‘I don’t want to be a slave to history’, says British-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo

By Anne Bocandé

Posted on May 19, 2023 10:43

 British-Nigeriab author and academic Bernardine Evaristo. © Jennie Scott
British-Nigeriab author and academic Bernardine Evaristo. © Jennie Scott

Just as two of her books are published in French, we talk with Bernardine Evaristo, the activist-writer of Nigerian heritage, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize in 2019 and president of the Royal Society of Literature. 

What if Europeans had been enslaved by Africans? Bernardine Evaristo’s latest novel Blonde Roots, questions the roots of racism up to the present day by unfolding an inverted history narrative.  The 63-year-old author, who is also a playwright and university professor, has been president of the prestigious Royal Society of Literature since last year. Her novel Girl, Woman, Other won the renowned Booker Prize in 2019, making her the first Black woman to earn this honour.

In Blonde Roots, you create a world in which Africans enslave Europeans. How did it come about?

Bernardine Evaristo: I wanted to write about the transatlantic slave trade, an important page in world history. And as a novelist, I was looking for a way to take readers in an unexpected direction. No one had yet proposed this prism of a world where the slaves were the Europeans. It allowed me to examine the magnitude and absurdity of the forces of slavery, as well as racism today, and its origins.

In your memoir, Manifesto – On Never Giving Up, in which you describe your career, you confide that “dangerous ideas are the only ones that interest me”. Where was the danger in Blonde Roots?

It was daring because the transatlantic slave trade is an extremely sensitive subject, even today. It’s a story that underpins the whole history of the US, beyond that of African-Americans. In the UK, it may seem a little more remote, because slavery materialised mainly in the Caribbean.

Inverting history means taking the risk of shocking people, the risk that some people might think I’m not taking the subject seriously. This is obviously not the case. In my writing, I combine the tragic and the comic, in this story as in all my books.

It’s documented fiction, like The Emperor’s Babe or Soul Tourists. How do you blend fiction and historical fact?

I’m very irreverent. Sometimes I stick to historical facts, sometimes I play with them. It’s back and forth between writing and research.

As a creator, I don’t want to be a slave to history. For Blonde Roots, I read a lot, especially Roots, by Alex Haley. I also visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

In Manifesto, you question the relationship you’ve had with Africa since you were a teenager when you realised your idea of the continent “was a concept that existed only in the imagination of Europeans”. What was that imagination?

I grew up with a Nigerian father who never spoke about Nigeria. I knew nothing about this part of my history. So when I was a child, “Africa”, “being African”, was something negative. I had internalised the racism of British society.

When I was 19, I became interested in African history and Black history. So Africa became mythological. I learned that we still had family members living in Nigeria and after travelling to Kenya, Egypt and Madagascar, I went there. I wondered if this country could be my home. I realised it couldn’t.

It is too different from Britain and, at the time, as an independent single woman, I could not have lived there. I felt I couldn’t be at home there. But Nigeria has become a spiritual home. Through my writing, I explore the world of the African diaspora, mainly British, in the past, in the present, in the future, and also in my imagination. Since I was 19, this has been my creative project.

What is your view of British society?

Black immigration to Britain began in the late 1940s. This first generation had to survive in a racist country. Whereas in my generation, some people are reaching positions of power, because we are part of the British establishment.

I learned that we still had family members living in Nigeria … I went there. I wondered if this country could be my home. I realised it couldn’t.

Society has progressed in terms of inclusivity, because we have fought, and anti-racist legislation has come into being. When I was young, it was inconceivable that a non-white person would become prime minister. There were no Black or Asian politicians. Today there are! Racism exists in Britain, but it is less prevalent than it was 40 years ago.

You started your career in theatre and trained in community theatre in particular.

Community theatre came about in the 1960s through communities saying: “If we don’t fit into mainstream theatre, we’ll create our own.” That was crucial because it really changed a theatre that was traditional, white, and male. All of a sudden there were troupes representing Black people, Asian people, women, queers, old people, etc. It was wonderful. And there was public funding so that everyone could express their concerns. It wasn’t activism at the time – it’s a word that has become fashionable – but community or alternative theatre.

You have been working since the 1980s for better integration of Black and Asian people in publishing. Why did you launch the Brunel Prize for African poetry?

I started it in 2012 because I didn’t see African poetry on the international landscape. I was president of the jury for the Caine Prize. I saw how it revolutionised the relationship with African fiction and helped promote writers from the continent on the world stage.

Why not create a similar prize for poetry? The president of the university where I was teaching offered to fund it. And every year the US-based African Poetry Fund has published winners from all over Africa. After ten years, the fund took over and called the award… the Evaristo Prize.

You teach fiction at university. What is the most important advice you give to your students?

I want them to value what they have to say, find their own voice and write about cultures that are important to them. When I started teaching, I realised all the students put themselves in the shoes of a white character, often a blonde girl with blue eyes, yet they came from different backgrounds and some had only just arrived in Britain. Why did they do this? Because they thought that literature was this white character, that their own culture could not be real literature.

So the first thing I teach my students is to value where they come from. They are free, of course, to write about whatever they want. But they need to know that they can write, too, about their own culture, in their own language, and that it is important for them and for society. I know what it’s like to feel that what you have to say is not important. When I started writing, I was told that my perspective as a young Black British woman was not interesting and that no one would want to read me. When I teach, I make sure my students don’t feel that way.

Among your influences, you mention Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange and Gloria Naylor. What influence did they have on your career?

They gave me permission to write. When I started reading African-American women writers in the early 1980s, there was only one bookstore in London that carried their work, and it was in my neighbourhood. They introduced me to the body of international literature written by, and about, Black women.

There was African fiction and Caribbean fiction, of course, but there were a lot of Black American women. There was plenty of choice. I identified with these women writers even though they were writing about lives that were very different from my own. They helped me develop my aesthetic and my literary motivations.

You claim to be a “Black writer” because “in a racialised society” you feel “it is important to focus on these subjects”. In what way is that true today?

The women writers I read were identified as Black. For me, asserting myself as a Black writer is an act of resistance against the dominant literature that, when I started, excluded us.

An identity does not limit who you are. Some people think that when you choose a label, you choose what you can write about, whereas it creates an infinite number of possibilities. How many Black people are there in the world? Over a billion. So there’s a lot to say, that’s not a restriction at all.

In 2019, you won the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other. It has, you say, changed your life.

I was not a young author – I already had several books published. I was recognised as a radical writer, with an experimental writing style. And in this book, all my characters are non-white women. So, yes, for all these reasons, it was an important moment.

Since 2022, you have been president of the Royal Society of Literature. What is the role of this institution?

It has 200 years of history and in the literary world, it is the pure establishment. It’s also a progressive organisation, otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. There are a lot of very inclusive literary and educational programmes that are working to give different communities more visibility, with prestigious titles now made available to very diverse people.

As for me, a Black woman activist, it’s a very powerful symbolic message: I come from a working-class background, and I’m the first not to come from a big university like Oxford or Cambridge. And then I’m only the second woman to hold this position in 200 years, and the first one who is not white.

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