(Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
Review by Suzanne Harrington
It’s not often that the content of a book outdoes its jacket blurb, but here’s an exception: ‘Bernardine Evaristo’s life story is a manifesto for courage, integrity, optimism, resourcefulness and tenacity.’ It is a mistressclass in each of these, written with wit, elegance and vigour, and underwritten by the trait she most values in herself – unstoppability.
Evaristo’s Manifesto is her ninth book, the first non-fiction. The world knows her as an ‘overnight success’ since her novel Girl, Woman, Other won the 2019 Booker Prize (the first black woman to do so, sharing it with Margaret Atwood), but she was sixty by then, and had been working professionally in the arts for forty years. ’I wasn’t widely known,’ she writes. Ever the activist, she now harnesses her success to further the up and coming: ‘The rebel without has become the negotiator within.’ No longer having to ‘throw stones at the fortress,’ she’s inside it, doing her best to dismantle the drawbridge.
Manifesto is a memoir in which Evaristo embeds a generous toolbox for other creatives, as she outlines her own trajectory via her heritage, childhood, relationships, creativity, personal development and activism. Her ‘mistressplan’ includes never giving up, the importance of mentoring, and – crucially – a ton of hard work. She got an E in English Lit at school. It didn’t stop her.
Born in 1959 in Eltham to an English Catholic mother and Yoruba father from Nigeria, and raised in Woolwich, she was the fourth of eight children born in a decade. The idea of ‘black British’ was ‘considered a contradiction in terms’; she and her siblings were ‘half-caste’. The local priest referred to the family as ‘darkies’, not realising his devout white parishioner was their mother: ‘She was rapidly demoted to the bottom of society through her marriage to an African.’ Racism was everywhere, from the school curriculum to family friends calling the children ‘monkeys’. She internalised it, crossing the street to avoid her father.
Although Evaristo’s parents were decades ahead of the racist norm, her father’s parenting was oppressive. He communicated via lecturing, and kept his children under suffocating control, yet alongside her mother, became politicised and active within the community. ‘He faced the front line of racist violence from the minute he stepped off the ship carrying him from Lagos to Liverpool,’ she writes. Yet he ‘never saw himself as a sufferer, a victim, but as a fighter…I’m the same, although my battles are fought with words.’ In the home, it was her mother who encouraged free expression.
As a middle child, Evaristo – like middle children everywhere – got on with it. ‘A tough inner core has been essential to my creative survival,’ she writes. ’I’ve never been in therapy as I like to live with my demons.’ She calls this book ‘a massive act of self-interrogation.’
Biracial and bisexual in an era before being bi-anything was acceptable, Evaristo adopted a black identity, and left home in her teens to live in a series of rented rooms all over London (the city being ‘one of my muses’), while experiencing all kinds of intimate relationships, and going to drama school.
‘Independence suited me,’ she notes. ‘The pursuit of freedom was paramount: freedom to move home, freedom from a conventional job, freedom to follow the whims of my sexuality, freedom to jump from one encounter to another, freedom to write experimental fiction.’ She is open about the significance of these relationships: ‘My creative life has been inextricably interwoven with my romantic entanglements.’
In her twenties, Evaristo belonged to what was considered ‘the least deserving group of humans on the planet’ – black lesbians. ‘Well, there’s nothing like being outcast to galvanise one’s inner Amazon,’ she notes. ’I was the ultimate lesbian. I wore the badge.’ Yet during a five-year liaison with an older woman whom she calls ‘The Mental Dominatrix’, she gave away her freedom, wryly reflecting how her oppressor was neither white nor male. Finally, they split, and after a ten-year break, Evaristo went back to men. ’My lesbian identity was the stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich.’ She met her future husband in 2006.
Running parallel to all of this, Evaristo set up the Theatre of Black Women (the first in Britain), wrote poetry, became an academic and literary activist, and wrote eight novels. ‘Children need to see themselves reflected in books as a validation of themselves,’ she asserts. ’As an adult, it was the absence of these stories that galvanised me to write my own.’
She advocates unwavering self-belief, positive affirmations, resilience, showing up, and creative freedom. ’Creative writers are proud to be the curators of their own imagination,’ she says. No policing, no cultural ownership – just self-expression. ‘I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication’ she writes. The way she writes is addictive for the rest of us – it is a gift.