Bernardine Evaristo has had several firsts lately. But long before she became the first black female novelist to win the Booker prize, for Girl, Woman, Other in 2019, she set up a groundbreaking theatre company for black women, the first of its kind in Britain.
“Theatre was my first love,” she says, as she returns to that passion with a 15-minute monologue for the Old Vic in London. It’s part of a series curated by Lolita Chakrabarti that began in 2018, aiming to celebrate the NHS, then having its 70th anniversary. “I was ecstatic. I love writing monologues. A lot of my books are in first-person.”
Evaristo was exhilarated, too, by sitting in on a rehearsal, albeit in a face mask. It was an emotional experience, coming 35 years after she wrote her last play in 1985 and almost two decades since she last watched her work performed on a stage. Her monologue, First, Do No Harm, is directed by Adrian Lester and performed by Sharon D Clarke. “It was joyous watching her,” says Evaristo, who has followed Clarke’s career since the 1980s.
The brief suited Evaristo perfectly and it joins a growing crop of dramas marking the recent achievements of the NHS, including works from Unprecedented, Dear Ireland and Talawa’s latest shorts about black key workers. However, Evaristo says her piece is less focused on the Covid-19 crisis: it’s more a straight-up celebration. “The NHS is undeniably one of the best things about Britain,” says Evaristo, whose character argues as much. “It is the NHS talking to a crowd who want to get rid of it. The character is mounting a defence of what it is – and calling on gods and goddesses from other cultures.”
Evaristo’s love affair with the stage started young. “I went to Greenwich Young People’s Theatre [now Tramshed] at the age of 12 to accompany one of my sisters and ended up liking it enough to return the next week, and thereafter, until I was about 16 or 17. I loved performing and the collaborative culture. I decided, at the age of 14, that I wanted to be an actor, which I was until I was 26, as well as a playwright.”
She trained at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama, and co-founded Theatre of Black Women with Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall before giving it all up. “I’m really interested in writing for theatre again,” she says. But why give it up in the first place? “The other two founders had left so I was doing it alone, working 24/7 and always struggling to get the funding, never knowing if I’d get it for the following year. It was the same struggle then as it is now. I wasn’t acting or writing any more. I felt like an administrator rather than a creative.”
Back then, she remembers a different landscape, with “around 40 black and Asian companies all over the country”. Many dispersed for various reasons but she is heartened by the diversity in our current climate, praising the new generation of young black theatre-makers, including Ola Ince, Lynette Linton and Selina Thompson. “All the political activism of the younger generation is coming through.”
Although Evaristo is best known as a novelist, she has never been just one thing. The fiction has always been produced in tandem with poetry and short stories, as well as work in academia and journalism. Is she a regimented writer? “No, but somehow the work gets done without me having a strict timetable. I compartmentalise. If I’m writing a novel, I don’t juggle anything with it, although if someone asked me to write a short story I might. I don’t really procrastinate because I have so many things to do, and hundreds of emails in between. Even when I’m procrastinating, I’m doing one of the other things I’ve got to do.” It sounds like plate-spinning hell. “It’s not hellish. It’s just the way my creative life is.”
There is also Evaristo’s activism, which has been a consistent feature across her career. How does she keep this up alongside the creative stuff? “I keep it separate in my mind, although my creativity is activist, in a way – I’m telling stories that haven’t been told. That’s also what I’m about as an activist. For me, it’s important to speak out. Not everyone does. If people just want to be artists that’s fine. But I take it on as a responsibility and it makes me feel better about success.”
Evaristo found Booker success last autumn at the age of 60, by which time she had a hinterland of eight novels and innumerable fellowships and honours. In his 2010 Booker-winning speech, Howard Jacobson, then in his late 60s, suggested that the success was overdue. Does she feel hers was too? She wasn’t unsuccessful in the least before Booker, she points out, even if she hadn’t broken into the commercial mainstream and she certainly didn’t feel bitter. “That’s not the kind of energy I have and not the energy I needed to have to continue writing. I was writing the books I wanted to write, being supported by my publisher, reaching a certain kind of audience. There was no resentment or bitterness and if there was sometimes I never allowed it to stew.”
Still, Booker success has meant a huge amount. “I appreciate it completely. I don’t write to reach a small audience. I write to reach as many people as possible. This has given me a wide readership and that feels amazing. I have a big platform now to say the things I’ve been banging on about for so long. But I have to be careful about what I tweet. There are a lot of eyes on me.”
Has she had trolling on Twitter? “No, it’s been quite the opposite,” she says although she had a brush with the trolls when the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, posted a tweet recommending her books and she became caught in the crossfire. “People were having a go at her [for spending her time reading novels]. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is this what she gets?’”
Girl, Woman, Other interweaves the voices of 12 women, including a non-binary character, while previous novels have also explored gender and sexuality including the prize-winning Mr Loverman, about closeted homosexuality. Does she call herself a feminist, given that the term has arguably become a contested one, as demonstrated in the most recent case involving JK Rowling? Evaristo does not want to enter into this disputed ground but she makes clear her pro-trans position and adds hopeful words: “It’s the beginning of the conversation where people are making mistakes, but we’ll move through it.”
She is proud to call herself an intersectional feminist, she says. “I think feminism has many meanings now or maybe it has always done. It’s one of the most important issues in the world and there are so many definitions now. I see Instagram posts that look really porny to me but they describe themselves as feminist and I’m saying that’s interesting.”
To return to all the recent firsts in Evaristo’s life, the “bittersweet history-making”, as she called it, of the Booker-prize has been followed up with other landmark moments. Last month she became the first black writer to reach number one in the UK book charts (alongside Reni Eddo-Lodge) and was also the first black writer in her category in the British Book awards. It’s still bittersweet, she says. “We have been undervalued. We have to stop talking about the firsts.”