My conversation with Bernardine Evaristo took place amidst the curtained caverns of Carriageworks’ Bay 17. Lit only by the glowing screen, her words carried from her blue velvet armchair to my mezzanine seat in the middle of S row. However, I did not reply as she spoke to me. I did not whisper my agreement nor wail my admiration. Instead I wrote, intensely and in the dark, about the glimpses of light which family, culture and confidence can reveal in the act of writing itself. I left with pages of scribbles in my notebook and a choir of voices in my head, each gaining momentum as they encountered the countless other conversations that everyone else in that hall maintained with Evaristo. And so I listened.
Introduced by moderator Sisonke Msimang as the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, and to hold the title of President of the Royal Society of Literature, Evaristo centred her complex encounters with racism and prejudice in the opening discussions of her non-fiction debut, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Growing up in a British-Nigerian family during the 1960s, Evaristo recounted the bricks that shattered her parents’ front windows, and the strong friendships she maintained with other children in the neighbourhood. She spoke to her love for her conservative Catholic grandmother, despite her refusal to let Evaristo and her eight siblings into her home. In a posh English accent, Evaristo quipped that “British racism is quite sophisticated” — equally inaudible to a child’s naïve ear as it is to an adult’s trained eye.
Yet in her own words, Evaristo refuses to make herself a victim. Telling stories of her younger siblings’ antics and her father’s disciplinarian gait, Evaristo’s nostalgic laughs balanced the raw memory of hardship with a gritty exterior. She said that writing becomes a means of “revealing yourself”, as well as understanding who the people around you are and where they come from. The point, then, is not to crumble, like one of Evaristo’s father’s walls in their roofless garage. Rather, these experiences “fortify you, if they do not crush you.” I felt a hush come over us; I etched this phrase like a mantra onto my palm.
It is in this constant back-and-forth between structural inequality and personal resistance which Evaristo locates her personal voice, rippling like a moonlit breeze through the eclipsed amphitheatre. However, when Evaristo was asked how important a novel like Girl, Woman, Other would have been to her as a young girl, the audience could once again feel her passion and excitement. She explained that the flattening of black women’s literary experiences to those of African-Americans like Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde not only erases postcolonial British stories, but also made her feel “invisible in the culture” while growing up. Her self-proclaimed “radical” writing style, jokingly distinguished from Ian McEwan’s more mainstream prose, resounds loudly through her purpose to tell such diverse stories.
Above all, this was an interaction founded upon learning. Evaristo noted that she was “not phased” by speaking to a predominately white Australian audience, but perhaps would have been earlier in her career. For her, growing older has meant pivoting from a frustrated unionist mentored by her socialist father, to “changing the citadel from within.” Juggling her commitments between day and night has translated to “getting the work done” regardless. While I remain unable to reconcile this outlook with my own politics, I do understand how she has learned from and intertwined her characters’ souls with parts of her own, by writing “a composite of every person she has ever met.”
So even when the lights came up and we were no longer face to face, I held our conversation in my mind. This was a talk about the times the words do not flow; when night will not stop falling; when you feel you have no choice but to start again. In a time fraught with pressure and urgency, these moments of personal rapture — captured so eloquently that I felt I was on the stage myself — are those worth writing for.