An evening with Bernardine Evaristo at Manchester Literature Festival

As part of the Manchester Literature Festival, Jackie Kay hosted an illuminating evening with Bernardine Evaristo based on the launch of her memoir ‘Manifesto’. 

The socially distanced event at HOME theatre and explored formative moments in Evaristo’s life, her relationship with creativity, and her experience of racial harassment growing up as a black woman. 

Manifesto, a memoir subtitled ‘On Never Giving Up’, was published on 7 October and is Evaristo’s ninth book. 

Now 62, Evaristo had a sudden breakthrough at the age of 60 when she won the Booker Prize with her novel Girl, Woman, Other

Her powerful and inspirational memoir describes how everything ‘changed overnight’ following her win after years of hard work had met with little success.

MANIFESTO: “I was never going to write a memoir,” Evaristo said. “How can you put a long life into a book?”

Despite this, Evaristo continues to take a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards her success, calling it “the attention I craved for so long – I’m a middle child, don’t forget!” 

This was typical of the mood of the evening as discussions of serious issues were interspersed with moments of humour.

While reading aloud a passage from the memoir describing a “damp and soulless room”, Evaristo stopped to reflect on what she had written. 

“Actually,” she paused for a moment, “that was in Manchester.”

Credit: Manchester Literature Festival/Chris Payne

Jackie Kay, a Scottish poet, playwright, and novelist, is currently a Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. 

The atmosphere in the theatre was intimate and conversational, and it became clear that Kay and Evaristo were old friends as they reflected on their first meetings – even, to the amusement of the audience, listing the clubs they went to in their youth.

The two women also discussed their shared experience of growing up mixed-race and working class. 

Evaristo founded the first-ever theatre for black women in the 80s – at a time when no one was interested in black theatre, particularly not one featuring women. 

Evaristo co-ran, wrote plays, and acted for the theatre, saying: “It was the making of me in many ways.” 

Evaristo and Kay reflected on the casual and overt racism they experienced in the theatre world, as Kay recalled being told, after an audition, that: “You’re really good; you’re just the wrong colour.”

Evaristo explained how her encounters with racial harassment have spurred her creativity and vision for her works. 

As a child, she felt as though she didn’t fit in as a result of society’s prejudices.

She told the audience: “You couldn’t avoid racism, whether you were mixed race or not.

“What I do remember as a child was just feeling self-conscious.”

She spoke about how Boris Johnson had his name down for Eton before he was born – a rite of passage to later become Prime Minister. 

By contrast, Evaristo was sidelined in the 80s when hardly any black women were being published.

“For many of us,” she said, “the systems aren’t there.” 

Now, she wants to use her platform to make a difference. 

For Evaristo, creativity – Manifesto’s main theme and the most constant force in her life – was interwoven with her experience of racial harassment and personal relationships.  

As a result of feeling outcast as a child, Evaristo sought refuge in reading, which helped to foster her creativity.

As an adult, Evaristo experienced a controlling relationship with someone she refers to in Manifesto as ‘The Mental Dominatrix’ – ‘TMD’ for short – which posed a threat to her creativity. 

‘TMD’ numbed her creative writing spirit, as she read aloud Evaristo’s poetry in her place and advised her against submitting a manuscript to publishers. 

As Manifesto explores, creativity as a force has shaped Evaristo’s life and writings: “Writing poetry was how I connected to my deepest emotions.

“Poetry was the means through which I processed my new knowledge and insights.

“I always chose to be creative,” she said. “It didn’t earn me much money until – (and here she gave a dry nod to her Booker Prize win) – extremely recently.”

Manifesto is now available to buy in most bookshops. 

Tickets to watch a digital recording of the event from 1 November 2021 are available to buy here: https://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/events/an-evening-with-bernardine-evaristo-39733 

Featured image credit: Manchester Literature Festival/Chris Payne

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