainstream debate.

“I’ve broken through,” she says, regarding the Booker win. Publishing and the literary landscape more generally has not reflected all the communities in Britain, she argues. Black British women in particular have long been excluded, with publishers in the past often content to publish works by African-American or African writers. While she too cherishes them, they do not tell the whole story.

“I feel a responsibility to see our stories out there,” she says.

Evaristo was born in London in 1959, the fourth of eight children to a British mother and Nigerian father, and grew up in the capital. She published her first book, Lara, in 1997 and is the author of eight works of fiction and verse fiction that play with form and style.

In Girl, Woman, Other the result is a diverse cast of characters — the banker; the schoolteacher; the smart, gobby student; the dramatist; the public intellectual; the supermarket manager; cleaner; the matriarch and so on — whose lives interconnect in a multitude of ways, offering perspectives on Britain today that are immediately recognisable and fresh.

Their voices and the drive of the novel are shaped by Evaristo’s stylistic approach — what she calls “fusion fiction” — which draws on her past works in poetry. Free-flowing, grammatically incorrect and with “very few full stops”, the text and the story run along energetically as the lives of the characters are traced — from the north of England to the City, from separatist lesbian communities to the Nigerian delta.

While giving voice to black women, Evaristo says she did not want race to be “the overriding trope in the novel because I am exploring all these issues ... gender and class and race and cultural background and geographical location”. It is, she says, “quite a radical book” but one that she hopes will “reach into middle England”.

She says the political and social environment makes it a good time to be a novelist. There is no shortage of material. She cites the Booker Prize shortlist, which included Margaret Atwood, Lucy Ellmann, Chigozie Obioma, Salman Rushdie and Elif Shafak. “We’re all tackling meaty issues ... very much engaging with the world and society and politics and so on.”

I still believe in an egalitarian society and I still believe in working towards making that possible and in particular in focusing on women of colour in my work.
Bernardine Evaristo

She is less keen on talking about the controversial decision by the Booker judges this year to break with the rules and award the prize jointly to her and Margaret Atwood (for The Testaments), which some observers say had the effect of diminishing the distinction of the first award to a black woman.

“I’m just happy to have won it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a co-win,” she says. “It’s great.”

The journey from angry outsider to the high table of critical acclaim also features in Girl, Woman, Other, which draws on aspects of Evaristo’s own biography, in particular, the period in which she cut her teeth in the world of radical lesbian theatre in the 1980s. The temper of those times — from squats in Kings Cross to hard-Left politics — is recalled in the book. One of its main characters, Amma, the performance of whose play, The Last Amazons of Dahomey, bookends the novel, bears similarities to Evaristo.

“I was very interested in the 1980s because I was part of that,” she says. “I was living in short-life housing, I was working in theatre, I was very much a feminist, I was living in a very woman-centred world, set up a theatre company — Theatre of Black Women — and we felt like outsiders, went on demonstrations, went to shows and heckled if I disagreed with their politics.”

She says that while, like Amma, she has since moved from the counterculture to the mainstream, many of her politics remain the same.

“I still believe in an egalitarian society and I still believe in working towards making that possible and, in particular, in focusing on women of colour in my work.”

Yet the stage on which her politics plays out has changed. She is professor of creative writing at Brunel university — at one point she breaks off from our interview to alert colleagues that given all the Booker business cover will be required — and vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature, and married. She is now “very much part” of a “prestigious, ancient” British institution yet she is determined to open it up to voices that historically have not been heard.

“I work within the establishment but I am not becoming an establishment person. I’m not there to endorse the status quo.”


Bibliography

1994 Island of Abraham

Poetry collection, now out of print. (Peepal Tree press)

1997 Lara

Evaristo’s first verse novel is based on her family history, taking in seven generations and travelling between England, Nigeria, Ireland, Germany and Brazil. (ARP; expanded and revised version published by Bloodaxe in 2009)

2001 The Emperor’s Babe

A verse novel set in Londinium, 211AD, The Emperor’s Babe features Zuleika, the teenage bride of a wealthy Roman who seeks excitement elsewhere. Described by one reviewer as “like an episode of Sex in the City written by Ovid”. (Penguin)

2005 Soul Tourists

An ambitious, experimental and genre-mixing novel that follows Stanley, a London banker and son of Jamaican immigrants, on a global road trip full of uncanny encounters with historical figures. (Penguin)

2008 Blonde Roots

Evaristo’s first novel written fully in prose reverses the roles of race in slavery, with Africans as masters and Europeans as slaves. Doris, a blonde-haired, blued-eyed English girl is shipped into slavery in Great Ambossa. A funny, satirical work with serious intent and affect, longlisted for the Orange Prize. (Penguin)

2010 Hello Mum

Novella narrated from a teenage boy to his mother, after he finds himself in trouble with a gang on the London estate where they live. About 40,000 copies were distributed in the UK, including a copy for every school, and the book was adapted as a BBC Radio 4 play. (Penguin)

2013 Mr Loverman

Evaristo’s novel tells the story of Barry, a 74-year-old Antiguan Londoner who has hidden his homosexuality and his lifelong lover from his wife, family and community, and who now confronts the possibility of coming out. (Penguin/Akashic Books US, 2014)

2019 Girl, Woman, Other

(Penguin/Hamish Hamilton)

© The Financial Times 2019