“Everyone must have the opportunity to create, share & consume stories that reflect their cultures & communities, so that we all feel equally validated.”
Bernardine Evaristo, 2019 Booker Prize winner and author of Girl, Woman, Other, read this excerpt from the final section of her latest book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, to the eager audience crowding the pews of Holy Trinity Church at the Topping & Company’s event on 16 October.
When Evaristo made her way into Holy Trinity’s chapel, a setting that made her “feel like a preacher,” she was met with overwhelming applause. Her audience, which consisted of perhaps the largest proportion of young people and students at any Topping event thus far this academic year, listened keenly as Evaristo recounted the “excruciating” build-up to the Booker announcement for the first Black woman and Black British person to win the prize.
Evaristo’s reaction to hearing her name called? “I just swore.”
She stated that she had been desperate to win and reflected on her pride that Girl, Woman, Other, has been “a radical, experimental novel that has reached middle England.”
Her creative career began in the theatre in 1982 when she co-found- ed the Theatre for Black Women, Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, with Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall. When described by her interviewer as fearless, Evaristo claimed with admirable humility, “we never thought we were trailblazers.” She expressed that the Theatre for Black Woman only sought to give its members some control over their art in a theatrical world that offered few, if any, roles for Black women.
Having shifted from actress/playwright to full-time author in the early 1990s, she described herself as “lucky” for having been able to publish her works at a time when there was no market for Black British stories. Evaristo, who exuded an assuredness that resists such cliché terms as merely “inspirational” or “brave”, admitted that, after the Booker win, “I started saying, ‘Yeah, I’m unstoppable’—if I had literally stopped, I wouldn’t have reached this point.”
Manifesto—part-memoir, part-rallying-cry—is concerned with encouraging “minoritised” voices to creative endeavours. Evaristo’s previous works have dealt with themes of race, LGBTQ+ identities, and womanhood. She explained, “I want to tell stories [that] haven’t been told,” that “The Daily Mail & co. would consider it a woke trend,” but her attempt to address the fact that the Black British story has been “heavily heteronormative” is about speaking to our humanity and illustrating that all stories deserve to be told.
During the Q&A, Evaristo expounded that the onus has been on Black writers to write Black characters, pointing out that a white writer at such an event would not have been asked to address the topic. “It’s a shame,” she said, “that white writers don’t take responsibility [to tackle racism], which is everybody’s responsibility to tackle.”
Evaristo, consciously in a university town with an audience filled with both students and university staff, directly addressed the predominance of straight, white, male voices in the canon: “It absolutely has to change” and university reading lists are obligated to change with it. While growing up as an aspiring writer and poet, her own sources of creative inspiration largely consisted of African American women writers in the 1980s, such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange, whose work “spoke to me in a way that the traditional canon did not... and showed me that I could also tell my stories.”
Despite its title, Manifesto is not merely a polemic. The writing process was described by its author as “a massive act of self-interrogation.” Evaristo’s reading was an equally amalgamated discussion of the deeply personal and broader political concerns of her book. Manifesto recalls Evaristo’s upbringing as a mixed-race Catholic girl in London, the violent attacks her family endured on account of their race, the racism she experienced from the very priests who preached kindness, and how that led her away from Catholicism. However, she explained that the rhythms of the Latin mass, Catholic hymns, and the Bible itself influenced and shaped her poetry. Her dually indicting her local church while conceding a literary inheritance to her Catholic upbringing epitomises Evaristo’s ability to confront directly, yet without blind malice or bitterness in sentiment or tone, the institutions that treated her with hypocrisy and cruelty. It is perhaps that combination of qualities that draws so many to her work.
Evaristo, who claims never to discuss any of her career visions or aspirations, was met with audible expressions of disappointment when she admitted she was not working on any new fiction at the moment. Still, her words, on and off the page, were both thoughtful and thought-provoking, leaving us with much to consider until her next literary creation comes to fruition.