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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up


Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Women of Colour, Writing

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Are there any readers who have failed to notice this book? It won the Booker Prize 2019; it is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. It sparkles. It’s about 12 people – girls, women and one other. I am highly recommending it.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is a long book, divided into five chapters and including an epilogue. The first four chapters each feature the stories of three people. Each story is connected to others in this collection, and the connections help it to zip along with energy.

Its epicentre is London, a London with which I became very familiar and where I lived and worked for 35 years. Most of that time I lived in Hackney, and worked either in the city’s secondary schools or at the Institute of Education, which was part of the University of London at that time, teaching teachers on masters and doctoral courses.

During that time the so-called Second Wave of feminism died down, although those of us struggling in a discriminatory world did not feel that we were in any way in post-feminist times. During that time, girls were still experiencing growing up on terms decided by men. There remained a great deal of discrimination, on the grounds of class, ethnicity and gender identity. It was hard for the young people in the schools, and hard for young women in the poorer areas. 

Bernardine Evaristo covers this ground, and more. Her imaginative ability to conjure up these lives interacted with my memory of these times, and added the important ingredient of experiences of minority ethnicities.

Her characters engage with discrimination, migration, heredity, gender identity, marriage, parenthood, abusive relationships, struggles with education, employment, and so on. So much of life is here, with a female and black emphasis.

She has written beautifully about this kind of territory before, not least in Mr Loverman, set in the Hackney I knew, it could almost have been in my street!

What the judges saw

Passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour, a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … Dazzling. [Booker Judges quoted on the cover, quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition]

There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least the way in which it is written. I do not recall another book that has so many main characters, and which links their lives in ways which illuminate their own and other stories. The multiple stories are told vividly, and not restricted to London or to suffering although every person featured, like every person on the planet, has to engage with the difficulties and beauties of life. 

And she has adopted a somewhat restless style of writing: the text appears to be divided in traditional ways. There are chapters, with subdivision within them. On the page the text appears to be in paragraphs, but they are constructed of a main sentence or starter and then continue with a series of subclauses. Here’s an example from the start of the novel:

Chapter One
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)

I love the way this innovative form allows for multiple experiences, unfinished ideas, variation, and, in this opening statement, tells us a everything we need to know about who is featured, where and when and it alerts us to a significant event later that same day.

As I say, I highly recommend it and I am sorry our book group decided to read eleven other books this year, I would have liked to have discussed it with them. Maybe next year. But my enthusiasm has confirmed my daughter’s interest, especially as I told her she will find her school and college friends here, and our neighbours from when she was growing up.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019). I read the Penguin paperback edition. 453pp

Connected posts

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013) from Bookword in August 2014

HeavenAli reviewed Girl, Woman, Other on her blog in October last year. You can find her review here.

And an interesting list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020


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Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Stan-The-Man we called him. He was living in a house across the street when we moved to the Dalston/Stoke Newington area of London. He shared it with three other Jamaican men. Our St Lucian neighbour introduced us and we soon understood that he looked out for her, a single parent. When we wanted our house painted he did it at mates’ rates. He was unfailingly courteous, friendly, and cheerful.

We became aware that not all was well in his house when we heard loud arguing one day. Soon after their front window was broken by something heavy thrown from the outside. Our neighbour told us that Stan had taken in a troubled youth, but it hadn’t worked out. Corrugated sheet over the window stayed until the danger was passed. Then Stan told us he had made enough money over the decades in London and was returning to Jamaica to retire. Soon after his house was bought by an upwardly mobile white couple. We missed Stan.

119 MangalI was reminded of Stan and his companions when I read Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo. The axis of the action is Kingsland Road. It runs across the top of my street. Turkish cafes are mentioned, even I get a mention in a potted history of population movement of Stoke Newington.

The socialists, feminists and workers revolutionists descended on Stoke Newington over time. … women with short hair, men with long hair, our people with balloon hair; donkey jackets, dungarees, dashikis, bovver boots of many hues; and so forthly. (p120-1)

Reading Mr Loverman I feel aching nostalgia for London, for the metropolitan rich variety of Hackney, including the dandified appearance of some of the older male black residents.

118 Mr LovermanThere are more important reasons to enjoy Mr Loverman. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is a very attractive character, a charmer and a bit of a dandy. I wanted him and his life to come good, especially as he has reached his seventies. He is soft as anything as regards his lover and his daughter, Maxine. He treated his wife Carmel very badly. Here’s how he describes himself.

I am still a Saga boy. Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry, bring it on . . . (p6)

The characters in this story suffer, from the poverty of opportunity in Antigua, which brought so many from the West Indies to a new life in Britain. Barry invests successfully in property so that by the end of the novel he is a rich man, able to support himself and to be generous to those he cares about. His wife Carmel suffers from the humiliations of a loveless marriage, and the betrayal of her hopes for their marriage and life in Britain.

Barry may be an attractive character, but he is weak, fearful and secretive about his strongest attachments and concerned for his own comforts and ease. He is gay and has been in a constant if not monogamous relationship with Morris since they both lived in Antigua. Being gay in Antiguan society was not acceptable. Nor was it in Britain, and especially in the Black community. In a vivid scenes Barry recalls the murder of another black guy known to be gay and was himself beaten up and taunted with being a ‘batty boy’. He is still fearful, and it takes connecting with much younger gay men to enable him and Morris to be more open.

But more then anything, Barry is afraid of revealing the truth to his wife Carmel, who believes he goes with other women. He has deceived her about his sexuality since they married, and it creates different hells for them both. He wants to end the lie, but fears her reaction and those of her friends. Here Carmel and her friends are discussing what will happen if Daniel (Barry’s grandson) turns out to be gay. Daniel storms out of the room.

A voice wades into the conversation. ‘Look how you upset this young boy.’

Is this me talking?

‘You should be ashamed . . . insinuating things. How you think that make him feel? And my daughter don’t need to justify herself to anyone in this room.’

Merty blinks and swivels her head away from me, as though her head is set on ball bearings and can do 360-degree turn. …

The two Gorgons sit there.

Pumped up. Victorious. Primed.

Candaisy, who rarely says peep anyway, keeps her eyes averted from everyone.

Asselietha’s wearing that screwed-up expression she favours, like her lips are tied into a bunch with invisible string.

The whole lotta them should clear out of my house.

Carmel starts to rattle up the plates.

After such melodramatics, is time for everybody to calm down.

This is when Asselietha decides to pitch in. Why Carmel keeps company with such a nut job is beyond my reasoning.

‘Those homos are rightly suffering,’ she says. ‘God saved us to make us holy Mr Walker, not happy.’

This is what I truly believe happened to Asselietha. Someone sliced off the top of her head , scooped out her brains, put them in a blender and turned on the switch. Once it was all mash-up, they poured the mixture back in through her scalp and stitched it all up.

Maybe that’s why she never takes off that narsy ole beret. (p61-2)

So Barry and Morris have been living a lie for fifty years. The story takes off in the summer of 2010. Carmel goes home to Antigua to attend the funeral of her dreadful father. While she is absent Barry comes out to his grandson, Daniel, and one of his daughters, Maxine. Neither of them respond as he might have expected. Barry, for all his sharp observations, knows no one very well. The lie unravels as Carmel’s return approaches and he faces telling her the truth.

119 Hackney_districtsThe only weak aspect of the novel for me was the sorry figure of Carmel, who had achieved a great deal since she came to Britain – a degree, a career in local government including head of department status, a lover of her own, a strong friendship group. But as we see her, through Barry’s eyes, she is an irrational and rather pathetic creature, influenced by her monstrous friends. In the chapters that she recounts (songs) we see her with more vigour. But Barry’s description remains dominant.

I liked the inversion of the father coming out to his kids, and their different attitudes. And I loved the rhythms of the narrative, both in Barry’s voice, and in Carmel’s songs. And I liked the rare depiction of older people and their predicaments.

105 Fict un

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013 and included in the Fiction Uncovered list for 2014.

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Telling stories: fiction and truth

Does this happen in your writing group? Someone reads a short piece, a poem or a story. They lay down the paper and look around the group saying, with a defiant tone, ‘it’s true! It really happened.’ This occurs so often I am wondering what the writer-reader intends.

Is it meant to forestall any critical comments? Does it imply that because it’s true you can’t improve on it? Or does the truth provide a little enhancement – you might not rate this if I call it fiction, but as the truth it can’t be slated? Musing on this as both writer and reader leads me to some thoughts about truth and untruths in fiction.

‘You’re making it up!’ we are told when someone doesn’t believe us. But we know that making up stories is part of the joy of books and reading, and the pleasures of fiction can be enjoyed from a very early age.


118 Mr LovermanTruth in fiction is a curious concept. Fiction – the clue is in the word – it’s ‘made up’, fabricated, a product of the writer’s mind. And yet the writing must be authentic, believable, based on shared (true) experiences. I have just read Mr Loverman, set in the area of London in which I lived for 30 years. I found myself responding to the names and descriptions of streets, the ethnic mix of the area, the rhythms of life that Bernardine Evaristo includes. I found myself responding: Yes that’s right, that’s how it is. But the main character is made up, although I might have come across him … The made-upness and the authenticity go together and are part of the charm of reading. And in Mr Loverman being shown a place I know very well extends my experience so that I look at something familiar in a different way.

Suspending belief

When my daughter was young one of our favourite read-together books was The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams in the psychedelic style of its time (published 1969). It’s a charming story about a little boy who asks his mother to help him deal with a lion in the meadow. At first she denies the lion’s presence. Reader and child can clearly see the lion hiding in the very English meadow. But the mother, who is busy in the kitchen (it’s 1969!), deals with the little boy in an unexpected way.

“Little boy, you are making up stories – so I will make up a story too …. Do you see this match box? Take it out into the meadow and open it. In it will be a tiny dragon. The tiny dragon will grow into a big dragon. It will chase the lion away.”

The little boy took the match box and went away. The mother went on peeling the potatoes.

Well, of course the dragon chases the lion into the house. The little boy and the lion hide in the broom cupboard.118 Mother

“You should have left me alone,” said the lion. “I eat only apples.”

The mother is perplexed.118 Lion

“But there wasn’t a real dragon,” said the mother. “It was just a story I made up.”

“It turned out to be true after all,” said the little boy. “You should have looked in the match box first.”

“That’s how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true and some aren’t…”

And the boy and the lion go and play in safety on the other side of the house.

I love the way this story plays with the notion of truth, as all fiction does more or less overtly, The Lion in the Meadow is, in some ways, a meta-story!

All the same, the mother doesn’t sound very authentic. What mother calls her son ‘Little boy’? And the lion’s observation, ‘I eat only apples’ would more usually be written thus: ‘I only eat apples.’ Perhaps the unlikely nature of lion-speak is being indicated here.

Believing in fiction

Reading The Lion in the Meadow my daughter and I believed both in the truth of the story and knew that lions neither speak nor eat only apples. We negotiate the territory of truth and fiction from an early age. It gets switched on by the magic phrases, ‘Shall I tell you a story?’ and ‘Once upon a time …’

I always left out the final line of the story, however, because I didn’t want it to be true, or to allow my daughter to think it were true.118 Never

The mother never ever made up a story again.

I hope the mother is still making up stories for the little boy, the big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion and the dragon. She should. It was a good one: a dragon in a matchbox.

Here’s a link to the review of Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo that I wrote immediately after this post.


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