Bernardine Evaristo is an important voice in the debates about racism and classism, queer and misogyny. NDR Kultur asked the British writer about her autobiography.
It must be interesting to put your own life in a book. How much has that shaped and changed the way you view your own life?
Bernardine Evaristo: The writing process forced me to wonder who I was and how I became who I am today. I clearly know my life. I know where I was born, I know my story. This made me rethink my life and look at things in a slightly different way. It was kind of a voyage of discovery, very interesting.
Were there any surprise moments?
evaristo: One thing I’ve realized in writing my books, but also in relationships I’ve had: I look at some relationships I’ve had all my life and how they’ve shaped my creativity. I realize that I keep on doing things even when everything tells me to stop. Like the relationship that doesn’t work, but I hold on. Or the book that doesn’t work, but I keep writing for three years until I literally throw it away. This is with the original version of “Lara” (Very novel by Evaristo from 1997, editor’s note) happens. I actually threw away the first manuscript. It took me three years to do this. I never really understood how stubborn and stubborn I was when I pursued things further and maybe shouldn’t have.
You say you’ve never had therapy because you like living with your demons, but that writing is kind of cathartic. How?
evaristo: Writing your memoirs is almost like self-medicating. Because you work on what moves you. And so I thought yes, I did this and that, this was my life and these were the people I’m descended from, my family etc. and this is my activism. It was indeed a journey and almost therapeutic. Because eventually I got the feeling that I understood myself in a different way than before the book.
You grew up in London as the middle child of eight siblings. What did you learn in this “family school”?
evaristo: If you are a middle child, the older children are further along in their personal development and the firstborn are often the favourites. And the youngest are often favorites because they are so small and cute. you sit in the middle You are no longer small and cute in this family composition.
So it was interesting growing up with so many siblings: always having people around me, never having time for myself – except reading, that was my escape. And growing up in the time I grew up: in a very racist period in British history way back when and I felt the animosity of my community and really became an outsider. And then the family dynamics, I also had a very dominant father. Yes, it was complicated.
Looking back, how did you realize it was okay to be a middle kid and not always be the center of attention?
evaristo: When writing “Manifest” I wanted to look at everything from a positive point of view. I wanted to see how I could make the most of my life – whether they were difficult things I was going through or not and what lessons I learned from them. Actually, I wouldn’t change anything about my past. I wouldn’t like to be the oldest child, because that has more responsibility. And I wouldn’t want to be the youngest child either – then you’ll have all those older siblings living their own lives long before you can.
As a middle child I learned to be independent and I really appreciate that. And I am incredibly independent. I learned to think for myself, to be independent and at some point I found my way to the youth theater and there I learned to express myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed youth theater if I wasn’t stuck in this middle child syndrome. And youth theater was my birth, that was the beginning of my life, my creative life.
You write in “Manifesto” about the phenomenon of internalized racism that you rejected parts of your body. It is certainly difficult to identify this phenomenon. When were you ready?
evaristo: I probably got to know the concept of internalized racism in my early twenties: if you’re a… Person of color especially if you grow up in a white majority society or even a colonized society. For example, if you grew up in India, colonized by the British, where the value of whiteness, color, culture, etc. is at the top of the hierarchy and where your brown skin is considered the bottom of the ladder, then it’s really hard to get a develop a sense of identity.
And what you do then: you absorb this racism in yourself and so the anti-black society becomes a part of you. So you become anti-black in a way and that’s incredibly self-destructive. My father was a Nigerian man with very dark skin and I didn’t want to be seen on the street with him because it was a white culture, a white society. And there was this black man. I went on, but he certainly didn’t. And it was very interesting to hear that this is internalized racism.
In “Manifesto” we read about your mother, your aunts, your grandmother – very strong women who wouldn’t have called themselves feminists didn’t even know the word. Today it is very fashionable to say: I am a feminist. How do you like that?
evaristo: Yes, that’s great isn’t it? Okay, it’s a bit problematic. Feminism came into vogue a few years ago. The fashion world suddenly produced these £700 T-shirts that said I’m a feminist. And you thought, oh no, feminism has become a commodity. It’s a trend and we know what happens to trends: they come and they go. So that was a concern. Still, it was a wake-up call.
The #metoo movement created this fourth wave of feminism. Suddenly, young women were proclaiming their feminism and showing an interest in it. And frankly, feminism has been pretty down for a while now. Not that there weren’t feminists, but it wasn’t talked about as much as it should have been. Young women didn’t come out five or six years ago to claim to be feminists. When I first started teaching at university, the students would have looked at me with horror if I had addressed them as feminists. As if to say, oh no, don’t accuse me of being a feminist! While the idea of feminism is much more integrated and accepted in our society today. And hopefully we will develop towards an increasingly equal society.
Would it help in the debate to stop using the term as often and instead act as your ancestors did?
evaristo: Yes, anyway. Feminism is not just a word. My grandmother was born into a working-class family at the turn of the 20th century. She lost her parents when she was eleven and she made the most of her life. She had her own house, she was a seamstress, she had power over her household and she believed in educating women. That is why my mother has had a good education. But she made no claim to the term feminism.
If the idea of feminism had reached my grandmother in the early 20th century, her feminism would have transcended the house. For example, she would have made more of her career. But these concepts did not occur to her generation at the time. But yes: Feminism has to be lived and it has to become a part of our psyche and psychology, our actions, strategies, politics and every aspect of our world, to really have the meaning it should have.
You are an important voice in this debate. For your latest book “Girl, Woman, etc.” you won the Booker Prize. If we were to tell that to your ten-year-old self, what would it say?
evaristo: I would ask, ‘What is the Booker Prize?’ I’d yell, ‘Oh, you’re winning book writing prizes!’ It would be totally unimaginable – not only for my ten-year-old self, but also for society. I was the first black woman to win the Booker Prize. So it wasn’t possible until I did it, because nobody won before.
So these are always reminders of how much we still have to do in our world. It took me 50 years to win the Booker Prize. Or the president of the World Society of Literature, founded in 1820: I am the first person of color and the second woman to fill this role. So it took 200 years for a person of color to become president of the World Society of Literature. And it’s a great honor to have this role for four years. So we still have a long way to go.
The interview was conducted by Mischa Kreiskott.