Bernardine Evaristo is to be the next president of the Royal Society of Literature, becoming the first writer of colour to hold the position, and only the second woman in the society’s 200 year history.
Founded in 1820, the Royal Society of Literature describes itself as ‘the UK’s charity for the advancement of literature’. Evaristo will take over from historian Marina Warner as president at the end of this year.
Evaristo became a household name after winning the Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. She won at the age of 60 (‘I welcome the fact that people know my age and I’m certainly not ashamed of it’) and was the first black woman to ever win the prize, though it was shared for the first time in the prize’s history. She describes it as ‘a life-changing experience’.
Since Manifesto: On Never Giving Up was published in October 2021, it felt only right to explore Evaristo’s exciting life and career.
‘Struggle, positivity, vision, activism and self-belief have all contributed towards my unstoppability’
The memoir is split into chapters that follow one another in a loosely chronological way, but they are mostly categorised thematically. They are titled with groupings like ‘heritage, childhood, family, origins’ and ‘drama, community, performance, politics’. The structure separates it from a more simple autobiography, which, for me, makes it more engaging. I found it effortlessly readable.
Evaristo writes about growing up as one of eight siblings, with a Nigerian father and an English mother in London, in a community steeped in racism. She writes: ‘You feel hated, even though you have done nothing to deserve it, and so you think there is something wrong with you, rather than something wrong with them’. Despite this, Evaristo always knew she would make a difference.
‘Poetry was my hobby, but the kind you cannot live without, like oxygen’
Evaristo spent her teenage years doing youth theatre, and went on to be a founding member of Theatre of Black Women, where she wrote, performed and directed. This background continues to influence her fiction, which draws from multiple styles, genres and forms.
In Manifesto, Evaristo writes in surprising detail about the process of writing and about all of her works. I found the former interesting but the latter somewhat superfluous if you’ve read the books, and probably a bit uninteresting if you haven’t. It altogether seemed to promote an author-dominated take on works of fiction that I prefer to avoid, though the purpose was perhaps supposed to be more contextual than educational here.
‘I write because I have an urge to tell stories’
Evaristo has an immensely positive outlook, which she explains in the book and which sets the tone for the memoir itself. Her encouragement to re-apply for things you want (publication, grants, a place at drama school) and to never accept no for an answer is inspiring. It may be something we’ve heard before, but the reality of facing rejection head on and having the bravery to carry on isn’t usually given as much space as the eventual success.
Manifesto finishes with a few pages titled ‘The Evaristo Manifesto’, which weave together the ideas of the whole book. She writes: ‘Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes.’
The announcement of Bernardine Evaristo’s new role as president of The Royal Society of Literature proves what she writes in her manifesto: that you should never give up in order to create positive change.