Sunday, November 3, 2019 2:32 pm
Winning the Man Booker Prize has Given my Literary Career a Boost – Bernandine Evaristo
Born to a Nigerian father and an English mother, UK-based Bernandine Evaristo is the author of eight critically acclaimed works of fiction. This year, her latest novel, Girl Woman, Other won the Man Booker Prize, sharing it with Margaret Atwood. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Brunei University London. She was in Nigeria recently where she was guest at the just concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, she speaks about the prize, growing up in the UK and the Caine Prize for African Writing, of which she was once the Chair.
Your novel, Girl, Woman, Other won this year’s Man Booker Prize. Could you tell me what it is about?
It’s a novel about 12 primarily black British women, who are aged 19 to 93 and they are very different from one another. But they are all interconnected and they all have their own stories. They are lots of cultural stories. And they are of different cultural backgrounds, occupations, ages and sexuality. One is a non-binary character. They come from different parts of the black world as well as different parts of the UK. And I want to basically explore multiplicity of black British womanhood in one book.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Five years. The book takes as long as it takes.
What were your experiences while writing the book? Were you at a point discouraged?
No, no no. It’s my eighth book. I have been writing for 40 years actually since I was a drama student. So nobody can discourage me from writing anything. If I set my mind to write anything then I would do it.
You were at a time Chair of the Caine Prize for African writing. What were your experiences like while you were Chair?
Yes I was Chair of the Caine Prize in 2012.I’m trying to remember who won. I think it was Rotimi Babatunde. It was a good experience. I like being a Chair because you set the agenda. And for the last three years, the prize has gone from writers writing about children in sort of brutalized situations in Africa and has become a cliché. And I decided that we weren’t going to go down that route that year. And so we changed the pattern and didn’t give it to one of those short stories because Arica is a vast continent and there are millions of stories in Africa, Why do we have to write about children in difficult situations?
The Caine prize has been criticized for focusing on poverty/tragedy porn. What’s your view?
I don’t know that they do that now.
How do you see it? Is it really true?
Well, I haven’t kept up to date with what they are publishing, with what they are rewarding at the moment. But I think there was a bit of a trend with western publishers to focus on the kind of novels that were expressing what they want people to know through the media. Because western publishers in the UK are white mainly, so they would publish books about corrupt and brutal, savage war- torn Africa rather than the multiplicity of stories around it. So I think that was the issue with the publishing industry. It is a great prize. I like the prize. It is a very important prize. Before the Caine Prize came along African books/fiction was nowhere. And people forget that. I always say that. I also have my own prize, the Brunei International African Poetry Prize. It is three thousand pounds which goes to a writer.It is been going since 2012. And we have single winners, joint winners and triple winners. Last year we had triple winners.
The whole point of my prize is to develop African poetry. That is what it has done in conjunction with Kwame Dosi’s poetry outfit at the University of Nebraska – The African Poetry Book fund. And so together we have something to create a very vibrant poetry sector
What inspired your critically acclaimed novel entitled Mr Loverman?
I like to write the stories that are not told, to take risks, to be bold with my choices. And the idea of a 74 -year old gay Caribbean man was to me like a welcome challenge. To write that kind of story that hasn’t really been told of somebody of that age in Britain. So I just wanted to open up the idea who with that man, how women can be in society. So that was the thinking behind this lover man who saw behind those women and others.
Has the Caine Prize played an important role in African literature?
Do you think it has defined what African Literature is?
No, it hasn’t. But a lot of the writers who won the Caine Prize have gone on to become successful writers, like Helon Habila and Leila Aboulela. So it has revitalized African fiction. But it is not done yet. Now all kinds of writers are getting published, like Oyinkan Braithwaite, the writers who are writing speculative fiction, crime writers. So, lots of writers are publishing lots of different novels now.
I always say that. I also have my own prize, the Brunei International African Poetry Prize. It is three thousand pounds which goes to a writer
What was it like growing up in the UK considering the fact that your dad is Yoruba and your mum English? Did you experience racism while growing up, given your mixed-race background?
I grew up in London in the 60s and 70s. And the area I grew up, Woolich, is now very Nigerian but it wasn’t at the time. My father was practically the only Nigerian. We went to England in 1949, a long time ago. And we were a family of eight children. And there was a lot of racism in the UK at the time. My father didn’t really pass for his culture. So our culture was very English. And you are growing up in a white society that did not accept you. You do not have another culture to draw because you do not know the Nigerian culture. And we were poor. My father couldn’t afford to come back to Nigeria. So I would say it is a struggle. Not that I suffered.I had a happy childhood. But that doesn’t mean to say it was difficult for my parents and for some members of my family, especially my brothers because they tend to be the target of street level racism.
Did you ever experience an identity conflict while growing up?
I think I did because I grew up in a very white society and I did not see people of colour reflected in the society around me. It was only when I went to college that I met other black women from the Caribbean actually that I began to develop a black identity. But it took a while for me to accept that I was mixed race, mixed heritage and black and my childhood did not mean I wasn’t black. Because when I started to move in black circles there was some very narrow definitions of what black was. And I knew myself I had to accept myself or who I was. Somebody who is growing up mixed race, white environment. So the idea that black is reductive, that it is some reductive identity, you know that black is going to be this, this and that is ridiculous. Blackness is as varied and all inclusive as whiteness in our society,
How do you feel winning the Man BookerPrize, to be in the league of writers like Salman Rushdie and company?
They were very lucky to be on the list with me (laughs). It is very good for their careers. The actual moment of winning was just euphoria. It still hasn’t sunk in. So today I am on the Sunday Times bestseller list and the prize keeps giving in every way possible. And let’s say my career was at 50 (one to hundred) but now it is like 85.And it will continue for a while to lift my career. I have done the work, I have written the books, I have been very active in literature and now I have this honour which has such repercussions in the world. I have that to push me forward. And the book is selling itself. I don’t have to push the book. It is selling itself, and I have never had that. And the book was only published in May. It is only five months now. And last week it doubled sales, from May. So it is incredible.
When the judges were considering awarding the prize, there was this argument over whether it should be awarded to a single winner or joint winners. How did you feel then?
I don’t mind. Just give me the prize! I have got the prize. I know lots of people were upset that I got the prize. But I don’t mind. I still got it. I am just so grateful to get it.