Bernardine Evaristo first appeared on many literary radars when her novel Girl, Woman, Other was awarded the Booker Prize in 2019. “I became an overnight success,” says Evaristo, “after forty years working professionally in the arts.” She also became the first Black woman to receive the Booker, and her novel is charged with enough energy to qualify as a literary force of nature. Empathetic, funny, smart, and innovative, Girl, Woman, Other is written in the voices of twelve characters—eleven women and one non-binary person––whose artistic and love lives intersect at crucial points. The novel is also written in free verse, a form that doesn’t often attract the broad audience Evaristo has finally found.
As her new fans have now discovered, Bernardine Evaristo has been writing surprising, experimental novels for decades. One of the surprises is how accessible and appealing her genre-busting, fluid prose (and/or poetry) can be. As she puts it in Manifesto, her memoir and account of her writing life, she doesn’t want her readers to need “a doctorate in experimental fiction” to read her stories, so she employs straightforward language as she breaks new structural ground. Her subjects can be surprising, too: though she is mostly focused on the lives of women, her polyvocal narratives take on the full spectrum of gender identity. Mr. Loverman (2013) utilizes the voice of a married gay Londoner from the Caribbean whose delight in himself is both witty and affecting (and complicated in satisfying ways when the second half of his story is told in his wife’s voice). Blonde Roots (2008), an alternative history that turns slavery inside out, channels the voice of a white European woman captured, transported, and enslaved by Africans. Evaristo’s interest in history has sent her even deeper into the past: intrigued by the historical accounts of an early Black presence in Britain, Evaristo leapt back two millennia to arrive at the year 211 as the time frame for The Emperor’s Babe (2001), the story of a Nubian teenager in Roman London. Despite the ancient setting, the novel’s language is strictly twenty-first-century, full of raw and clever power that manages to suggest “the melting-pot origins of the English language.”
As one of the readers who came late but delighted to this wide-ranging oeuvre, I was pleased to hear that Evaristo had published this Manifesto, especially since I have frequently assigned fiction-writing students the task of composing their own manifestos arguing for the kind of fiction we should be writing in the twenty-first century. Evaristo’s version turns out to be a hybrid personal memoir and a meditation on writing; the book does append a perfunctory two-page manifesto, but what looks like an afterthought intended to deliver on the title’s promise is not an exemplary model (indeed, it’s one of the book’s few examples of perfunctory writing). I wouldn’t call Manifesto the best place to begin exploring Evaristo’s writing, nor for that matter would I call it entirely successful. Nonetheless, it’s well worth a read for its intriguing personal history, its irrepressible spirit, its conceptual clarity, and its clear-eyed description of the challenges of a writing life, particularly in an English publishing world that was, for years, even more neglectful of Black writers than American publishers. Manifesto is also an excellent companion to Evaristo’s semi-autobiographical novel, Lara.
Evaristo opens Manifesto with a description of what her parents endured as an interracial couple in 1950s London. Her mother, of mostly Irish, English, and German descent, was training to be a teacher when they met; her father, newly arrived in London from his native Nigeria, was learning welding. Interracial marriages were uncommon, and Evaristo’s maternal grandmother was dismayed; other relatives shunned the family for years. Evaristo, the fourth of eight children born in a ten-year span, says she was a “bona fide subaltern” in south London.