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a picture of Bernardine Evaristo at She Said bookshop in Berlin

On transforming structures from the inside: An interview with Bernardine Evaristo

Last week, Bernardine Evaristo was in town for the Internaionales Literaturfestival Berlin, and we were lucky enough to get an opportunity to chat to her at She Said Books.

Maybe you could start by talking a bit about how you’ve been experiencing Berlin: your sense of how you are being received as a writer and how you are read here, if there are differences between your audience here and elsewhere?

I arrived yesterday and I’m leaving for Hamburg tomorrow, so it’s a flying visit. I like Berlin, and I come back here every so often. I first came in the 1980s and stayed in Kreuzberg. I ran the British Council Berlin seminar for two years here. It’s a really interesting city, and a great city to be in, also a friendly city in my experience. I’ve had great audiences at the two events I’ve done here, and they were packed out. I don’t know if German readers are picking out different things to British readers, but I certainly feel very appreciated.

I know Girl Woman Other sold very well in Germany. I always wanted to be translated into German, because it’s a big market. People used to say, if you get translated into German, other territories will follow. It’s only when I won the Booker than I got translated into lots of languages.

 …on writing that is always global…

Could you talk a bit more about your experiences with and views on being translated, on entering into different linguistic and cultural contexts? The Emperor’s Babe, as you’ve described, intervenes in a certain history that constructs Britain and Britishness as white. Would you say that Soul Tourists is doing a similar kind of work, but on a European scale? How does doing this type of work differ at these different scales?

Yes. It’s interesting, because when I’m writing, I’m just writing the story that I need to write. I’m not writing for the audience, because you can’t predict the audience. Certainly, up to 2019, my audience was an English-language audience because I hadn’t been translated. Soul Tourists is a pan-European book, and it’s been translated into some European languages now.

Nearly all of my books have a global element to them. Only one of my books, Hello Mum, is exclusively about Britain. All of them, otherwise, are drawing on other cultures, whether it’s Africa, Europe, America, the Caribbean. They’re all international in that sense. There are many writers who are exclusively focused on Britain, and the story doesn’t move beyond Britain, but because my books are drawing on the African diaspora, there is always an element that has come from somewhere else, or I take the reader somewhere else. Even with The Emperor’s Babe, which is set in Roman London, the parents come from ancient Nubia, which is current-day Sudan. The emperor she has an affair with comes from Libya, and the old man she marries is from Rome. It’s all international.

…on the establishment and marginalized voices in the literary market…

I want to ask you about the literary ‘establishment’, the literary canon, and the relationship between the individual writer and the larger structures they find themselves in. You’ve said that you “work within systems to change them, because [you] think there is a limit to what can be done from outside the power structures…”

Well, I’ve increasingly moved into establishment positions over the course of my career. Without a doubt, in my 20s, I was outside of all establishment culture; I was very much on the outside, on the fringes. Over the years, as my career has grown, I’ve sat on committees, I’ve written for the national newspapers, I judge prizes. I’d been in the Royal Society of Literature long before I became president, I’ve been a professor since 2011. So it’s been a slow process towards being in the heart of the establishment. Since winning the Booker Prize, I am no longer someone who is trying to get inside – I am inside. It’s very important to me that being inside these structures means that I transform them from the inside.

I’m also very interested in bridge-building and establishing relationships, partnerships and collaborations with organizations that might not historically be seen as progressive. For instance, Camilla, who’s now the Queen Consort, is at the top of the British establishment. She has a reading group called the Duchess’s Reading Group – she’s going to have to change that now – and she’s featured my book. I was interviewed for it. I know her, I’ve met her, and I would never have done that 20 or 30 years ago. Now I can see that if I want to be fully participating, if I want us – people of colour – to be fully participating in British society, I need to be in relationship with the people who are at the very top. Because I am able to be, I can then represent at that level – since a lot of people aren’t able to be.

You said at the ILB reading you gave last night that you think it’s probably the best time ever for people, and specifically women, of colour to get their work published – and that ideally this should be more than a trend…

We’ve never had so many writers getting published in all genres, so this moment is a breakthrough. Previously there have been trends, but on a micro scale. Black writers were appearing in the 90s, when maybe 20 Black writers published books and then disappeared.

Because they disappeared, you realized it was a trend, whereas what you have now is maybe a few hundred getting published. Some of them are doing very well critically and commercially, and some of them are also experimental writers. It’s harder, then, for all of those writers to disappear. Hopefully, a number of them will have lifelong careers, which is what I’m interested in seeing: I’m interested in writers like myself, building careers over a lifetime, and that’s what we haven’t had.

You’ve pointed out that part of making this happen is not just diversifying who gets published, but also the ranks of the gatekeepers. At a panel at the African Book Festival the week before last about African writers and literary markets, one of the points raised was about the need to decentre the overdetermining role played by UK and US publishers in deciding and setting trends. What are your thoughts on this?

That’s interesting. I haven’t really heard people complaining about it before. We are in the age of multinational conglomerates, and they’re increasingly powerful and they are wielding power in the publishing world, and now publishing a much wider range of writers – so I kind of see that as a force for good, but nobody wants a monopoly, and you do need to nurture independent presses. They’re around, but I think they do find it hard. In a healthy publishing system, every kind of publishing outlet needs to thrive. Of course, what happens is the huge publishing houses dominate and draw in all the talent, and have the money to pay for it, whereas the smaller enterprises find it much harder to survive because the whole ecosystem of publishing requires a lot of personnel and relationship-building with the media. If you want your books reviewed in the media, which is one of the ways you have access to your reader, then you need to have relationships with the literary editors. And if you’re small independent publisher, it’s very hard to organize that and build those relationships, whereas the big publishing houses have a whole department focused on it.

Black Britain: Writing Back – on literature that is of its time and stands the test of time

Would you tell us some more about the Black Britain: Writing Back series? How did you select the writers, what’s next for it, what kind of political project do you see this series serving?

It’s a project close to my heart. When I won the Booker, my publisher said to me: Why don’t you curate a list of books and bring them back into print? For me, it was a godsend, because I’d been talking for so many years about some really excellent Black British books that had disappeared before this current climate – when nobody was interested in reviewing them, the media wasn’t interested in publicizing these writers. I think it’s very hard for people coming of age today to realize how ignored we were. With a few exceptions, nobody was interested in us.

So when this idea came up, I jumped at it. I chose the first six books, which are all novels, to be brought back into print. The oldest one is C.L.R. James’ Minty Alley, which was published in 1936. I worked with my publisher and his then-assistant Hannah Chuckwu – the three of us: I would choose the books, we’d all read them, and then we’d agree that these were the books that we would go with. I looked at my bookshelves, at some of the books that I’d read over the years, writers I’ve known, people who came of age in the 1990s, who maybe published one book and then disappeared.  I was looking for books that would stand the test of time. It had to be writing of high quality, original voices, that would feel somehow relevant to readers today. I think great writing does that anyway, however you define it: writing that is of its time, but also withstands the test of time.

We launched February before last, and there was quite a lot of interest. Some of the writers are now working on new material. One of them has two more books coming out, following on from the first one that was published in 1997 – it’s going to be a series. About 25 years after her first novel was published, she’s going to continue the story, which is just incredible.

The project has resurrected these writers’ careers, which is also what I wanted. So that the new generation of writers coming through, who are generally quite young, who think they’re the first – I want them to know that they are part of a continuum, that there is a literary history, there is a legacy, and that we’re all building on the work of our forebears. That’s so important, because Black literature disappears in Britain, these books come and go, and there are just one or two people whose names are recognized, who have had long careers, like Zadie Smith, or Andrea Levy before she died. I wanted people to know that there were others. And their books are now being taught again, at universities. It’s been a great project.

We published five non-fiction books last February, and some of those books did really well. One of them, Dillibe Onyeama’s A Black Boy at Eton, was a memoir written when he was 21 by the first Black boy to graduate from Eton college – he had a terrible time. It was published in 1971, and the headmaster of Eton said: you’re never welcome at this school again. Now it’s come back; he’s still alive, he lives in Nigeria, and it’s reaching a new audience.

We’ve got Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties by Barbara Blake Hannah, who’s also still alive. They’re both in their 80s. She was Britain’s first Black television reporter and lived in London for 10 years, and wrote this memoir, which is just fantastic. She’s around to enjoy the fact that it’s now reached a whole new audience.These books have had a lot of attention, also because they’re around to talk about their experiences. I’m so proud of the series. We have a new series that will be coming out next year, but I can’t talk about that yet.

With many thanks to Bernardine Evaristo’s publisher in Germany, Klett-Cotta.

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