NEWS12 March 2020

Bernardine Evaristo: ‘I write the stories I feel need to be out there’

Impact 2020 Leisure & Arts News UK

UK – It’s important for authors to write beyond their own perspectives and demographics, Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo has said.

Speaking at the Market Research Society’s Impact conference, Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, said: “I feel very subversive as a writer – I write the stories I feel need to be out there, defying stereotypes and writing into the absences that have prevailed.”

Evaristo said there is a need for more authors to write about cultures and perspectives that differ from their own. “We’re all human, so you have to tap into basic human emotions – as writers, it’s really important to engage with as broad a range of society as possible. One of the reasons why black women aren’t as represented [in literature] is that we’re the only ones who write ourselves.”

“There’s this fear that we shouldn’t step out of our comfort zone, but creating characters is always a challenge and it’s really important to create beyond your own demographic,” she continued. “But a lot of writers in this country are always writing from a very, very limited perspective – white, middle-class men, for example. You do have to write with sensitivity and there may be consequences, but you need to deal with that.”

She argued that the idea that writers shouldn’t write other cultures “lacks logic” as it’s accepted that screenwriters will write all types of characters for TV and film. However, she acknowledged it is “complicated and controversial”.

Immersion in other countries, reading widely and archival material all play a role in Evaristo’s research process. “I love research, I really do. When I’m researching a work of fiction, I’m looking at how I’m going to tell the story and the information I need to tell it an authentic way.”

She has carried out field research in Nigeria and Brazil to “soak up the atmosphere, look at the buildings, the environment and listen to people’s voices” and she interviewed her parents at length while researching her semi-autobiographical novel Lara.

“Most of us grow up and our parents won’t tell us very much but because I was interviewing them for this purpose of getting background for the book, they were so much more revealing. Those tapes are now archived at the British Library, recording my parents’ voices and history.”

Research is just observation of human life, she said. “It’s just osmosis, absorbing everyone you’ve ever met, listening and being alert to people and human behaviour and psychology, and also the stories you’ve heard – that’s the research you get through the experience of living.”

Evaristo also discussed her satire Blonde Roots, saying that she wanted to explore the slave trade in a new way, encouraging readers to imagine what it would have been like to have been enslaved.

“A lot of black writers feel the need to explore the slave trade, but I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes. I didn’t want readers to have the predictable emotional and moral journey through the book, because often when slavery is written about, you know what you’re meant to feel. People actually told me that giving the transatlantic slave trade a white face, if you like, made them understand it more and empathise more.”

There is a British tendency to “think small” when it comes to ambition, she said, arguing that people have to teach themselves how to navigate the world. When asked what advice she would give her younger self, she said: “Do the work, trust process and dream big. We’re taught to think small in this country – we’re taught to underplay our achievements unless you’re part of a particular demographic running this country. 

“We can be quite narrow-minded and cynical towards each other, and we don’t nurture our own ambitions. The fact is that some people are born to rule and it’s very easy for them to navigate their way through certain systems, no matter how mediocre they are. For the rest of us, we need to develop our own sense of ambition.”

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