‘It was writing against people’s expectations,’ an interview with Bernardine Evaristo.
Hannah met with award-winning author Bernardine Evaristo to discuss her new book Mr Loverman, self publishing and the gift of boredom.
It was with a rather large dose of excitement that I headed to the Penguin offices to interview Bernardine Evaristo, poet, writer, teacher and MBE. I had just finished her new book Mr Loverman, a story of gender, race, relationships and sex. The story follows Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, married to Carmel with two grown-up daughters, who for the past 60 years has been leading a double life, in a relationship with his childhood friend and sweetheart, Morris.
It’s a challenging read, unafraid to tackle misconceptions of both the gay and elderly communities, all the while maintaining laugh out loud humour, which is very characteristic of Bernardine. But how, I ask her, did the novel come about.
Every book I write has its own journey, but this one was a bit strange
‘Every book I write has its own journey, but this one was a bit strange. I was at a workshop held by playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, she had all these passport photos of people and we were asked to chose a photo and write in the voice of the person, describing themselves as they got undressed in front of a mirror. So I picked an old Caribbean man with a jaunty hat and a big suit – he looked like he was from the 1950s. I started writing in his voice and he spoke about his lover, and I thought ‘oh, I am writing an old gay black man’, I went home and continued writing and that is the truthful version of how the book came about.’
Much of Mr Loverman is written in the first person, told from the perspective of Barry with a selection of flashbacks to his life in Antigua and his early years living in the UK. Set over the period of a year the story deals with Barry’s interactions with those around him and his own acceptance of his identity. I mentioned to Bernardine that she has not written stereotypical characters, ‘I consider myself a subversive writer and I have learnt that comedy is a very good way of being subversive’, choosing to disassociate her characters from media portrayal of Afro-Caribbean and gay communities, particularly with Barry.
‘Not only is he gay, he is a positive thinker, he is a rich landlord, he has done well in this country, he is also self educated, he is very bright, funny. I wanted him to be a very triumphant figure, but obviously full of character in the sense of somebody having lots of quirks and so on. It was writing against people’s expectations.’
I wanted him to be a very triumphant figure, but obviously full of character in the sense of somebody having lots of quirks and so on. It was writing against people’s expectations
Clearly Bernardine is not afraid of a challenge; when I ask her about taking on so many themes, she laughs and admits she does this a lot. ‘Were you daunted by the challenge,’ I asked her?
‘Yeah! This book is about sexuality but there is also the gender politics, as a critic said this weekend, he is a deconstructed sexist male and that is because, I hate to say it, true to a certain demographic. I didn’t want to make him a new man, although he is gay, he does have some really un-PC ideas. Carmel, his wife, she represents the other side of the gender dynamic, so she is someone who has been in a relationship with a man who has cheated on her their whole married life, but I also wanted her to be triumphant at the end. She had to be victorious because basically she goes through shit in her marriage.’
As a reader, I mentioned to Bernardine that I found Carmel’s monologues, which punctuate Barry’s first person narrative throughout the novel, some of the most moving and enjoyable sections. In fact, I discovered that these were editions added later to the novel on the recommendation of her trusted editor, the value of whom she clearly values, ‘you need to find at least one person at the beginning who will be a really critical and supportive reader who will give you their honest opinion and that might change from book to book, but having that one person when you are starting out is crucial’.
You need to find at least one person at the beginning who will be a really critical and supportive reader who will give you their honest opinion
Mr Loverman challenges the issue of male homosexuality straight on, however Bernardine’s novel stands out; does she think there has been a reluctance to talk about homosexuality in Afro-Caribbean literature?
‘There is almost complete silence around male homosexuality. There is a new writer Diriye Osman who has written a book of short stories that have also been published, he is a gay Somali writer, he writes about young gay Somalis and he is breaking ground in other ways, this is Africans, gay Africans. You could say that is because not many people write gay characters anyway, that people are coming from communities where it is perhaps more taboo, certainly illegal in Africa, most of the Caribbean, so there is that reservation.’
Books and writing have always played a large part in Bernardine’s life. Growing up in Woolwich, East London, her strict Nigerian father ran their home ‘like a military dictatorship’ where her and her siblings were not allowed out much. Although her mother was an English teacher they didn’t have many books in their home, so libraries became an outlet. However Bernardine really got into reading largely because she was bored. ‘Actually I think boredom is a really good thing for young people. Because when you are bored and you don’t have all this technology around you, you can find something else, and for me that was reading.’
I think boredom is a really good thing for young people
Bernardine continued this love for reading, writing and performing becoming a successful poet, with a six month poets residency at the Museum of London. It was during these six months first novel-in-verse was inspired; The Emperors Babe which looks at the black presence in Roman Britain through the eyes of a young African bride. Poetry is still very important to Bernardine and even when writing prose novels, they remain distinctly poetic in their style. Does she do this deliberately?
‘I find that when I write in a poetic voice you can cover a lot of ground and you can have a lot of emotional weight in what you are saying in a different way to when I am writing straight forward prose’.
I was curious to know what Bernardine thought of self-publishing, would she take that route if she were starting out again. She pauses and thinks, ‘I have been tempted, but I am not sure how well it works,’ valuing the publishing process Bernardine warns against lack of editing and market awareness, however even traditional publishing methods now have their draw-backs.
Publishing books nowadays is not just about the quality of the work and whoever perceives it, it is also about will it sell, is it fashionable, is the writer marketable?
‘Publishing books nowadays is not just about the quality of the work and whoever perceives it, it is also about will it sell, is it fashionable, is the writer marketable? I used to be an actress and I left that profession to be a writer. It will now be all about my work, but then you realise it is more than just your writing; it is your image as well.’
‘How do you feel about this?’ I ask.
‘I was judging the Orange Award for New Writers a few years ago and the woman who won it was from Zimbabwe (Irene Sabatini), when it was published she only had one review and even after she had won it she got no attention – the Orange Award for New Writers. Is it because they didn’t think she was glamorous? It was like she just totally disappeared (Irene now had a new book deal). Some people get picked up, some people don’t.’
Writing is, unashamedly, a difficult career, however extremely rewarding, what advice would Bernardine give to someone starting out now?
You have to be brave and have your own voice, but that is part of it, so you find your own way to tell a story
‘You have to write the book that you want to write. You have to be prepared to do your own thing and not bow to the critics, not listen to the policeman in your head saying you shouldn’t do this or that. You have to be brave and have your own voice, but that is part of it, so you find your own way to tell a story. Be careful with who you show your work to. Be careful that you don’t show it too early to people who will knock you down, or who will say you’re wonderful. Do an MA, if you want; a good teacher will bring your story out but won’t impose.’
‘What about reading reviews, dealing with critics?’
‘I have got more and more sensitive, with each book I seem to invest more, but you have to be resilient and that is the thing that keeps you writing, because I know people who have written books but they have been so defeated by the critics that they just stop writing. You need to bounce back!’
Would I have expected any other response from Bernardine? No. Her novels fight a thousand battles, break embedded stereotypes and challenge mainstream image in less than 300 pages – Bernardine is one tough cookie!
Bernardine Evaristo is the author of three novels, Lara, The Emperor's Babe and Soul Tourists, all of which fuse fiction with poetry. Blonde Roots is her first prose novel. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004 and the Royal Society of Arts in 2006. She lives in London.