A partnership between the Runnymede Trust and Penguin Random House, the Lit in Colour programme helps schools to make the teaching and learning of English literature more inclusive. At its first teacher conference this summer, the Runnymede Trust’s Lesley Nelson-Addy spoke to Bernardine Evaristo, the renowned author of 10 books, including the bestselling novel Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019 and made her the first writer with Black heritage to claim the award in its 50-year history. This is an edited extract from their interview.
What inspired you to use a humorous storytelling style to explore challenging topics in Girl, Woman, Other?
The humour comes naturally to me now – it's been there in practically all my books... A turning point for me was French and Saunders – people of a certain generation will remember French and Saunders, most definitely. British comedy is still very male, but it was extremely male in my childhood, [yet] these were two women, who were my generation, writing about women’s issues and they were really funny.
They did a skit about school girls and I remember thinking, ‘I want to write like that, I want to write with humour.' So I started to develop my ability to write humour. It's got to the stage – Girl, Woman, Other was my eighth book – where it just happens naturally. If it's not there in the writing [now] I think there’s something wrong...
[Humour] stops it being po-faced and makes it more complex and rounded. Because, with all due respect, if a book is humourless – and some books are and they can also be great books, I have to say – I think it's harder to win the reader around. I deal with, as you say, very serious subjects and topics, but there’s always humour somewhere. I feel that makes the reader more accepting of what I'm exploring.
How would you define the genre of Girl, Woman, Other?
In terms of a literary genre it’s definitely literary fiction. I am 100 per cent a literary writer in the sense that I am interested in language and how we use language. I'm also interested in storytelling as well.
But you don't have to be somebody with a particular sensitivity to language to tell great stories and the books that actually perform best commercially in this country are what we might call commercial fiction. Those books are often not particularly literary, but the writers can tell a very good story.
I think an amazing book, for example, and one that a lot of people know, is Misery by Stephen King. He does not finesse his sentences in a way that a literary writer might, but he can tell such an amazing story and has done [so] for a very long time.
[Girl, Woman, Other is] literary fiction, but within that I call it fusion fiction and that's something I made up because as I was writing it I was thinking, ‘This is really not a traditional novel, it's breaking the rules, it’s unconventional, it’s kind of poetic but it’s not poetry.’ And in terms of my oeuvre I have written verse novels, I have written prose novels, although my language is always poetic irregardless of whether it’s supposed to be a prose novel or not.
And with this I knew it was really experimental because it was these looping stories, interconnected, the whole life of a character in 30 pages, and then other characters appearing in their stories, and then moving onto the next, moving onto the next, and I thought I've got to come up with an identity for this and I thought ‘fusion fiction’...
And, you know, it's also actually commercial because it became a commercial success. So even though we had these categories, the boundaries are always blurred.
‘The history of London is so deep, the demography of London is so interesting, it's so varied and it’s ever-changing’
Girl, Woman, Other is a collection of individual stories about women from the African diaspora who are all connected in some way. In some narratives, you explore the effort characters make to maintain connection to their roots and traditions. How does London, as a city and a character in your novel, help or hinder this effort?
London is my muse in many ways. It features strongly in most of my work, but I'm always trying to also take my characters out of London. So if anybody’s familiar with the whole of my work they’ll know that London is a recurrent theme, but I also try to be much more global because I don't want to be limited to London.
The history of London is so deep, the demography of London is so interesting, it's so varied and ever-changing. The London of my childhood, [a] very long time ago, is not the London we’re living in today in many ways. The town I grew up in, Woolwich, was a white working class garrison town. It’s less of a garrison town now, it is kind of the next big gentrified area. The whole area around the Woolwich Arsenal, which was the old armaments factory, has been developed, there’s a creative quarter, it’s changing, changing, changing. I think that is really fertile for my imagination.
At the same time, as a writer who's interested in writing about the African diaspora, I was very aware when I was writing Girl, Woman, Other... that it can’t just be about London, the capital city. Nor can it just be about other major UK cities, which is why I was pushing some of the characters into other parts of the country like the north of England and into rural society…
I’m very familiar with Black British literature and I know, for obvious reasons, that a lot of the writers are London-based and write about London... But at the same time we need to claim ownership of these shores and so it was really important to me in Girl, Woman, Other to get the characters out of the city… so that we can imagine a presence beyond the city.
In terms of diversification, you don’t just focus on space in Girl, Woman, Other but historical narratives, too. For example, Amma’s play is based on the 17th- to early 20th-century West African kingdom of Dahomey, details of which are given in the first and final chapters. When did you discover this history and why did you choose to bookend the novel with it?
Because essentially I'm a badass right [laughs]. So the Amazons are Africans from Dahomey, they were these warrior women from a couple of hundred years ago.
I first heard about them about 40 years ago… I was researching and discovering all these African queens and, to be honest, that was so mind-blowing back then because the general knowledge about Africa and African history was so limited. It’s still limited today but it was even more limited 40 years ago. You didn't have access to a lot of information, it was long before the internet…
I had this poster – I may [still] have it somewhere – of these Dahomey warrior women. It was a photograph taken… maybe in the late 1800s and I had that on my wall throughout the whole of my 20s… They became almost like spirit guides…
It just made sense that this book was going to be about Black women who were fighters in all kinds of ways.
Lesley Nelson-Addy is the Runnymede Trust’s education manager. Resources to accompany her interview with Bernadine Evaristo at the Lit in Colour conference are available on the Lit in Colour website. A video of the full interview is available on YouTube.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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