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Bernardine Evaristo on Bringing Back Forgotten Black Writers

This week on Break Out Culture Bernardine Evaristo tells us about her latest initiative with Penguin

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Bernardine Evaristo burst into our collective consciousness when she won the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood for her eighth book, Girl, Woman, Other. She was the first Black woman ever to win the Booker Prize, and is also the first Black person to be President of the Royal Society of Literature since its inception in 1820 – a role she’s recently taken up. She has been absolutely tireless in promoting the work of other brilliant Black writers, and she’s here to talk about her latest venture doing just that today.

This interview was taken from our Break Out Culture podcast with Ed Vaizey and Charlotte Metcalf.

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Interview with Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo

We are here to talk about the exciting new initiative that you’re spearheading with Penguin, Black Britain: Writing Back, in which you’re curating and writing the introductions for a series of non-fiction books written by black writers. Can you start by telling us how the idea came about?

It actually began after I won the Booker Prize and my publisher and I were sitting down having lunch and he said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we bring some books back into circulation that you want to bring back?’ And I thought, that’s an amazing idea. I jumped at it – I’ve been talking about Black British literature for a very long time. And the fact that quite a few writers have come and gone, and everybody forgets that they even existed. They don’t form part of the cannon and they just disappear. Some of these books are great, so we decided that we would publish six novels to begin with and we did that in February 2021.

Can you tell us about some of the books?

With this new series of books that are coming out, we have a book called A Black Boy at Eton. It was originally called A N Word at Eton when it was first published in 1972, it’s by a writer called Dillibe Onyeama. He was the first Black boy to graduate from Eton and it’s about his time at the college.

We also have a book called Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties by Barbara Blake Hannah. This was a book which she wrote in the early ’80s about her time in London in the ‘60s. She is a Jamaican woman and she came to Britain with a film company and ended up being Britain’s first Black reporter, but she was hounded out of the job because people objected to a Black woman on television.

We also have a book called Sequins for a Ragged Hem, which was originally published in the ’80s by a writer called Amryl Johnson. Amryl Johnson died about 30 years ago and she was quite well known as a poet. She was from Trinidad and this is a travel log about her going back to Trinidad after a long absence and travelling around the Caribbean. We’re seeing the Caribbean through her eyes, and that’s really interesting because often travel logs have been the preserve of white men travelling to exotic places and describing them.

There’s also Britons Through Negro Spectacles by ABC Merriman Labor. This was published in 1909 by a Sierra Leonian man who came to Britain around that time to study law. He was a really interesting figure because he came from a middle-class background and had a sort of middle-class life here in Britain at the turn of the century. That’s really unusual, and he set up these lecture tours of himself travelling around Africa and talking about Britain, and he then turned his lectures into this book. It’s a satire and it’s completely audacious and bold.

The fifth book is My Father’s Daughter by Hannah Azieb Pool, who for a long time was a Guardian journalist. She was adopted as a child. She was born in 1974 in Eritrea and she eventually, many decades later, goes back to Eritrea to reconnect to her family. We really feel for her – having grown up in a very loving white family – meeting her African family and having so many conflicting feelings around it.

What are you writing now?

I published three books last year. I published Manifesto. I’ve published a book called Feminism, which is a short book and it’s part of a series that Tate Galleries are publishing called the Look Again Series. Tate Britain has a major rehang happening in 2023 and they’ve asked 12 writers who are not art writers to write about the rehang and art from particular perspectives. I chose feminism. And I also had an art book out with Valentino, the fashion house.

Apart from that, I have a couple of projects in the pipeline, but unfortunately I can’t talk about them. One of them is for theatre, and also another novel will be in the works this year because I’ve had an incredibly busy two years and I just need some dream time in order to write a novel.

It is really interesting the point about Tate. For example, I was very supportive of what Tate had done with Hogarth with contemporary writers reinterpreting Hogarth’s pictures, but it bizarrely seems to offend a lot of people. I just wondered what your thought is on this extraordinary culture war that we’ve now landed ourselves in the middle of?

I find it really worrying that some elements of our society are so reactionary. The whole point of history is that we should interrogate it. We need to revisit it from our 21st century perspective. And so, that means sometimes we need to place a different kind of value on work. It’s the same with the sculpture. Isn’t it? Eric Gill, for example. When I look at those statues outside Broadcasting House, they look like the work of a paedophile now. People say you should divorce the art from the artist, but actually in this case, I think because we know the history of the man, it’s very hard to divorce the art from the artist. I think we need to keep these conversations alive.

I’m all for the Colston statue and similar statues not being around. I am all for them being in museums and recontextualised in museums. I don’t think that is dishonouring our history. I think that is investigating history and finding a new way to create a national identity. And I think it’s ridiculous to think that our national identity is somehow being damaged by the fact that we are choosing to re-evaluate how history has been made and portrayed in the past. I fear for our society because we just seem to be so divided at the moment in so many ways. And it’s not helped by certain leading figures stoking the flames.

I loved what Ben Okri said about [winning the Booker Prize] being a walk into a different life. Is that how it felt?

It did. It just revolutionised everything for me. Everything I wanted came to me, in a sense, because I have been very ambitious for a very long time and I just wondered, why aren’t I breaking through? And then it happened with that prize. Overnight, everything I wanted started to come to me. And I was at a stage and age where I can handle it – I’m 60. I’ve been around in the arts for 40 years, from the age of 12. I have been able to totally handle the last two years and make the most of it. And as you said earlier, use my platform to bring other people with me. And that’s what we do now. Right? Ideally, it’s not just about the individual, it’s also about the communities that we belong to and that we feel are marginalised.

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