Winner of the Booker Prize 2019 with his masterful girl, woman, other, Bernardine Evaristo dominates British literature with her delightfully subversive writing. The publication in French translation this year of Mr Lovermanone of the Briton’s previous novels recounting the “coming out” of a Caribbean dandy in today’s London, is a great opportunity to discover or rediscover the thousand-talented pen of this militant writer of the black cause.
” I write because I am fundamentally a storyteller. It is my reason for being. It’s my oxygen. I don’t know what I would become if I were to one day lose this ability that gives me so much joy to imagine stories, drawing inspiration from the experiences and life stories of the men and women around me. This is what gives meaning to my existence. »
So says Bernardine Evaristo, the great lady of British letters. With nine books to her credit, she is the author of an impressive, resolutely experimental body of work, composed of novels in verse, feminist stories, novels of manners, “road novel” and a memoir entitled Manifesto, his most recent publication. Her seventh novel Mr Lovermanwhich has just been published in French translation, is carried by this assured writing, mixing poetry and prose and exploring the experience of the black diaspora, which has become the trademark of this author.
Born in 1959 to an Irish mother and a father of Nigerian origin, Bernardine Evaristo grew up in Woolwich, a working-class suburb, south of London. In her recent memoir, she recounts at length her experience of growing up in a mixed-race family, at a time when racial discrimination was not yet criminalized. The novelist remembers that her maternal family had cut ties with her mother, because the latter had married a black man and that the panes of the windows of their Victorian pavilion were often broken by the children of the neighborhood who took malicious pleasure in throwing regularly throwing bricks around the house, yelling racial slurs. The hostility of the neighbors had led the Evaristo parents to forbid their children to play in the street.
Screenwriter, poet and novelist
The salvation of the young Bernardine will come through the theater she discovered at the age of 12 by accompanying her sister to rehearsals in a disused church. She will train as an actress, before founding her own troupe, the Theater of Black Women, frustrated by the shortage of roles for actors of color on the British boards.
” When I was a little girl, it was with relish that I listened to the stories my parents told me, she remembers. Phen, when I grew up, I did theatre, which is also a form of “storytelling”. I trained to become an actress, before founding a theater company for women at the age of twenty. My entry into writing really dates from that time. Along the way, I discovered how much writing meant to me. »
Screenwriter for the theater, but also poet, Bernardine Evaristo published her first books in the 1990s: a play which was performed at the Royal Court Theatre, a collection of poems and her first novel Laura, an autofictional story in verse, noticed by critics. But it was only at the age of sixty, in 2019, with her eighth novel that this talented writer really made herself known to the general public by winning the prestigious Booker Prize, jointly with the Canadian Margaret Atwood. A choral novel in free verse, recounting the lives of marginalized women in British society, mainly black, Girl, woman, other caused a stir at the Booker’s award party by forcing the jury to break with tradition and share the prize between two winners, in this case two winners.
The first black woman to receive the Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo readily admits that this prize was a turning point in her literary career. This recognition has seen his readership grow exponentially, with 1.5 million copies of his award-winning novel since sold across the English-speaking world. It has also been translated into 29 foreign languages, including French. According to the author’s agent interviewed by the New York Timesthe Booker shattered the rampant myth, in British publishing, that there was no audience in England for novels with black protagonists.
For the author of girl, woman, other, the explosion of its readership went hand in hand with institutional consecration. Since November 2020, Bernardine Evaristo has directed the Royal Society of Literature, becoming the first black woman to preside over the destiny of this bicentennial institution, long dominated by native writers. A professor of creative writing at Brunel University in London, she was appointed, following the Booker award, to lead her alma mater, the Rose Bruford College of Theater and Performancewhere she studied theater in the 1980s. Despite the success, the novelist remains an activist at heart and takes advantage of her institutional positions to promote young talents as well as writers from diverse backgrounds who have infused a new vitality in English literature.
“A king in his castle”
Evaristo’s writing is the product of his plural imagination, at the crossroads between England, Africa and the Caribbean. His novels are part of the tradition of the ” Black British writing “, the foundations of which were laid by writers from the first generation of Caribbean migrants known as the ” Windrush generation », in reference to the name of their boat. Sam Selvon, VS Naipaul, Caryl Philips, Zadie Smith, Ben Okri, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, are some of the pens from this tradition of black literature which gave visibility to the African diaspora in England in recounting in their pages the fortunes and misfortunes of this population too long ignored by literature.
The project of giving a voice to all those who are banished from the pages of mainstream literature animates all of Bernardine Evaristo’s work. Her latest novel to be published in French, Mr Loverman, is no exception to the rule. At the heart of the story, an aging Caribbean dandy who decides to brave “the abyss of social alienation” at the age of 74, by breaking up with his wife to go and share the life of the man he has been in love with since ‘adolescence. With empathy and subtle irony, the author paints an endearing portrait of her protagonist, both torn between her allegiances, family, sexual, and steeped in contradictions related to her status as patriarch of her family, “a king in his castle”. . There’s King Lear and Naipaul in this essentially tragic hero character.
” This novel tells the story of a man who is unable to assume himself as a homosexual and must suffer the consequences of his double life, explains the author. It is a story about deception, but also in a way about persecution because the protagonist has never dared to openly live his homosexuality, neither in the Caribbean island of Antigua where he grew up, nor in England where the law concerning homosexual practices was not liberalized until 1967. He therefore had to always hide his sexual identity, not from himself, because since his Caribbean years he has had a regular relationship with his regular lover, Morris. But he hid the truth from his wife and relatives. What will be the price to pay if he decides to assume his homosexuality in broad daylight? This is the question that this novel explores. »
Both comedy of manners and militant and experimental novel, Mr Loverman also striking by the inventiveness of his writing which moves from the present to the past, from the omniscient narration to the dialogue story between narrator and character (of the wife), from prose to poetic format without full stop or capital letters. The author likes to define this style of “fusion fiction”, a kind of narrative and stylistic fusion that allows her to free herself from romantic conventions and to powerfully embody her characters, in this case the wife of the main character, victim of her own naivety and the situation in which she finds herself.
A choice of style dictated by the narration, if we are to believe the novelist: ” In the first version of ‘Mr. Loverman’, I had chosen a simple narration, only in prose where the reader learns about the sufferings of the wife of the protagonist through the eyes of the latter. I then rewrote in a poetic form the passages recounting the sad fate of this woman, Carmel, fifty years old, married to a 74-year-old man, who subjected her to many humiliations. What’s more, she doesn’t know that her husband is gay and leads a double life. Under these conditions, letting the man tell his wife’s story posed problems of narrative coherence that I corrected by inserting chapters in the book where the narration espouses Carmel’s point of view. These passages written in a poetic format were my way of making Carmel’s voice heard. »
Long after we close the novel, Carmel’s voice continues to ring in our ears. A heroine in spite of herself, crippled by doubts and despair, she heralds the twelve voices of women in girl, woman, other, romancewhich made the literary fame of “Mrs Evaristo”.
► “Mr Loverman”, by Bernardine Evaristo. Translated from English by Françoise Adelstain. Globe editions, 302 pages, 23 euros
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Writing Paths – “Mr. Loverman” by Bernardine Evaristo, activist storyteller