'Girl, Woman, Other' author Bernardine Evaristo on new memoir about perseverance
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Long before she became a literary superstar, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, writer Bernardine Evaristo was just trying to figure things out, things like where she fit in in her mostly white working class town as one of the eight kids born to her white British mother and her Nigerian immigrant father. But as she writes in her new memoir, "Manifesto," even though she wasn't always sure of herself, she always knew she had something to say. "Manifesto" tells the story of that journey to figuring out just what she wanted to say and how to say it. It's a piercingly direct account of the many steps she took and the hurdles she overcame to not only tell her own story, but to celebrate it. It is also, as the title implies, a challenge and an invitation to others to do the same. The full title is "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up."
When I talked with Evaristo recently, I asked her what inspired her to write this book now, after the colossal success of her award-winning novel, "Girl, Woman, Other."
BERNARDINE EVARISTO: I wrote it because I had reached this point in my career, and I was negotiating with my publisher about the next books that I was going to be writing. And I felt, I can't write another novel. I had written "Girl, Woman, Other," 12 characters, you know, 12 co-protagonists. It had actually been very demanding and challenging, as well as very rewarding and pleasurable, but it was very demanding and challenging. And I couldn't think of embarking on a similar project, you know, another big novel as a follow on. And also, I did not want the next book to be compared so quickly to "Girl, Woman, Other." So then I thought, well, why don't I write about my life? So it made perfect sense to put this into a book.
MARTIN: I have to say, I don't think I was surprised, but I was struck again and again by just how direct you are about things that so many of us dance around. I mean, it's bracing. I don't think it's unkind, but I will say it's bracing. I mean, you write a lot about your childhood, what it was like growing up mixed race in - or biracial, as we would say, in London. You talk about the fact that, you know, there are times where you didn't want to acknowledge your father on the street. Like, if you saw him on the street, you didn't want to acknowledge him. It was that - you were made to feel kind of that ashamed of being Black or being biracial or of the Blackness that was sort of in you. And, you know, you say this just without judgment of yourself or with others. It's just bracing. I'm just curious. Have you always been that way? Was that - is that something you had to fight for in this book?
EVARISTO: As a writer of fiction, I have learned to not judge my characters. You know, I allow the reader to judge them if that's what they want to do. All I want to do is to create these interesting, fascinating, complex characters who work within whatever fiction I'm creating. And perhaps some of that went into the memoir because I wanted to write about my experience, as you say, of growing up biracial in London in the '60s and 70s and lots of other things to do with my adult life as well. And you grow up in a white area and there's nothing around you as there was in my childhood - wasn't in my childhood, anything around me that endorses you as a Black person. And your father is a very dark-skinned Black man who doesn't relate to his children anyway, so you don't have a loving relationship with him. And he is the symbol of the racism in the society around you.
So as a child, probably I would have been about 10 or 11, I was very embarrassed by my dad and actually probably later as well. And that's something - that's a really interesting thing, I think, for the reader to read about. And I think when you are more honest and open and - when you confide in the reader, I think it makes for perhaps a more relatable book.
MARTIN: I find it noteworthy because, you know, you put him in a context - Don't get me wrong, I don't want people to think you were, like, utterly without sympathy. It seems to me you have deep sympathy for him. And I will say that many people are embarrassed by their parents.
MARTIN: So, you know, just, you know, just to say. But that you put his behavior in a larger context without excusing any of it. I mean, you do something that Black writers of my experience, it's only been in recent years that they've been able to kind of express any kind of criticism of their upbringing, like the abuse, the violence that many people have experienced, right? But you also describe, you think, the forces that brought him to that. It's just - it sounds to me - I'm just - I guess what I was wondering is, did you feel like you had to fight for that or by the time you arrived at this book, you just knew that that's what you had to say? You knew that you had to say it.
EVARISTO: I knew what I had to say to a certain extent. But I also think the act of writing a memoir, a book about your life, as I call it, a massive act of self-interrogation. So I knew I had to say, but as I'm writing, as I was writing the book, I was also thinking deeply about things and about my, you know, in this case, about my family and my heritage and my father and not necessarily coming to new understandings, but deepening the context or even widening the context of who they are. And yes, my father was a disciplinarian. He was very oppressive to us children. He never talked to us. He never played with us. He never went anywhere with us. He was also a very reliable and responsible father, I have to say. But, you know, and he also beat us.
But he was coming out of a culture in Nigeria where children were seen and not heard. So he was bringing that to a British culture which was raising children differently. So it's very, very hard for me not to try to understand the motive and the context of why people behave in the way that they do. And that is something I ruminate on quite a lot, I think. And that's what I do as a writer, as a fiction writer.
MARTIN: Do you have any advice because, in part, this book is a challenge to people to tell their stories? And do you have some advice for people looking to write more or to write more honestly but who might be intimidated to start or don't know where to start?
EVARISTO: One of the tips I can give is that I thought, OK, I'm going to write this memoir and I'm going to write - have all these different categories. And I got to the bit - the section - I got to the section where I was talking about my living situations. And I thought, do I want people to know how hard up I was and for how long that lasted? And I thought, yes, put it in, put it in. That's what people need to know. And then I got to the section about the relationships with men and with women. And then I thought, oh, oh, dear, do I really want to tell people about this? And what do I - you know, how far do I want to go with it? How revealing do I want to be? And I had a couple of nights where I kind of woke up and thought, am I going to? Because I have actually been a very private person all my life. And it felt really risky.
And I thought, I've got to be really brave with this because I can feel myself resisting it. And so I did go there with it. And then it was so liberating. I thought, wow, this is great. This is going to be really fascinating for the reader because I decided to talk about some of my secrets. I just decided, if you like, to share my secrets. And when you share your secrets, you are also speaking to other people's secrets and getting them to reflect on their own lives. And so that's the tip I've got for somebody who wants to write about their life - share your secrets, but be brave. And tell those stories that haven't been told because those are the ones perhaps we most need to hear.
MARTIN: That is the Booker Prize-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo. Her latest book, "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up," is out now. Bernardine Evaristo, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations again on all that you have done and all that you are yet to do.
EVARISTO: Thank you so much. This was a really lovely interview. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.