How Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker

For years she was told there was no market for her work. But the celebrated author of Girl, Woman, Other proved sceptics wrong
May 2, 2020

Twenty years ago, Bernardine Evaristo visualised winning the Booker Prize. She had been taking upbeat American-style personal development classes, and decided to set herself what seemed like an impossible goal. Though Evaristo had already begun establishing herself as a poet and novelist in London, drawing the respect of her peers as well as critical praise, she felt far removed from the literary mainstream and her books had yet to crack the bestseller lists. Last October, when she finally realised her dream and won the prize, she joked in her acceptance speech that in the course of her 40-year career she had never made her editors much money.

That’s all changed now. Sitting (pre-lockdown) in a coffee shop in suburban northwest London near Brunel University, where she is professor of creative writing, Evaristo reels off the ways in which winning one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes has supercharged her life. She has, for one, started making her editors serious money. Five days after her victory for Girl, Woman, Other—her radiant novel about 12 mostly black, mostly female, Britons—total sales of the book, which had been in bookshops for five months, more than doubled from 4,391 copies sold to 10,371. Barack Obama named it as one of his favourite books of 2019. It’s set to be adapted into a television series by Potboiler Television, the studio behind adaptations of John le Carré. Hamish Hamilton, her longtime publisher, has ordered a reprint of her back catalogue. And then there’s the bestseller lists. Girl, Woman, Other not only entered the Sunday Times bestseller list, it also stayed there for nine consecutive weeks. “I remember [seeing] those lists for years,” she says, “and looking at the names.” She continues: “The fact that I’m there, and some weeks I might be beating Stephen King or James Patterson, I’m like ‘yes! How did this happen?’” she says, punching the air.

But there’s a difference, she’s quick to say, between writing with the express purpose of winning the Booker, and hoping that if you persevere that one day the Booker might just come to you. After all, this is a prize that signals the approval of the literary establishment from which Evaristo felt excluded for decades. Girl, Woman, Other, she says, “is only a Booker Prize book because it won the Booker.” If she had written a novel just to contend for the prize, she continues, “I would have written a different book! I wouldn’t have written a book about black women. And lesbians! And all the other things!” I tell her that’s an uncompromising attitude—one shot through with remarkable self-belief. She nods. “Uncompromising. That’s me. That’s been me all along.”

*** Evaristo was born in Woolwich, an area in Greenwich, southeast London, in 1959 to a Nigerian immigrant father and a white English mother. She was the fourth of eight children. Woolwich, a former bastion of arms manufacture, is known today for its multicultural communities, rejuvenated dockyards and farmers’ markets. But back then, Evaristo remembers, it was a predominantly white area, and her family faced harsh racism. Neighbourhood boys would throw rocks at their windows. Her father, a former amateur boxer and factory welder, chased them down, dragged them to their family homes and demanded compensation for the damage.

Her mother, a devout Catholic school teacher of Irish descent, kept herself to herself: her marriage to a black man strained her relationship with her family. “She is a genuinely religious person,” Evaristo says of her mother. “She couldn’t believe that these people who were supposed to be religious were so racist.” Her parents were also politically active—her father was a Labour councillor and mother a trade union representative—and took her to anti-racist marches, which Evaristo credits with sowing the seeds of her left-wing politics.

Much of Evaristo’s family history is explored in her first novel, Lara, published in 1997. A sprawling semi-autobiographical story told in verse, Lara flits across seven generations and three continents, tracing the lineage of the family that would come to settle in 1950s Greenwich. Evaristo’s fictional counterpart, young Lara, lives with seven siblings. Lara’s father is an aloof disciplinarian; her mother a kind but overworked housewife. Though the house is always filled with activity, Lara prefers reading and fashioning stories in her own head.

Evaristo tells me that Lara is “loosely based” on herself. “We didn’t have any money, we didn’t travel. Didn’t even go into the centre of London.” Books, then, “were my comfort, my education, my conduit to the rest of the world.” Was it then that she realised she wanted to write books of her own? Not really: “the books I was reading were white books with white characters. I wasn’t seeing myself in this literature. I was seeing whiteness in literature.” Partly because of this lack of representation, Evaristo felt uneasy about her black heritage: “I was not comfortable in my own skin.” Her temperamentally distant father was loath to impart his Nigerian heritage to his children, and Evaristo remembers internalising media images of Africa as a land of “savages and natives”: “you wouldn’t want to identify as African. You wanted to be British. And maybe white.”

That all changed in 1979, when a 19-year old Evaristo enrolled in a community theatre degree at the Rose Bruford drama school in south London with the hope of becoming an actress. There were five black women in a cohort of 30. “At the very beginning, I found her quite quiet,” remembers classmate Paulette Randall, who notes that her own upbringing in Brixton meant she had grown up around black communities. “For Bernardine, I think it was the opposite. She was always the only one.” Nevertheless, a friendship group formed on day one. Evaristo and her friends were inspired by African-American writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and academic Barbara Smith, whose 1983 collection Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology Evaristo credits with showing the “multiplicity and polyvocality” of black womanhood—ideas that came to be formative in her own work.

[su_pullquote align="right"]"The books I was reading were white books with white characters. I wasn’t seeing myself in this literature. I was seeing whiteness in literature"[/su_pullquote]

But after graduation, Evaristo found that the rich experiences described in these books cut against the disappointing offerings for black actresses like her, subject to endless auditions to be prisoners, nurses, criminals and cleaners. Along with Randall and fellow classmate Patricia Hilaire, Evaristo founded the Theatre of Black Women in 1982 to produce better roles and stories. She embedded herself in the London lesbian feminist art scene of the 1980s. (“I was lesbian in the 80s,” she told the Guardian; but later, “my own sexuality changed.”) She lived in short-life housing while her friends moved into squats. They would go to theatre shows and heckle if they disagreed with the politics. “We were all quite fiery,” Randall remembers with a laugh. Bernardine was often the peace broker of the group: “She was kind of the Kofi Annan.”

The theatre troupe the friends created ran for six years before disbanding in 1988. The pressures of running a persistently underfunded arts company were immense, and Evaristo wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue acting any longer. She turned instead to the part of theatre production that she enjoyed the most: writing.

*** Before attaining meteoric success with Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo published seven books. Her first was the poetry collection Island of Abraham, out of print (she is reluctant to republish it, she tells me, finding it less sophisticated than her other works); next was Lara and The Emperor’s Babe, both novels written in verse. The Emperor’s Babe tells the story of a Nubian teenager in Roman-era London who becomes the emperor’s mistress; it’s written in shape-shifting verse that mixes classical lyricism with adolescent backchat. Her first prose novel, Blonde Roots, was a historical satire that reversed the dynamics of the Atlantic slave trade: what if slaves were white Europeans and their masters wealthy Africans? The protagonist, Doris, comes from an impoverished cabbage-farming town on the coast of Europa. She is kidnapped and sent off to the capital Londolo, in Aphrika, where she serves Bwana, a boorish anti-abolitionist who meditates on the skull shape of his slaves.

Much of Evaristo’s work deals with the black diaspora in Britain past and present, real and imagined. History, after all, always bears the marks of power—it’s shaped by victors, assembled from sources considered important enough to be conserved. Her fiction consciously shines a light on what we may have missed: those testimonies that have fallen out of the record. The epigraph to Blonde Roots quotes Nietzsche: “All things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” In The Emperor’s Babe, the protagonist is reminded by her best friend—a trust-fund kid turned exuberant drag queen, no less—that “ain’t no one never gonna write / about your life but you. Once you’re dead, / you never existed.”

But far from being quasi-sociological accounts of exotic worlds, Evaristo’s fiction is also rich in the psychology of rounded individuals. Her characters aren’t just vehicles for ideas: they are messy, ambivalent people. After all, it was the idea of giving voice to the black British women who were almost never represented in the pages of novels that drove Evaristo’s turn to writing, suggests Simon Prosser, publishing director at Hamish Hamilton and Evaristo’s editor for 20 years. He remembers asking her years ago why she started out: “She said it was because she was looking for monologues to read for auditions, those for black women. But they weren’t there. So she started writing them.”

[su_pullquote align="right"]"I was looking at my own family history and my own experience growing up… I remember thinking this isn’t Toni Morrison, this isn’t Alice Walker, this isWoolwich!"[/su_pullquote]

It wasn’t easy at the start. “I could probably count on one hand the number of black British women being published,” Evaristo says of the 1980s. Up until the late 1990s, she kept hearing “there is no market for your work.” She’s critical of what she saw as the UK publishing industry’s tendency to export success stories from America at the expense of nurturing domestic talent, noting how publishers were quick to publish writers like Maya Angelou while shutting the door on their homegrown equivalents. Though Evaristo greatly admires these US writers, she continues, they tell different stories: “When I started writing Lara, I was looking at my own family history and my own experience growing up… I remember thinking this isn’t Toni Morrison, this isn’t Alice Walker, this isWoolwich!” She laughs. Since then, she’s developed her voice in order to “make sense of what it means to be black in this country.” A hostile publishing industry wasn’t the only challenge. Evaristo was also living on a shoestring budget as an aspiring artist in London. In an essay about her career for the Arvon writing centre, she remembers three decades of living a “financially impecunious and precarious existence.”

Stability finally came in 2011, when Evaristo was appointed professor of creative writing at Brunel. And her gamble paid off once more with Girl, Woman, Other, which arrived to a much more receptive media landscape, a shift that Evaristo credits to Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The publishing industry today, she concludes, is in a “really healthy place... it’s still not enough, but it’s phenomenal.”

It’s also in part down to Evaristo, who considers herself as much an activist for inclusion in the literary world as she is a writer. She’s set up mentorship schemes for black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers in the UK and established literary prizes for African poets. On Twitter she often champions emerging writers. “She’s the finest advocate of BAME writers I know,” says poet and fellow Brunel lecturer Daljit Nagra, who has co-edited an anthology of British BAME poets with Evaristo. Raymond Antrobus, recent recipient of the Ted Hughes award for poetry, took part in a mentoring scheme set up by Evaristo years ago. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Bernardine,” he says, noting he was particularly inspired by her own confidence and her capacity to instil similar self-belief in others.

The same political concerns—of racial and gender inclusion, and interrogating what it means to be British—and the dividing lines they can create also animate Girl, Woman, Other, making the novel feel strikingly contemporary. Ambitious university students debate white privilege; a teenager renounces feminism to her aghast mother; a historian goes on the BBC and tells viewers he’s proudly part of the 48 per cent who voted Remain.

Evaristo understands that people may come to the book with preconceptions: “a couple of people have said to me that they thought, ‘oh, this is going to be one of those worthy books,’” she says with mock authority. But the book is more playful, much like Evaristo herself. (When I mention once meeting an American who doubted there were many ethnic minorities in Britain, she says she’s glad her book is selling well over there so “he can shove it up his whatsit.”)

The lives of its 12 characters—young and old, rich and poor, city-dwelling and rural—run up against one another, often in humorous circumstances. Bombastic egos are built up only to be deflated by others. People misunderstand each other, furiously debate the news, and sometimes the person you’d least expect shows the most resolve. Everyone walks around, much like they do in real life, convinced of their own righteousness, too busy stewing on hurt they’ve received from others to realise they may be inflicting pain on others. “I’m not really pursuing a thesis with this book other than the infinite possibility of who we are,” Evaristo says; besides, she adds, “if I judge my characters, I’m underestimating the reader and I’m force-feeding them how they should interpret the work.”

The ethos of multiplicity that animates Girl, Woman, Other is girded by the belief that people are complex; they have their own rich histories and yet remain infinitely malleable. At a time when political “debate” is aired in aphoristic comment pieces, televised disagreements and cutting tweets that harden people into public figures—and then public figures into immutable brands—Evaristo’s novel is a reminder of how fiction can illuminate the many sides to our lives.

Her belief that people are always in the process of becoming who they are is supported by the novel’s free form, a mixture of poetry and prose that Evaristo calls “fusion fiction.” The language in Girl, Woman, Other is stripped of punctuation and capitalisation, featuring isolated lines that flow into one another rather than being assembled neatly in block paragraphs. Showing the fluid nature of a character’s stream of consciousness takes precedence over strict fealty to grammar. “The form is absolutely intrinsic to the story,” Evaristo says. “It would have been hard to do all the very subtle shifting points of view, interiority, exteriority, the past segueing with the present, if I had written it with the restrictions of traditional grammar.”

In this sense, Girl, Woman, Other not only captures the state of Britain today—one in perpetual disagreement about its self-understanding—but also offers a way out. It asks the reader to accept ambivalence and variability as a fact of life: to understand that Britain, too, has many different histories (“British history is multicultural history. Full stop”) and that there are a multitude of ways to be British.

*** Evaristo’s Booker win was not without controversy. The judges flouted the rules in awarding the prize to both her and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. They split the £50,000 prize money. Former Booker judge Sam Leith described the decision as a “rotten, rotten precedent,” deeming it unfair to both writers. (The prize was shared in 1992 but the rules were later changed.) After the announcement, gossip was rife in the publishing world: some speculated that Atwood was being pandered to as a literary celebrity. Others pointed out that Evaristo, the first black woman to win the prize, was forced to share it. After the award was announced, Evaristo was asked whether she would have preferred to pocket the full amount: “What do you think? Yes, but I’m happy to share it. That’s the kind of person I am.”

During our coffee five months later, she is similarly gracious—and pointedly unruffled—about the controversy. A few minutes into excitedly talking about the ways the Booker has changed her life, she pulls back, anticipating the obvious question: “and sharing it with Margaret Atwood? Happy.” I laugh, observing that she must be used to being asked about it. “All the time,” she smiles, “all the time.” But Atwood, she adds, is a great writer. And the effects of the prize, she knows now, haven’t been diluted: “everything that’s happened to me is testament to the fact that the prize has done what the prize does, which is put writers’ careers into another stratosphere.”

Evaristo appears largely unaffected by her new superstar status. Nagra, her Brunel colleague, remembers seeing her days after the win at a grant-giving meeting, where she was championing other authors before returning to lecture undergraduates. But it’s not just the Booker. All her colleagues, editors and friends I’ve talked to have made the observation that in all the time they’ve known her—some for many decades—she’s barely changed. There’s always been a firm self-belief, they say, even when she was being ignored by the literary establishment; the same excitement about her own work and those of others; the same healthy ego that energises those around her without descending into egoism. (It’s hard, Antrobus tells me, to talk about Evaristo “without sounding cheesy.”) During our coffee, Evaristo reflects on her career: “I’m telling stories that haven’t been told. I’ve been saying that all my life.” It was the ethos that underpinned her theatre company in the 1980s; it was the same one that inspired Girl, Woman, Other 40 years later. The great novelist of fluidity and self-reinvention never thought she needed to adjust to a world that for so long didn’t recognise her. Rather, she waited for the world to catch up.

“Girl, Woman, Other” is out in paperback