On Wednesday evening, UEA’s Claire Hynes joined Bernardine Evaristo in conversation about her career, activism, and recent success with ‘Girl, Woman, Other’.
Bernardine Evaristo is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and she also is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize in 2019 for her most recent novel, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’. When asked about winning the award she describes it as “such an emotional experience”. Despite being in the industry for a very long time, Evaristo admitted that the award made her feel “really validated” and went on to discuss how grounded she is, to which Hynes agreed. The award meant a great deal more than just a prize to Evaristo and many others. “The impact that has on the community is so deep,” she said, “as if my success is giving hope to everybody else.”
Evaristo read a passage from her novel ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, that focused on a non-binary character who begins as Megan and ends as Morgan. This was followed with a discussion about Evaristo’s writing of all 12 characters in the novel. She found certain characters, such as Amma, much easier to write because she related to and was most like those. However, she explains that the writing of her non-binary character was much more difficult as she “didn’t want to do a disservice to someone who identifies as non-binary” and so she did an extensive amount of research on the non-binary community and the experience of those who identify as such.
Claire Hynes expressed her gratitude for the novel that many have deemed “a love letter to Black British womanhood”. Evaristo showcased 12 different (predominantly Black) characters, which meant the novel was able to show such a broad range of experience that many Black female readers could finally relate to. “When Black women say they feel seen in this book, I know how they feel.”
Growing up in a very activist environment certainly influenced Evaristo, with both her parents being prominent political activists. She comments on how it is an individual choice as to whether or not writers want to be political in their lives – however, she engages with politics for her community and will remain that way. She highlighted the importance of her decision: “You can stand for your community and still walk off with the prize.”
Evaristo also advocates for the teaching of Black British history in the UK school curriculum, emphasising that it is “our imperative to revise our understanding of history and to position blackness in Britain … ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ doesn’t go deep into history but it touches on it.”
The discussion concluded with Evaristo answering a question from UEA students about the decolonisation of universities. “I think universities are being decolonised, just very slowly. It is about a system that makes it really hard for POC to pursue academic careers and I think until that happens its going to be very hard for us to say that universities have become decolonised.”
She continued: “I am one of 25 professors out of 17,000, that shows the enormity of the mountain we have to climb. If they [students] are not reflected in the teaching staff then I don’t think they will get what they need.