« Desert Island Discs

Bernardine Evaristo, writer

2020-09-20 | 🔗
Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel, Girl, Woman, Other. She is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London. Bernardine was born in May 1959, the fourth of eight children, to an English mother and a Nigerian father. She grew up in Woolwich in south London, and was educated at Eltham Hill Girls’ Grammar School. She spent her teenage years at the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre and, after deciding that she wanted to be a professional actor at the age of 14, did a Community Theatre Arts course at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. After graduation she founded the Theatre of Black Women with two fellow students in the early 1980s and they began to write roles for themselves. By the late 1980s, she had decided that it was the writing she enjoyed most. Her first poetry collection was published in 1994, followed by a semi-autobiographical verse novel called Lara three years later. More books followed, experimenting with form and narrative perspective, often merging the past with the present, prose with poetry, the factual with the speculative, and reality with alternate realities. Girl, Woman, Other is her eighth book. A longstanding activist and advocate, Bernardine has initiated several successful schemes to ensure increased representation of artists and writers of colour in the creative industries. She is married to David, who she met in 2006, and lives in London. DISC ONE: Malaika by Angélique Kidjo DISC TWO: Zombie by Fela Kuti DISC THREE: Breaths by Sweet Honey in the Rock DISC FOUR: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free by Nina Simone DISC FIVE: Woyaya by Osibisa DISC SIX: Köln, January 24, 1975, part I by Keith Jarrett DISC SEVEN: Things Have Changed by Bob Dylan DISC EIGHT: Fight The Power by Public Enemy BOOK CHOICE: The Norton Anthology of Poetry by Margaret Ferguson), Tim Kendall and Mary Jo Salter LUXURY ITEM: A hologram of Bernardine's husband CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Köln, January 24, 1975, part I by Keith Jarrett Presenter: Lauren Laverne Producer: Cathy Drysdale
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
BBC sounds music radio, podcasts, hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them. If they were cast away to a desert island for rights reasons. The music is shorter than the original bro cast out, you enjoy listening. I the my castaway this week is the writer burn dean every still. Last year she won the book apprise with her eighth novel girl, woman other. It was an historic victory, she's, the first black british author to receive the trophy for her. It was also the manifestation of decades
old dream challenging yourself to set an unrealistic goal early in her career. She had chosen to visualize winning the prize whether she demand and commanding the attention of a former us president during his downtime, I can't say in any case, Barack Obama is also a fan. he named girl woman other as one of his favorite reads. If twenty nineteen she describes herself as uncompromising, which has come in here, de her thirty eight year, career in the arts, as it critically claimed, playwright poet and author has run in parallel to her life. As an activist growing up in Large british nigerian family and will it she was a voracious reader, but theater was her first love and on graduating from drama school. She found it Britain's first black women's theatre company. She says I feel very subversive, as peter. I write the stories I feel need to be out there defying stereotypes and writing into the absences that have prevailed
vanity, never is still welcome to desert island discs. Thank you so much so good to be here so girl, woman, other tells the story of twelve characters, mostly women of color living in britain and that ages range from nineteen, two. Ninety three, it's a beautifully complex narrative What was your aim when you started writing it? I wanted to write a book that had as many black british women in it as possible because there are so few of us getting list, and so we just weren't really present in british fiction or fiction anywhere in the world. To be honest, so it's ok, I'm gonna, put twelve women in another. And see how that works. Helped the book at the top of the charts in the wake of the black lives matter, protest this summer, Did it feel to see your writing connect, not just with readers, but without times in that way, it's stoning to be honest, to think that this book has become a bestseller,
because in my mind it's it's a book that I wrote when very few people knew my work and its very much the kind of book I would write, which is, I think, radical and experimental There are a lot of women on the queer spectrum in the novel, a quarter of them in fact, and so it to then make the lists and then to reach number one and stay there for quite a while was the real is the power of the book. Essentially, so is good. It feels like these characters who most of them readers won't really have met before in fiction. It feels that they're going out into the world and their becoming known, and so black british women are becoming known, and I think that's really positive thing. We're on the radio listeners we'll have to imagine your personal aesthetic, but I know that it's vivid colorful in flamboyant and you ve said that it's important to you, it's visual statement of who you I was a woman in the creative arts. Can you tell me more about that? I do were extremely colorful.
And the older I get the more colorful I become. I think one, growing up, we know we were mixed, trace family in a very wide area and we stood out because we were black children and it wasn't a positive thing and then at some point I decided I was going to just make a virtue of it and to dress in. flamboyant way and in them for years, I really decided to yeah where colorful clothes, because I think we should anyway but also I don't want to hide who I am I want to be noticed. And I think one of the ways in which we can do that is by. Are we tal cells visually to the world and also I dont, want to look like everybody else. That's dealt with that your first desk. What are we gonna hear me like, which is a classic, swahili song and I've chosen the version sung by angelique Kidjo, and I love angelique kidjo and it's
a song that laughing it comes out of the fifties, and it's so full of love and yearning and is just the most beauty Also in malaysia go back now my leg malaysia, Go back on a Nina Chua, ma. Usa. Dad now you know you to Managua bernardino. We still you ve said there was nothing in my childhood. That said, I could be a writer. So what did it say? Oh interesting question
Well, my mother was a schoolteacher and I gotcha grammar school. So I guess I guess that would have been enough. Forming a fat, my eldest sister, did it go on to become a teacher. No, so deputy head, mistress. they were? There were no role models for me in terms of being a black british go in, in the society around me really. I went to the youth it when I was twelve and that changed my life I kind of wonder what would have happened if I hadn't done that, because I might have been a bit directionless. we're aspirations as a little girl what it ought to be a non a nun. That's ok, because you moments catholic grass. Yes, I was very indoctrinated. We used to go to church every some and I to go to confession and confess my sins and I believe, to all going to church. When I was fifteen when we
so I come from a large family of eight kids and when each of us reach the age of fifteen, my mother said you can now make your own decision about whether or not you continue going to church and every single one of us going so there's ten of you in the house, as must have been a very busy house with all those people in it, tell us a little bit about growing up it was. It was a very busy house. My parents bought it in nineteen sixty for two thousand pounds and it was a big old, victorian house with five bedrooms and two reception rooms. So there was space for us. We each shared a room with one other member of the family. We didn't have any money and my dad was the kind of person who would start things and not finish them most of the time we had bare floorboards and walls that were on papered. It was a creaking drafty old building, but it could hold us all yet added moved over from nigeria. How much did you know about his wits? There, almost nothing. He didn't tell us anything. He
said later on that he wanted us to grow up his english children, and so he wouldn't be wise him to tell us about his past all to pass on his language, which was europa, and Oh, he was a mystery actually and also my father didn't talk to us. He disciplined us and he told us off, but he didn't really chat to us. Do you think he was scarcely absolutely scared for us absolutely, but he had a. children for boys for girls at a time when there was a lot of racism on the streets the race relations act, so we had children, in a society where it was kind of ok to be racist and he had to protect us. What did that death of knowledge mean to you the kind of thing,
it could project into from their own imagination if they were so minded yes well, I think I think we probably I may not talk for myself. I think I probably saw africa in the way that africa was seen back then and perhaps as seen by people today, which is that it was somewhere on civilized and savage and not somewhere to be proud. Twelve and my father was a very dark skinned black man- and I remember when I was about maybe about eleven, seeing him walking down the street towards me and I cross the road, because I didn't want to say hello to him cause I didn't want to be associated with him. I mean that fills terrible now, but that's that's what it was like because growing up in the sixties. It is in a very wide area. There was, nothing around us to tell us that being a person of color was a good thing.
even if some music, it's your second disk. What is, in my view, chosen it today, so feller cootie love etiquette to have always loved love, equity and the track zombie and even though my father was distant and disciplinarian in the nineties, seventies. He would have parties. My mother and father would have parties They bring the nigerian friends in then, friends are always married to white women. My mother was why is a white woman and they would play king sunny day and other african high life musicians and also feller cootie and my dad's friends, with dance with asks the girls in the family and we kind of enjoyed the parties, but we didn't like dancing with them because the tracks were going for about half an hour. If your dad's old mates wanted to dance with you, it would go on. on, but now listening sophisticated. I love his long tracks because you just enjoy it
Beth the
allocating someday bennett, in every stow the world that you describe as a child sent quite constrained before you got to use theater. The first escape that you found, I think, was like many kids of your generation and your circumstances was books from the local libraries or village library all loved it loved it. So much. I would go down to the library every saturday and pick up two or three books and read them during the week and the books opened up the world to me and they were a form of entertainment, because I wasn't going anywhere. I just immersed myself in books and I was a good reader and it was free,
We didn't have many books in the house. We had like a tiny, tiny bookshelf with some very old books. I don't know what they were. Is it true that used to read on the walk to school? Oh yeah, I did maybe for two reasons. One was that I just go into the stories I was reading and was really didn't. Want, let them down in the same way that I seen students of my walking through compass university, where I teach reading from a computer as they walk along. Quite believe that I used to do it with a book, and also I was quite shy. So is a wade I think, to cut out what was going on around me and just to focus on what was in front of me, and I remember, reading roots when I was fifteen, which was the epic novel. Slavery when there was an account In the tv series in nineteen, seventy five- and I remember getting that book and reading it and that made a really lasting impression, because that was actually the first black book. I read because the other books were a white books because that's what was around at the time?
didn't try to right, though, or fancy yourself a writer one day. Why? No? No, not at all! I don't know I mean I guess it's just wasn't, even something that was possible. You know if you come from a working class background, It's not an option. Is it unless somehow you get to know somebody or you have a teacher at school who presents as an option. I didn't know any writers and as a young child thinking about careers, which I wasn't doing anyway, but in a puff of big. None is right. You just thinking of what. How do you earn a living and writing is not uppermost in the minds of children who are not in
that kind of culture, so, as you said, it was acting rather than writing that that captured use a teenager. What was it about that? I went to the local uses, her grinage on people's fears, if that's what it was cold and it was about ten minute walk from my house, and it was in a big old church and I just absolutely loved it from the pretty much of the minute I walked in the door. It was fun. I think, that's what it is when you were a child when you're acting is not about wanting to be a great performer. I have no memory of wanting to make great performer at the beginning. I just wanted to go there because it was almost like inter community center and doing all kinds of games and performances and singing and running around and getting on with each other. I just remember it being a very freeing experience for me. It's time we take a big
music. This is your third disk today. What are we getting here and why well sweet honey in the rock one of my favorite, all tongue groups, a capella african american women's group, very feminist and ferry political and spiritual, so the song of chosen is called breaths, which is, I think, abusive lease ritual song and it's kind of about the ancestors, and I think when I'm on an island, it's just going to remind me of the people I ve known
the when the fires or since the voice of the lord sweet honey in the rock and perhaps Benetton ever still, he left home eighteen to live at your boyfriend and after a year out working at the BBC world service, he then went to drama school. It was the rose proof, college of speech and drama and that was way he began. Writing tell us about your first play, described by the principle as the best piece of theatre he'd ever seen. He deeds and it was really short, and it was basically
an explosion of rage. It was called the inward and I jumped onto the stage, and I shall that work out really loudly and then I say something like to black, not black enough to white, not white enough and then some other things and then jump off the stage. So it was really short and it was probably very powerful, yeah, obviously a hugely shocking and powerful word now. Obviously his response to it was very positive, but we hadn't seen anything like it before. It really was a very vicious word then- and I was basically saying this is how I'm seen this is what I might be cold, but were doing
I stand because I'm a mixed race person, not a very sophisticated piece of theatre but punchy you've described yourself raging against the machine in your twenties, so you're a force to be reckoned with by men. While not really I mean I like to think I was. But I was a kid you know it just feels that I was so young, but we know we form theatre, black women, myself, patricia central air and paulette randall. We started the company literally the the day we left our home school. We had no experience and we just said we're not going to get any work because business. What for us, we felt that we once accepted by the mainstream, and it was very much for us to create the story and control story and to put it out there into the kinds of venues that would attract people who be interested in our work, that fair play that either which was about being mixed race, I wonder about that facet of who you are and to what extent you ve been here
to kind of reconcile latin and find uncreate representation for for yourself, and perhaps for people like you. Yes, it was an issue I would say, because grown out, we were called in the sixtys and seventys half cost and that didn't feel like an insults. That was what mixed race people were cold and then eventually became mix trace. They wear identity issues about you know. Do I really fit into any kind of black coach? when I have a white mother irons in. I wasn't always welcome either in black spaces, because I was mixed race and actually all of that changed when I wrote my second book laura, which is based on my family history, and I went into both sides. My family history. I went back to my father's childhood, his sisters. Background in brazil- and I went back to my mother's childhood and her heritage in ireland- an event she germany and looked at what it was like girl mixed grace and through writing that book, which is a novel in verse, fictionalized version
my family history. I reconciles my identity and I've never look back from that as a black woman and I'm happy to claim that as my identity and with it I am also a mixed rice, woman or you might say, by racial or wherever term is around, that comes in the future and on very solid in it. It's time to go to the music Benazir bhutto, gonna hear Nina simone one of my favorite singers, and this so I wish I knew how it would feel to be free is a song that still touches my heart today and when I was working with pitch black women and patricia listen hilarity myself were putting on a production, could silhouettes we co written it and we will both performing in it. It is a two hands we used to play this song just before the curtain went up metaphorically speaking as a winner,
because you played in community centres and libraries and and so on, but we would be out of sight of the audience and this song would come on In addition, I would be mining the song and dancing and then we go and stage we knew to be free, we could, the chain, I wish I could say things I should say, say out loud. sam, clean father all round.
I wish I could share all know how remove all the bars that key the bus. The way she could know what I mean the man should be free. The wish, nina simone, and I wish I knew how it would feel to be free bernard. He never risto you describe. The eighties is the heyday of your lesbian era. What we like about yourself at the time I knew that was coming yeah. It was, I had fun and I was very angry. I was very angry as a woman, you know, because of feeling like an outsider and sort of understanding,
how the patriarchy worked in being angry at the injustices against women and then seeing how the feminist movement worked, and that was kind of quite exclusionary and didn't really accommodate black women. And I had a period of about is where I lived as an austrian, and that was my identity and I should go lesbian marches and I scan clubbing lots of relationships. I was very much part of his cancer cultural black feminists, say all black womanist community, where we were just nurturing each other as well as fighting each other and falling out of calls and creating our own artistic products, so that when I left that behind I was in a sense, very strong as an artist because I had found I found myself as an artist in space where there was nobody telling me, I couldn't do what I wanted to do and we are putting gladwin
at the centre was totally nor and accepted and to say that in the eighties a lot of asian women also identified as black. So so black on that she'd been very inclusive of a wider range of women of color, He wrote about you younger self. That anger is a default. Emotion leads to self emulation. I went home when it was feed for yourself preservation too, to change your outlook to modify that. Yes, I was angry and my early twenties, I have to say, but definitely by the time I got to my thirties. I didn't feel angry. I think that's that's really wise and I turned the anger into energy. I wouldn't be right. if I was angry, I'm passionate and I care about things and I try to make a difference. But what striving me is not anger, anymore. It's energy and I think, that's very positive sign for your next day bandaging. What are we gonna hear today? Why? I first listen to also visa in the seventies and the song is.
Old warrior, which means we keep going and it's about. wanting to get somewhere, but not knowing how you gonna get there, and I started soon to this song, after quite a big gap when I was nominated for the book and it became my kind of book anthem because of the lyrics and the day of the her. I had some Ok, it was a couple of hours before the ceremony, because I was so nervous, and I was music on and opposition to the words and I was singing it and I was dancing around the room and it means so much to me because I reach this place
two, so long city, Bulgaria, benzene, we still you were already and award winning author by last year, but of course nothing compared to the booker. How did you feel moment. You heard the news that you'd one I released a stream of explosives, I literally
war, the house down, it was so stop fishing and exhilarating in the build up to it. That day had been enormous and then there's a big banquets at it It goes on and on and on and then at ten o clock the and cement is made, and the chair of the judges announced smuggler outward, and he said it is gonna. Be too ooh, and I was like, oh my god he's going to be the second person and the truth is I wanted the prize so much I'm, I can't be cool about. It cannot be called about it. tell the truth. This is desert. Island is absolutely. I wanted it so much because anew it was gonna change everything, and so when he said my name? The room exploded which was very nice, and then I got out and Margaret got up and she kind of gave me a hug. I think we walked onto the stage hand in hand, yes, and then she also
be the podium. I just thought: well, that's so generous and so sweet and my fate haven't really touch the ground ever since much has been written about the fact that you're, the first woman of color in the first blackberry shoulder when the prize, but you also sharing it. I wonder how you felt that at the time and and how you feel looking back, I don't think I could have been any less happy if I have one or my own to be honest I will take the book apprise anyway. It comes forestalls, I'm just happy Peter it and also she is such a phenomenal woman. I get what other people see people from outside think we'll first brought won't show to go on your own, and if I wasn't the person who got it, I might think that but in terms of my feelings, I don't think I would feel any difference, because it kind of feels I have one because both one it separately were not sharing a trophy. We have both wanted.
You say, you know it has changed everything for you. How do you great that kind of new ultra visibility? I really appreciate the fact that I have a much. pick a platform for my activism so, whereas before hardly anyone was listening to me now I just put out a tweet and suddenly it's a quote in a newspaper. I'm not oh right. I have the power and you know I am about my community, my rights and community, and so I do continue to promote other writers and when it comes to your activism, and, as you have important to you, is it that you are now part of the literary establishment is very good. I like it. Actually I haven't compromised my politics or my creativity. I feel very much right now in the centre of things, but I'm hopefully changing from within and I think we have to be inside the establishment as well
Let us do what we do outside of it. Let's have some music vanity, but we can here next and wisely chosen this today so case. Jarrett, I heard him play in the late seventies and I just love his piano playing the album that I've chosen is from the comb concerts and it just takes me on an emotional journey everytime. I listen to it so forty years later, I still find the I'm emotionally touched by it, and I think that is great. I the the
Keith Jarrett from part one of them blown concert, bennett,
he never is still your professor of creative writing now and you tell your students. If writers want lifelong careers, they need to be unstoppable. Before the critical acclaim arrived for you, how did you get there? I I did what I love doing. First of all, it was the theater and then it was becoming a writer and publishing books and finding ways to support myself by working in arts management and then eventually having a portfolio career. I still do right book reviews are right, essays jewel of touring, which paid, but it's all around literature, and in that way I was able to support my passion and, I think the key to becoming unstoppable is to do what you love doing and to do Well, your skills and never give up. Stems eu penultimate disk motor gonna be its bob,
Dylan and the song is things have changed and I chose it because of my husband. So he is a huge bob did in fact, and so I've heard a lot of bob did and since we ve been together since to them, sakes- and this is one of the songs that we enjoy together and we actually sort of dance around to it. Problem is my husband is a comedy dancer. He never, seriously, though I've I'm starting to lose my ability to dance in rhythm was the person I dont most with is somebody who just monks about, but anyway this is his favorite bob dylan song and I enjoy it too. So it's for David
Gallagher, many things bob Dylan and things if chain, for your husband, David bernardino We're still, we talked about you being a professor of creative writing, brunel university and you're, one of only twenty six in the uk of twenty thousand professors, black women,
and I wonder about that challenge- to pass the baton on fur, better representation, not just when it comes to ethnicity, engender but class as well, whose job is coming up with silly Since to that, because I know that, like the right, Amal and james eve, eve talked boats having done your time on diversity panels. I'm not doing any motivation panels, but I can drop tweets loaf which have even more impact? Actually, those two things going on. One is the People who most care about change of the people who are most adversely affected by the status quo, and the other thing is that the people who can make the biggest difference all the people in positions of power, and they are the people who may not fail, but they are directly adversely affected by the fact that people have been excluded. If we're talking about race, for example, why
People need to be on board and to be at least a party to the conversations we have around race, because what happens is where? Suddenly there is an explosion of black lives matter, whatever else the institutions then start saying. Ok, we're not. Very well in terms of inclusive eighty help us what we do, what we do, but actually they know what to do and if they don't know what to do than to work it out. because if the door shut, what do you do you open that door? Yet this reality is that the onus is always puts on us. The people who have been shut down. To try and fire and away in and sometimes it's just not possible. Sometimes the council dosages firmly shot. So the door and saw him from the inside time for one more disk before we send to the islands. What are we gonna hear benefiting public enemy fight? The power is for activism. It's about protest
Its stirring is energizing its celebrate tree. I think is a kind of activists, anthem and absolutely nothing. There was no one would like to tell the people that we want a rhythm of work that made public the main on fight the power vanity. Never so it's time to cast you away to your island, you'll be separated from friends, family, life. As you know, it's how you feel about the prospect
I will make the best of it. I will use the time to reflect and to become very spiritual extremely healthy lots exercise. Lots of yoga and lots of time to contemplate will give you the books to take with you the complete works of shakespeare, the bible and book of your own choosing. What will you go for the norton unfortunate tree, which covers a thousand years of verse and has nearly two thousand poems in it so keep me mentally agile, and it will also be very good for my writing cause. I don't read enough poetry these days. You can also have look, three item: what would you like hologram of my husband can just talk to him, don't say no, you can talk at him. You will. Be able to communicate with. I can imagine the ok, I think. That's ok and ff.
Finally, if you had to saved, is one of the eight discs that you share with us today from the ravages of island life, which would you go for? It's got to be Keith charts the comb concert I never never tire of it then, Never so thank you very much for letting us here. Your desert, island discs, Thankyou I'm am rather taken with burning working her way through one thousand years of poetry, while on her island hopes, and find a hologram of David, too distracting. Indeed it is one of many book, a prize winning authors who have been cast away in addition to Margaret atwood you'll. Also, and marlon James annette rights, salman rushdie, our daddy Roy unpacked barker in the desert island discs back catalogue all available to listen to via BBC sands. Next time my guest will be Yusuf cat Stevens. I do hope. You'll join us
my father in law lived alone. Everybody knew it late afternoon in the high plains of south africa. bloody encounter and chase form jobs are surviving. It's not good in a community stooped by fear and racial tensions. An explosion of violence puts a family on trial. What did they did so bates? Get that it bloodlines presented by me, Andrew Harding, is available on BBC sounds just search that bloodlines and download all five episodes now.
Transcript generated on 2022-06-06.