UEA Live: Diana Evans on inspiration and observation

Diana Evans, who studied the UEA MA in Creative Writing in 2003, joined Jean McNeil on Wednesday evening to discuss her most recent novel, her experiences as a writer, and the nature of her fiction. 

Ordinary People (Evans’s most recent novel, published in 2018) came about from the gaps in the books she was reading. Dissatisfied by the lack of representation of Black British middle class characters (without the negative tropes), Evans was inspired to take on that writing herself. From cultural and political events such as the election of Barack Obama and the death of Michael Jackson, as well as literature from authors such as John Updike, Richard Yates, and Claire Messud, Ordinary People emerged.

Evans read three segments from her novel, interspersed throughout the talk. The first segment brought about discussion on her style of observant, tender writing. Evans states that she prefers description over plot, because the individual experience and subjectivity of a story can, perhaps, only be captured in these introspective moments. She describes her writing as painting – infused with rich images. It is the mundane lives of people that interests her, that she wants to capture through this inward-looking style.

“All characters have elements of myself in them,” she tells McNeil, a common sentiment shared by many authors. There is the sense that we, as readers, want to know about the inner lives of characters, which is something that McNeil particularly praises Evans for. Evans also discusses wanting to give Black and brown people visibility – with so many perspectives lacking, her writing of race proceeds to fill in the gaps, particularly from contemporary British authors. 

Having grown up in London, Evans feels a certain affinity to the city, which is why it appears so often in her writing. Ordinary People captures the “beauty of this multicultural megacity”, in an ever-changing political climate. Evans’s writing aims to show the mundanity of, well, ordinary lives (hence the book title), and the way in which history manifests into her contemporary stories. She takes the truth of historic structures and overlays them into the present, fascinated by layers.

Towards the end of the talk, McNeil broaches the topic of the recent surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Evans discusses how, as a Black writer, race is a theme that she has to carry – there is an idea that Black creativity exists to be retaliative and reactionary, because the collective cultural trauma from atrocities like slavery and colonialism still ring out in contemporary Black lives. 

Evans maintains that the issues of race are a responsibility that everyone must carry; “we don’t live in a world where we have the luxury of innocence,” she says, urging white creatives to simultaneously take up the mantle of anti-racist work, something which Black artists have had to intrinsically deal with. Despite this, she points out the necessity of sensitivity when writing about traumatic events that, perhaps, one hasn’t experienced. There is an innate, personal instinct when it comes to writing about trauma that those who have not been a part of cannot ever capture.

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Ally Fowler

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September 2021
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