The jury’s decision seemed indecisive, as if the jurors did not quite trust themselves: The Booker Prize in 2019 went to Bernardine Evaristo’s novel “Girl, Woman etc.”, which was the first time that a black author received the prestigious prize. However, it was shared for the first time this year and also given to Margaret Atwood’s The Witnesses. What was irritating at the award ceremony did not lessen the joy of the then 60-year-old Evaristo, who could really use the attention.
In her autobiography “Manifesto”, the London author only gives the “life-changing experience” a brief page and prefers to tell the history of her late success – and it is truly stirring and twisted.Evaristo reports partly chronologically, partly bundled according to topics from her life , which gives a good rhythm. Born in 1959 as the fourth of eight children of a British teacher and a Nigerian factory worker, her path to the world literary stage is certainly not preordained.
Broken window panes were part of everyday family life
The family lives in a run-down house in a predominantly white area of London, where they face a lot of hostility. Derogatory remarks and smashed windows are part of Evaristo’s childhood routine. Her father always sleeps with a hammer by the bed until the end of his life. “You feel hatred even though you haven’t done anything that would have caused you to get it, and so you look for the fault in yourself instead of in others.” becomes a criminal offence.
Evaristo calls her parents “the ultimate ying and yang couple”. The father is strict, gives his children long lectures and sometimes hits them with a belt or wooden spoon. The mother, on the other hand, characterizes her as approachable, communicative and warm-hearted. What both parents have in common is their political commitment. They go to demonstrations, get involved in trade unions and local politics.
There’s some of that fighting spirit in her daughter too, whose creativity has been closely tied to her activism from the start of her career – her book is called Manifesto for a reason. Because Evaristo, who read and wrote poetry as a child, never has the choice or the luxury of being apolitical.
In order to find a place as a young black woman in the elite cultural scene of the Thatcher era, she had to create it herself. In 1982, after completing her acting training, she founded the Theater of Black Women with two friends, the first institution of its kind in Great Britain. The women write and direct their own plays, in which they also act. They also get involved in the business side of the theater business.
Some of these experiences have flowed into the wonderful novel “Girls, Women, etc.”. Because the loose framing narrative of the free verse novel, which weaves together the lives of twelve black women in London, is about a premiere day of the playwright Amma, who once founded her own house with friends and is now a big name in feminist black theatre.
Amma is a similarly free spirit as her inventor, but unlike them, she has one daughter – and is openly gay, which Evaristo was only in her twenties. Today she is married to a man. In the chapter “Women and men who came and went” she sheds light on her love life, in which two lesbian relationships – one fulfilling and one toxic – play a central role. The years with the “Crazy Domina” in turn inspired a chapter of “Girls, Women, etc.”.
The greatest love in Evaristo’s life is clearly writing, and “Manifesto” is the document of her long, arduous journey to becoming a recognized author. After the theater she devoted herself first to poetry and finally to prose, always mixing up the forms. After three years of work, Evaristo throws the first version of her debut novel “Lara” in the dustbin in order to write the story again in the form of a poem. Evaristo understands that writing means, above all, rewriting and in her autobiography gives a vivid impression of these revision processes. She also acknowledges the work of her editorship.
This look into her workshop is the exact opposite of self-mystification, rather it shows how self-critical and tough a writer must be. “Why I Never Give Up” is the appropriate subtitle of the book, which often addresses setbacks and obstacles. “When we write, we have to get a thick skin – endure disappointments and endure negative feedback stoically,” it says once.
One technique that Evaristo helps with is short, positive affirmations that she writes on index cards and reads aloud several times a day. These are not wish lists, but declarative sentences in the present tense, which are formulated as if the goal had already been reached. When Lara came out in 1997, Evaristo wrote herself the affirmation that she had won the Booker Prize. Magical thinking that becomes a real magical moment 22 years later – only Margaret Atwood wasn’t on the menu.