Interview with Bernardine Evaristo

The 2019 Booker Prize nominee and Brunel University London professor on how disapproval of her parents’ interracial marriage and their ‘mixed-race kids’ spurred her to write

September 26, 2019
Bernardine Evaristo
Source: Jennie Scott

Bernardine Evaristo, professor of creative writing at Brunel University London, studied acting and later gained a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of eight works of fiction, including The Emperor’s Babe (2001), Blonde Roots (2008) and Mr Loverman (2013). Her “fusion fiction” novel, Girl Woman, Other, was recently shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.

Where and when were you born?
Woolwich, halfway through 1959. I really should have waited another six months and been a 1960s baby.

How did your upbringing influence the themes of your fiction?
In every way possible, as the fourth of eight children born to a Nigerian man and white English mother in what was then a white London suburb. The concept of race and being viewed as an outsider affected us from the moment we were born, but it took until adulthood for me to be able to articulate the sense of never quite fitting in. My writing is shaped by the dichotomies of my childhood, of belonging and not belonging, the black and white of it, the socialist activist father and the Roman Catholic inculcation.

What kind of student were you? 
Bright enough to go to grammar school but not that motivated when there, because I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to act and go to drama school. I excelled in drama and enjoyed the classics, languages and English literature.

What was your most memorable moment at college?
I trained as an actress on the Community Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford College from 1979 to 1982. Being susceptible to flattery, the defining moment came in my final term when my one-woman play was described by the principal as the best piece of theatre he’d ever seen. It lasted all of two minutes and was entitled Nigger! It was an explosion of poetic rage, a veritable fireball. He probably felt emotionally singed but somehow liked it.

What advice would you give your younger self? 
Don’t drink so much and definitely don’t smoke that first cigarette. Your life will be unpredictable and you must enjoy the surprises in store for you. Enjoy the struggles that come your way, including poverty, because it will be the making of you. Through surviving obstacles, you will become resilient and that is one of the most important qualities to possess for a lifelong career in the arts.

What was the spur to writing your first novel?
My first book was a poetry collection, Island of Abraham (1994), and my second book was a verse novel, Lara, first published in 1997 and republished with new material in 2009. Lara began as a fiction based on my parents’ interracial English-Nigerian marriage in London in 1954 and the hostility they faced from my mother’s side of the family. This sense of disapproval of my parent’s marriage and their mixed-race kids was the shadow story of my childhood. We were half-caste, half-breeds, and we weren’t supposed to exist.

What are the main pleasures and challenges of teaching creative writing?
I enjoy helping my students develop their skills beyond their expectations. Talent can be grown. Confidence nurtured. Skills taught. The challenges lie in trying to get them to develop their own unique voice in a classroom setting when they are still in the early stages of becoming writers.

How can you help your students abandon conventional narrative techniques?
Through encouraging them to experiment and providing imaginative exercises that free them from traditional ways of writing fiction. Often students find the process of discovery very exciting, such as realising that they can tell a novel through Twitter posts.

What were the origins of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize?
I founded the prize in order to develop African poetry, which was almost nowhere on the international literary landscape in 2012. I had just chaired the Caine Prize for African Fiction, founded in 1999, and witnessed the power of a literary prize to change the fortunes of a continent’s fiction. I thought I could do the same with poetry. At the same time the African Poetry Book Fund was founded by Kwame Dawes at the University of Nebraska, and we’ve collaborated with my prize and his various prizes and publications to bring more African poets to the fore.

What does being shortlisted for the Booker mean to you?
It is an honour and a validation and I’m thrilled that it’s introducing more readers to my work.

What are the key areas where you would like to see British universities doing more for black students?
Everything needs to improve. Diversifying academic staff at every level. For example, I am one of only 26 black women professors in this country out of some 17,000 professors. Diversifying the curriculum. Making sure that students are not marginalised, underrated and seen as underperforming through conscious and unconscious bias.

Tell us about a couple of people you’ve always admired.
Dame Mary Beard and “Dame” Michelle Obama.

If you had been facing fees of £9,000, would it have influenced your decision to go to drama school?
I would have gone anyway and known that I was very unlikely to pay off the loan. Nothing would have stood in my way of going to drama school.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce? 
Several, I have to say: cancel tuition fees; cancel [subsidies] to private schools; force Oxbridge to ensure their intake statistically reflects the state/private school demographics [in the wider population].

Do you live by any motto or philosophy? 
“I never saved anything for the swim back” (a quote from Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca).

What would you like to be remembered for? 
As an individualistic writer who understood the meaning of the word “community”.

Appointments

Mary Osako, former head of global corporate communications at Amazon, has been named the University of California, Los Angeles’ vice-chancellor for strategic communications, a newly created post overseeing the institution’s marketing, media relations, executive communications, public outreach and special events and protocol units. Ms Osako, a UCLA graduate, said: “To me, this is a singular opportunity to help shape the world’s future by joining the leadership and integrated communications and marketing team at one of the greatest public universities on the planet. I’m incredibly honoured to serve in this inaugural role as I go from public companies to the public university space, and I’m thrilled to be back home again among my fellow Bruins.”

Former investment banker Duncan Angwin has been appointed the new dean of Nottingham University Business School. He will join from Lancaster University, where he is currently the Sir Roland Smith professor in strategic management and head of department for entrepreneurship and strategy. Professor Angwin previously worked on mergers and acquisitions as a senior investment banker with firms such as Hambros Bank and Banque Paribas. Todd Landman, pro vice-chancellor for Nottingham’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said that Professor Angwin “brings outstanding experience from both industry and academia which will benefit our teaching staff and students”.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, has been appointed deputy director of The UK in a Changing Europe, the King’s College London-based initiative that aims to promote “rigorous, high-quality and independent research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union”. Professor Bale is co-author of the recently published Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century and is a prominent commentator on politics in the media. Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, said that Professor Bale “will enhance our ability to ensure that the findings of the best social research are made available to the widest possible audience”.

The University of Liverpool has appointed Jeff Blackford as the first dean for Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. He will also continue to work in his capacity as dean for the University of Liverpool in London, a role to which he was appointed earlier in the year.

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