Great Britain

Bernardine Evaristo: living as a lesbian made me stronger

Bernadine Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker prize and a co-founder of Britain’s first black theatre company, has spoken of an angry, lesbian period she went through in the 1980s and of a decade spent living in a “black womanist” community.

Although she looks back on it now as “fun”, at the time she was “very angry as a woman”, she says.

“I had a period of about 10 years where I lived as a lesbian, and that was my identity,” she said on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. “I used to go on lesbian marches and I used to go clubbing and I had lots of relationships.”

The acclaimed writer, poet and playwright, who met her husband, the writer David Shannon, in 2006, explained that she had found the feminist movement “quite exclusionary” because it “didn’t really accommodate black women”.

“I was very much part of this counter-cultural, black feminist, say, or black womanist community, where we were just nurturing each other, as well as fighting each other and falling out, of course.” The experience, she now believes, has left her stronger.

Evaristo, 61, won the prestigious literary prize last year, alongside Margaret Atwood, for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, a complex story of the lives of 12 black women.

Sharing the limelight with Atwood, who won for her novel The Testaments, did not make the accolade any less rewarding she claims: “I will take the Booker prize any way it comes. I’m just happy to have it. And also she (Atwood) is such a phenomenal woman.”

The writer, who grew up in Woolwich as one of eight children, said she appreciates the platform the prize has given her. “I cannot be cool about it,” said Evaristo. “I have not compromised my politics or my creativity. Hopefully I am now changing [the establishment] from within.”

Yet the author said she will no longer agree to take part in any diversity panels organised by white cultural institutions. “But I can drop tweets which have even more impact actually.

“And anyway these organisations know what to do. They have to open the door. Yet the onus is always put on us, the people who have been shut out, to find a way in.”

Evaristo recalls that she was also “not always welcome in black spaces”, because her mother, a teacher, was white. “We were called half-caste and it didn’t seem like an insult then.”

Her Nigerian father was protective and told his children “almost nothing” about his roots. “He was absolutely scared for us,” she recalls. Due to the attitudes of the era she regarded Africa “as somewhere uncivilised and savage, not somewhere to be proud of”.

Evaristo recalled a moment from her childhood when she crossed the street to avoid her father. “I didn’t want to say hello to him because I didn’t want to be associated with him. That feels terrible now but that’s what it was like growing up in the 60s and 70s in a very white area. There was nothing around us to tell us being a person of colour was a good thing.”

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