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Bernardine Evaristo is the award-winning author of eight books of fiction and verse fiction. Her other writing includes short fiction, drama, poetry, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and Vice-Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, and her novel Girl, Woman, Other was published at the beginning of May. She spoke to Hannah Chukwu.

Bernadine Evaristo

I suppose each book I write speaks to the one that came before. So the book I wrote before was Mr Loverman, which was about a 74-year-old gay Caribbean man living in London, and there were some secondary figures in his wife – a woman in her sixties who didn’t know he was gay – his two middle-aged daughters, his grandson and his lover Morris. But I felt by the time the book was finished I was really interested in the three women’s stories – in particular the two daughters, because one of the things I realised as a writer is that I try to write the stories that aren’t out there. A lot of us writers of colour will say that we want to write those books that we feel should be out there.

When I was writing Mr Loverman I kept thinking, ‘Who writes about seventy-something-year-old older black men in this country?’ and I couldn’t think of anyone, let alone writing a gay character. Then, when I was writing the wife, I was thinking, ‘Older black women, who writes about that?’ I’m not sure, but I don’t think anybody does. And then writing about middle-aged women in their forties and early fifties: I thought, ‘That’s also unusual.’ And by the end of writing Mr Loverman I realized that there are so many stories of the different black generations in this country that we don’t hear about. One of the things I’ve noticed is that younger writers often don’t reach my age and carry on publishing, and I think younger writers often write from a younger perspective; and I noticed that if they write from an older perspective that person is usually mad in some way – they have dementia or something. They can’t conceive of that person having a happy, healthy life.

So because there aren’t many of us writing from a black British female perspective there is a real paucity of characters of all generations, but I think especially middle-aged and older generations. A lot of black British female writers have come and gone since I’ve been around. I’m becoming a veteran. I’ve always given myself a lot of freedom to write from any perspective, I go with the characters that go with me – and that may be a male protagonist, like in some of my other books, but with this one I really felt like they were women’s stories that I wanted to write. I thought, how many female characters can I write that are all protagonists in a single story, and make it work?

Going back to the origins of this novel, it was actually a commission in 2014 by BBC radio to write a story for the anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. I wrote a short story with four female black characters. I wrote the story in the form that the novel is in now – I call it ‘fusion fiction’, a slightly experimental form. When I wrote those four characters I knew I would use it for the basis of my next book.

The fluid way in which I shaped, lineated and punctuated the prose on the page enabled me to oscillate between the past and the present inside their heads, outside their heads, and eventually from one character’s story into another character’s story.

At one point I thought, ‘Maybe I could have one hundred protagonists.’ Toni Morrison has a quote: ‘Try to think the unthinkable.’ And I thought, ‘That’s unthinkable.’ You know, one hundred black women characters, how can I do that? I need a more poetic form. Now there are only twelve main characters.

Five Dials

There are so many different voices in this novel. Where did the voices come from? Are there some that resonate more with you?

Bernardine Evaristo

In the eighties I did run a theatre company, I was a dyke, so Amma has a little bit of my history, but I’m not her: I did not sleep with three hundred people – that’s all exaggerated. And then Yazz is one of my god-daughters, who’s very bright and very feisty. Dominique is a composite of women I knew years ago. As somebody who used to write for theatre and used to act, I love getting inside my characters and creating them, and even though this book isn’t in the first person, it feels like it’s in the first person because the reader is inside their heads. It’s a bit like Carmel in Mr Loverman, except Carmel is written in the second person; this is in close third – it’s like they’re talking to you. That process, I love it. I also had to have a non-binary character, because that’s such a big part of the conversation at the moment. I’ve got twelve characters, different sexualities; I needed someone whose gender is changed in some way. Writing their character with ‘they’ was a challenge – because I thought, ‘How do I do that and not bring attention to the “they” all the time?’

Five Dials

Why did fusion fiction feel the most appropriate way to tell this story? And why was it in novel form?

Bernardine Evaristo

With Mr Loverman, there are no standard full stops throughout the text, but each chapter ends with a full stop. So with Girl, Woman, Other there’s a full stop at the end of each section. There was something about the flowing way in which I was able to write the story that meant I could go all over the place. There was something about just having the punctuation with the shape on the page, which is almost like prose poetry. There aren’t any paragraphs. So that as you’re reading it, the sentences flow into each other.

The fluid way in which I shaped, lineated and punctuated the prose on the page enabled me to oscillate between the past and the present inside their heads, outside their heads, and eventually from one character’s story into another character’s story.

Five Dials

I’m interested in how that then becomes a novel. Why not a long-form poem or a play?

Bernardine Evaristo

It’s a prose poem, if anything. Fusion fiction for me puts the emphasis on the fiction. It was quite fluid to write and I really enjoyed that process, but when I came to edit, it was really hard. The freedom I gave myself in terms of form meant that I couldn’t quite see what was wrong with it in the way that you can with real punctuation and lineation. Fusion fiction as a form might be easier for poets, because managing the revision of it in 120,000 words is very challenging.

Five Dials

Your characters are all connected across a vast span of history. Can you tell me more about your interest in ancestry?

Bernardine Evaristo

Oh yeah, I’m obsessed. I’m not even Nigerian you know, I found out on ancestry.com. I got myself tested and they told me I’m from Togo and Benin, but it’s all the same – those counties were fake constructs. Apparently I’m a fake Nigerian.

Five Dials

How did ancestry feed into the story, and why did that feel like an important way to link the characters? There is a recurring theme of mother–daughter relationships in the novel, for instance.

Bernardine Evaristo

It was just an inter-generational thing. I wanted it to span every generation. Even though I don’t have a protagonist who’s a young teenager, a lot of the characters went through that stage. So you have a sense of who they were as children, how they became adults, and then how they are as mothers. That’s something I’m deeply interested in, how we become the people we are. Coming from a radical feminist alternative community in my twenties, and then seeing these people in their forties and fifties, I’ve seen people become extremely, almost conservative, and establishment. And having lost all the free-spiritedness, oppositionality and rebelliousness of their younger years. To me that’s fascinating. When I meet young people today and they are a certain way, I think, ‘You don’t know who you’re going to be.’ That feeds into the fiction. How do we parent our children? What are our ambitions for our children? How does that link to how we were raised? How does gender play out?

With ancestry, I wanted some span of Africa – from East Africa to West Africa and the Caribbean. That’s who we are in this country; our roots are all over the place.

Five Dials

I found the intersection of class, race and gender fascinating, and especially the way you depicted regionality. You depict the experience of being a person of colour in rural northern England, for example, which is unusual.

Bernardine Evaristo

I had to do that, because we are way too London-centric. I had to explore what it was like being a black person living in rural Britain. With Grace and Hatty, these historical figures, I wanted them to be powerful and strong and still independent – all the things that people don’t imagine for us. I don’t watch Countryfile, but I watched an episode this week and there were two black women and one of them was the presenter. I thought, ‘Oh, this is Countryfile? This is different!’ It’s positioning people of colour in places we’re not usually perceived to be.

Five Dials

Where did you find those stories?

Bernardine Evaristo

My imagination. I’m very interested in black British history. There’s a lot of evidence that black people have been in this country probably since forever. Emperor’s Babe was set 1,800 years ago. There are all these parish records of people leading ordinary lives that people have curated, and that fascinates me. Grace and Hatty really come from my interest in that and my slight annoyance that when we talk about the black presence in this country we talk about Windrush being the seminal moment. Windrush was a Caribbean moment for a start, not an African moment. My father came in 1949 from Nigeria. He’s not part of the Windrush generation, he has a very different history. Also this deeper history that we still haven’t imagined enough; I wanted people to imagine what it must have been like living as women of colour in the far north of this country in a rural society all those years ago. There is also a lot about colourism in the book. I try not to be heavy-handed, but I talk about how the colour gets washed out through the generations; then people’s relationship with the blackness of their African or Caribbean ancestry when they no longer look like they have it. In my family, in one generation it’ll be gone.

Five Dials

That sense of rootedness in those areas is so important. You take one of your characters to America?

Bernardine Evaristo

Yes, I took Dominique to a women’s commune. She’s originally leading a radical, feminist life in London, but actually she took it to an extreme in a separatist community. I wanted to explore a relationship between two women which is as controlling as a heterosexual relationship can be. I wanted to explore the complexity of our existence.

I wanted to explore a relationship between two women which is as controlling as a heterosexual relationship can be. I wanted to explore the complexity of our existence.

I also wanted to talk about complex topics like white privilege. We can’t just use white privilege as the way in which we look at how people are oppressed in any society, it’s a lot more complex than that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted the novel to be expressed through so many different viewpoints. I wanted the novel to have opposing viewpoints, so that people read that and they just don’t say, ‘I get this journey in terms of gender or sexuality or race,’ but that they’re constantly confronted by points of view that they may not agree with. If you put the characters in a room together, they’d probably be arguing. But I think that’s much more realistic and true to who we are, which is just complicated.

Five Dials

There’s such a wide range of emotion in the book. The book has been described as a celebration of black Britain and the spectrum of femininity, and it is a celebration of all the things we are and have been and will continue to be. But then there are some heavy moments and heavy relationships in there. Was there a point you thought the book was becoming too sad, or going too far in one direction?

Bernardine Evaristo

No. I know that the politics must be sewn in seamlessly through the characters. And there were a lot of things I wanted to talk about, so I was aware that I had to be careful about making sure it felt natural, that my exploration of politics felt natural and germane from the characters, as opposed to feeling shoehorned in. I didn’t want anyone to feel bludgeoned by it. I wanted them to get into the characters and then see things from their point of view, and to offer differing opinions. I wasn’t worried about the book being sad because I naturally turn to humour. I wanted it to be substantial and have depth. You have to dig deep into people’s emotional world and dive into some of the characters’ pain. I hope I did that well – so that you see characters not just as they appeared to be, but also their emotional world.

Five Dials

Speaking of inhabiting a character’s emotional world, I loved the novel’s relationship with and exploration of theatre from the 1980s up till now. How has theatre changed over that time?

Bernardine Evaristo

Theatre has come full circle. In the eighties and nineties, up to 1996, there were thirty to forty BAME theatre companies in this country. Theatre of Black Women, which I founded with two other people, was the first black women’s company, but after us there were two or three others, and then there were loads. They were funded by the Arts Council and the Greater London Council and it was a really vibrant alternative theatre landscape and network. Then most of those companies disappeared for one reason or another, often due to lack of funding or artists moving into the mainstream. Even so, there has been very poor representation of people of colour in theatre in the last three or four years. There’s been a huge awareness – #BlackLivesMatter triggered a lot of soul-searching which has resulted in a lot more productions and cross-racial casting than has existed for decades. We’re going through a very interesting period where people of colour are rising to prominence and being cast in roles that they wouldn’t necessarily have been cast in just a few years ago. The landscape for black artists has changed. I literally mean the last four or five years. A friend of mine, Adjoa Andoh, is an actress and a director and she’s directing and starring in an all-black all-female version of Richard II at the Globe Theatre. (I actually haven’t told her that there’s a play like that in my book.) She’s co-
directing with Lynette Linton, who’s just taken over as artistic director at the Bush Theatre. So it’s a very interesting time for black women in theatre.

Five Dials

I got the impression that Yazz and Amma’s story comes full circle in a similar way. Yazz is at university in the present day and is aware of systemic racial problems through listening to her mum’s experience. She’s full of second-hand rage that she doesn’t know how to channel, because she isn’t seeing the same vigour for grass-roots campus protests that Amma grew up with.

Bernardine Evaristo

I’m shocked that so many things haven’t changed. I’m sure you have stories from university that other people have from thirty or forty years ago. We have a long way to go. We need grass roots and leadership, we need to move beyond tokenism, because when you’re a single individual of colour sitting on a board or running an organization it’s very difficult to get things to change fundamentally. You need several of you working to achieve that.

Five Dials

When you finished the novel, did you feel like there was a voice that you wanted to give more prominence? Is there anyone you wished you’d given more space?

I don’t always have readers who are from the communities I’m writing about, and part of that is because I have artistic freedom, but if the publisher said, ‘You should show this to somebody from that specific community,’ then I would do that. But I have to stand by what I’ve written.

Bernardine Evaristo

Waris, who’s a Somali Muslim. I realized that I probably didn’t have time to do the research to create her as one of the protagonists. Part of me thinks, ‘Should I have given her more space?’ I didn’t feel as free to create a Somali Muslim teenage girl as I did with Caribbean and West African characters, because there’s a lot of cultural touchstones I’d need to know a lot more about. I don’t always have readers who are from the communities I’m writing about, and part of that is because I have artistic freedom, but if the publisher said, ‘You should show this to somebody from that specific community,’ then I would do that. But I have to stand by what I’ve written. And hopefully I’m not offending somebody. But you can never guarantee that.

Five Dials

I thought Waris was brilliant. I thought she balanced Yazz out, because Yazz is a force of nature who has good intentions but often says problematic things, and Waris and her friends remind her of her privilege.

Bernardine Evaristo

They do, and Courtney as well. The bit about Roxane Gay, I had to put that in, when Yazz cannot believe that her white friend might know more about Roxane Gay than she does!

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