Bernardine Evaristo’s memoirs are a story of prejudice and perseverance



After winning the Booker Prize in 2019, becoming the first black woman and the first British black person to do so, Bernardine Evaristo described herself in Red magazine as an “overnight success”. This statement, however, does not give the complete picture. Evaristo’s new book, Manifesto: Never give up, is a testament to his long and arduous journey of four decades in the arts.

Born in South East London in 1959 to a Nigerian immigrant father and an English Catholic mother, Evaristo grew up in a society where she was considered “mixed race.” The family, including its younger members, struggled in an environment where racism, class discrimination and all manner of stereotypes abounded. Being born biracial shaped the way people saw – or didn’t see – Evaristo and his seven siblings. As a working class woman of color, she was “meant to be seen as a sub-person: submissive, inferior, marginal, negligible – a true subordinate.”

[See also: Bernardine Evaristo: British schools sideline writers of colour]

From an early age, the theater offered him freedom; it was the way she expressed herself and connected with the world at large. Founded in the early 1980s, her company Theater of Black Women collaborates with many other artists and disciplines, but seeks her own independent voice. “We excavated and reinvented stories and explored perspectives, cultures and histories that put the periphery at the center. It was this company – and the personal and artistic experiences she gained there – that both broadened her intellectual horizons and strengthened her capacity for critical reflection.

Throughout the book, the book skillfully combines the personal and the political. Much has changed since Evaristo was born, when there were 14 women parliamentarians compared to 630 men. But many other things have remained the same, or have not changed quickly enough: class prejudices, regional disparities and successive layers of discrimination. Intersectionality crosses this book like a calm but powerful river. I especially enjoyed the stories about the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, including the underground queer subculture. These are all influences that shaped the course of Evaristo’s life and the depth of his literary vision.

She remembers when she was in sixth grade at Eltham Hill Girls’ School and allowed her own clothes: a friend’s mother told her to tone down her “wacky dress sense” as it might. make her the target of racists. “I laughed at it,” Evaristo writes, “just like I do bad advice today. I wasn’t going to become less who I was – to make myself invisible – in order to try and live a risk-free life. .

Diversity is valuable in this book, but the emphasis is on equality and inclusion. Evaristo advocates multicultural children’s books “because children need to see themselves reflected in books as a validation of themselves, to feel that they belong to the stories and myths of their country”. She doesn’t shy away from the tough debates about who gets to tell which story. “I give myself full artistic license to write from multiple perspectives and to inhabit different cultures across perceived barriers of race, culture, gender, age and sexuality.”

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It has always troubled me how often the function is attributed to fiction, especially if the author comes from a non-Western or minority background. An Afghan woman writer, for example, is not supposed to write science fiction or avant-garde literature. If she does, it won’t be “genuine”. Instead, she is required to “educate” her readers about the conditions of women in Afghanistan. Many writers from black and brown communities and immigrants are also believed to educate their readers on racism, displacement and inequality. Some authors may choose to do this, others may not; artistic freedom is something we should never allow anyone to take away from us. Evaristo clarifies that not everything she writes about “identity”. She also criticizes the deeply rooted assumption that any story that women writers produce must, inevitably, be autobiographical.

Writing is never easier. It’s always a fight – and even bigger if you have to fight for your right to write as well. Manifesto is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest book about never giving up, even when it feels like “writing in a void”. It’s also a meditation on personal transformation, cultural inequalities, activism, belonging, love and friendships – and most importantly, the power of creativity.

[See also: Richard Powers’s Bewilderment is full of bold ideas – but strays into earnestness]

Manifesto: Never give up
Bernardine Evaristo

Penguin, 224pp, £ 14.99



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