International Literature Festival: Bernadine Evaristo
Esteemed author Bernadine Evaristo describes her own experiences of othering, culture, identity, and ancestry in Britain as a Black, working-class woman.September 14th, 2022
With sponsorship from the British Council (amongst many other embassies and generous donors), our ongoing feature of the international literature festival in Berlin continues with British author Bernadine Evaristo’s interview.
Hosted at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Evaristo took to the stage on 12th September 2022, offering a deeper insight into her most recent novel ‘Manifesto: On Never Giving Up’.
After winning the Booker prize in 2019 for her novel ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ in a groundbreaking event of being the first Black woman to have won this prestigious prize, Evaristo describes her success to have come overnight. History was also made when the 2019 prize became the first ever instance of having two winners, with her and Margaret Atwood sharing the stage. Despite previous novels achieving moderate success, the British author shot into the spotlight, with more interviews and press coverage than ever before, as she explains onstage to the chuckling audience.
Her novel ‘Manifesto: On Never Giving Up’ serves as a memoir of Bernadine’s experiences throughout the intersections of her identity, being working-class, Black and a woman, particularly growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s. The now-vibrant, multicultural capital city is described back then to be a very different landscape, in which Bernadine and her family were continuously ostracised and othered. In spite of the prejudice faced, the novel equally acts as a reflection of her own resilience and desire to overcome the barriers imposed upon her, both as an author and activist.
As part of the audience, one can instantly recognise the openness Bernadine speaks with, similarly found in her novels, which she states has increased over the years, catalysed particularly by the Booker prize win. This refreshing frankness equally shows the harsh reality of racism she faces, speaking of how, despite sharing similar behaviours, culture, beliefs and upbringing, her peers would reduce her simply to her appearance.
Through these difficulties, Bernadine sought to establish herself more solidly in her own identity, with research into her genealogy and ancestors revealing truths and stories about those who came before her. She explains that with one of her other novels, ‘Lara’, she adopts a semi-autobiographical nature in recalling and piecing together her fragmented family history, as is similarly dealt with in her most recent work.
In confronting her own family history, the author discovers that, regardless of the offensive jeers of others telling her ‘to go back to where she came from’, her lineage in Britain can be traced back hundreds of years on her mother’s side. Her investigations also show that Black people have lived in Britain for centuries, tracing back to the Cheddar Man from 10,000 BC, as well as Black inhabitants of Roman London in 200 AD. Such discoveries are stated by Bernadine to have made her ‘unassailable in her identity’.
It can thus be stated that within this investigative, cross-cultural examination of Bernadine’s own past, she takes on the role of diplomat, both mediating between various branches of her family tree, as well as between cultures which shape who she is today. Yet, this was not without difficulty. Resultant from the diasporic nature of her ancestry, there are elements which remain unexplained to her, namely her grandfather’s migration back to West Africa from Brazil after the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, for her Yoruba ancestors in Nigeria, there is a tradition of not speaking of the dead, distancing her from the understanding of her own heritage.
Alongside Bernadine’s own self-described ‘archive’, collating important details and objects of her life in physical form, her literature equally comes to act as a vehicle for shared humanity, through its ability to transport the reader into different perspectives through words alone.
In alignment with the international nature of the festival, Bernadine offers a brief view into her own corner of the world for listeners and readers alike, truly putting into practise the aforementioned transformative power of literature. Looking around the crowd, guests can be seen from various cultures, countries and languages, yet despite such differences, all are united by a fascination with literature.