In 2019, British writer Bernardine Evaristo made history as the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize for her transcendent eighth novel, “Girl, Woman, Other.” By the time the Booker launched her onto the world stage, the 60-year-old Evaristo had already lived a multitude of lives: She has been a performer, a playwright, a teacher, a novelist, an activist, and one of eight children born to a Black Nigerian father and a white British mother growing up in southeast London. To reflect the variety of her experience, Evaristo’s new memoir, “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up,” examines her life in thematic chapters including Family, Ambition and Activism. It’s partly a memoir, but also a book about the craft of writing, the art of race and gender activism, and the fraught navigation of sex and dating in the late 20th century. Evaristo will appear remotely at a reading with Seattle Arts & Lectures on Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Titling your memoir “Manifesto” seems like a bold move. Was that always the title, and what was your thinking about that?
Well, we were going to call it “The Evaristo Manifesto,” but that was a bit cheesy. Sometimes I’m working on titles for years until I find the right one, but actually “Manifesto” came quite quickly and it just felt really right.
Even though the book isn’t strictly a manifesto, there is a manifesto at the end of the book. And in fact, the manifesto at the end of the book is the result of the life I’ve led, and so the book in itself is sort of a buildup to this idea that I have a manifesto.
One of the things I love about this book is when you talk about your parents, you are at times deeply respectful of their sacrifice, and at other times in the book you sound resentful of your father’s emotional withholding, for example. Your feelings about them change from paragraph to paragraph, and even sometimes from sentence to sentence. Did you struggle against imposing an artificial narrative on top of your life in the writing of this book?
I never really wanted to write a traditional memoir in the sense that “this is a story of my life, and it went from A to B to C to D.” The idea of the book was really about how I could explore this idea of my creativity through the life that I’ve led — how it’s been shaped by my creativity and how creativity has been shaped by my life.
So I then came up with this idea of having these different sections, and I would look at my life through different lenses — whether it was my family and heritage or my relationships or whatever. The book has all these different sections, and some of them function in different ways. The earlier part of the book is more traditional memoir, but then when you get to the creative practice, some people are calling that a manual type thing. That wasn’t my intention, either, but it is more about the craft of writing.
You say you didn’t have many Black British authors to look up to as you were growing up and learning how to be a writer, so instead you leaned on African American authors like Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston. Do you feel like you’re writing in the tradition of Black American authors? Can you feel their influence on your work, still?
I would say that they were a formative influence on me when I was younger, but what I learned from those writers was to write in my own voice. I wasn’t really inheriting their tradition because their tradition was so different to mine. But what they gave me was they validated my desire to write my perspective as a Black British woman, rather than me trying to write like them. Because I discovered very early on that I couldn’t write like them — they were a different generation, coming from a different culture, with a different perspective, different point of view, completely different history, completely different communities and a completely different kind of aesthetic as well.
But you still recognized yourself in those stories, even though they were so different.
That’s right, because they were Black women who were at the center of their fiction, and nobody else was doing that. Black women were invisible in fiction otherwise. And also, great literature transcends all boundaries and barriers, so I was also relating to the humanity of the characters, and the fact that they were Black brought them closer to me. So did I see myself and my story in their stories? Not really. But I could connect to it, and that was what so important.
Near the end of the book, right before the actual manifesto, you talk about being inside the fortress of literature. You say you used to be outside the fortress throwing rocks, but when you won the Booker Prize you came inside the Fortress and now you’re trying to change it from the inside. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience is like?
Well, I suppose being a professor at a British university is very much working within the establishment, and working towards creating an inclusive and diverse curriculum is something I have been championing and practicing myself for the last 10 years or so. And then I’ve just been appointed president of the Royal Society of Literature.
Thank you. I have been a vice president and I’ve been a chair, so I have been working with that organization for a few years now. And it is over 200 years old, right? So historically it is a very traditional organization, but the people who are now behind the organization, including myself, have been very progressive in wanting to make it again more inclusive and more representative of underrepresented writers. We’ve been initiating schemes and projects and so on to make that happen. The society has a fellowship of over probably about 600 fellows now, and historically it wasn’t very diverse. But in the last four or five years, it’s become, with the new fellows, incredibly diverse. It’s really important for writers to become fellows in the U.K. — it’s a real honor and they have it for life. So it’s wonderful to be able to create that opportunity for people.
I believe you were going to be reading here in Seattle on the Jan. 24, but then omicron struck and you’re doing the reading remotely instead. Were you looking forward to touring with the book? A lot of authors are uncomfortable with reading tours, but I wondered if your theatrical background helped you with public appearances.
I was really looking forward to touring America, because the last tour for “Girl, Woman, Other” was canceled because of lockdown and now it’s been canceled again. I haven’t been to America as a Booker Prize winner, so I was really excited and it’s a great tour that’s been lined up.
I find America endlessly fascinating, but obviously you have to stay safe. So, maybe in a couple of years’ time, I’ll be there. I really like American audiences. British audiences can be very cool, but American audiences are very responsive, and I always enjoy that.