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Bernardine Evaristo won't give up

September 17, 2022

DW met the acclaimed author to discuss her "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up," activism and writing, and asked her about her reactions to Queen Elizabeth's death and Liz Truss' policies.

A portrait of Bernardine Evaristo's head and shoulders, standing in a lecture hall, wearing a pink patterned shirt
Bernardine Evaristo was in Berlin to present her latest books, including 'Manifesto: On Never Giving Up'Image: Florian Kroker/DW

During her second talk at the International Literature Festival Berlin (ilb), which runs until September 17, Bernardine Evaristo discussed her prize-winning novel, "Girl, Woman, Other."

The presentation was aimed at high school students, and the 1,000-seat theater was filled to capacity. After the reading, young fans lined up to get the 63-year-old author to sign their copies of the novel or her 2022 memoir, "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up."

DW met the British-Nigerian writer and activist right after the book signing, and asked how it felt to be revered like a literary rock star. "It doesn't feel very rock star!" she laughed. "But it is nice to be appreciated and to have full houses, because I remember not so long ago that I'd do events and there would be, you know, 10 or 20 people in the audience. And, it's very, very different for me now. So I really appreciate it."

First Black president of the Royal Society of Literature

Decades before "Girl, Woman, Other" was translated into 41 languages and became an international bestseller, Evaristo established her name as a novelist of the African diaspora and as an activist promoting the visibility of writers of color in the United Kingdom.

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo pose with the books after jointly winning the Booker Prize for Fiction 2019.
Evaristo won the Booker Prize for 'Girl, Woman, Other' along with Margaret Atwood in 2019Image: Reuters/S. Dawson

Her longstanding advocacy work led her to become president of the Royal Society of Literature in 2022 — the first writer of color and the second female author to be appointed head of the society, which was founded in 1820 by King George IV and was long under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II.

Asked about the British queen's recent death, Evaristo admitted that even though she's "not particularly a royalist," she did react with a certain sadness, noting that the queen was "a constant in most people's lives for the whole of our lives," and that her "sense of duty was unparalleled, really."

Of course not everyone is mourning her death, she said, but "the nation as a whole and certainly the media are really in the moment of grieving her." But once things have settled down, she added, "then it's quite likely that questions about the monarchy and its role in our society and its history will be further explored. Because I think people were very loyal to her, as an individual. That doesn't necessarily mean that they support this institution."

As for the Royal Society of Literature itself, she added, it has been under the patronage of Camilla, now queen consort, for the past seven years. "And she's been great. She's a real champion of literature and literacy. And I think she's an absolute force for good in our world now," said Evaristo.

Bigotry amid a society that 'has progressed a lot'

And what might be the impact of the new Liz Truss government on the arts and literature? "Well, we'll wait and see, won't we?" answered Evaristo pragmatically. "But certainly the Tory government's been in power for 12 years now, and they haven't been supporters of the arts; and they haven't been supporters of the arts in secondary school education, which is appalling."

The book cover of Manifesto: On Never Giving Up
'Manifesto: On Never Giving Up' looks at how she became the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize

Altogether, she feels that Britain has significantly progressed in her lifetime. "It has become a more diverse, a more tolerant and more multicultural society. For example, people of color are now achieving at every level, at the highest levels even. But that doesn't mean that it's an equal society, because it's not, and institutional racism still exists."

Amid this progress, populist leaders have nevertheless managed to stoke up people's inner bigotry, scapegoating immigrants in the UK to achieve Brexit, she said.

"And that was quite a shock to see that even though the society has progressed, those demagogues still had an effect, and had people feeling as if they were being swamped by foreigners. But actually the British economy relies on foreigners, foreign workers and so on. And so we're now having problems because of that. And of course, the sensible people among us predicted this."

Working towards long-lasting change

In the 1980s, when Evaristo graduated from drama school, she was already very active in a community of people of color who were interested in writing and hoping to get published one day, but "the doors to the industry were almost completely closed to us, especially women of color."

Now, she said, "there's never been a better time in Britain for writers of color to get published, including Black women. And so that's been a huge change."

The industry has also become more inclusive in terms of who works in it, "but it still obviously has a very long way to go."

Evaristo believes the fight for diversity will not end, especially if long-lasting gains are to be achieved. "You know, you want progress to be embedded in the culture as opposed to something that is passing and may actually regress," she said, citing the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, which suddenly knocked down 50 years of progress in the fight for abortion rights. That was "a seismic shock to people all over the world."

So as activists, they will "always have to be careful that we maintain the lobbying, the campaigning, and keep an eye on the progress that has been made so that it is maintained."

On never giving up

Altogether, Evaristo prefers to focus on the progress, as she is determined to keep a positive mental attitude in life.

"Manifesto: On Never Giving Up" portrays her background, her precarious years and the tenacity that finally led to her massive success.

In the book, Evaristo openly discusses how motivational courses allowed her to overcome several challenges in her life and achieve her career goals.

She went from being a person in her 20s who was angry about the system to somebody who wanted to become part of the system, "but on my own terms and to change it from within," she explained.

One piece of advice she shares with her creative writing students at London's Brunel University — and in the book — is to "bounce back in the act of falling."

"The idea of bouncing back from perceived failure or rejection or disappointment is something people are very familiar with, right? You get off a horse, you get back on the horse again, you bounce back," she said. "But then I started to think, well, why don't you bounce back before you hit rock bottom? And that's what I do. So if I am very disappointed by something, I don't allow myself to go 'bam' on the floor and to lie there for a bit, and finally marshal the resources to get back up and to get on with my life. As soon as I feel myself falling, I say, 'Nope, stop it.'"

She said she has managed to teach herself out of it. Witnessing her energy, her commitment and her achievements, it's easy to believe that it actually worked.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture