Jan. 7, 2022

Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo is 2021-22 Distinguished Visiting Writer at UCalgary

First Black woman and first-ever Black British writer to win Booker Prize to give public talk Feb. 3
Bernardine Evaristo

Author Bernardine Evaristo had just fallen asleep in her London home on the night before New Year’s Eve 2019 when her phone began pinging repeatedly. Feeling irritated to have been awoken, she peered into the screen wondering why people were disturbing her at this late hour. The messages she read felt surreal.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama had listed her ninth book Girl, Woman, Other on his social media platforms as one of his favourite novels of 2019. The Obama accolades shared space with other unbelievable news, too — American author Roxane Gay, whom Evaristo admired greatly, named the book the best of the year.

It was an incredible capper to what had been a dream year for Evaristo, who had won England’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, only months earlier, making her not only the first Black woman, but also the first Black British person ever to receive the honour.

Booker Prize win set off jump in interest

“Winning the Booker Prize was career affirming and life changing,” said Evaristo in a recent email interview with the University of Calgary, conducted in advance of her Feb. 3 virtual appearance. She will be speaking as the university’s 2021-22 Distinguished Visiting Writer (DVW), an annual event put on by the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP). The annual DVW event is a consistently one of the most anticipated of the year for Calgary lit lovers.

“I wasn’t that well known before winning the Booker Prize and although I received very positive reviews of my previous work, it didn’t sell in huge numbers,” says Evaristo. “Now, there’s around 50 foreign translations of Girl, Woman, Other, and it has sold over a million copies in the English language alone.”

However, she says, the award also came with mixed feelings.

I think the fact that I was the first Black woman and Black British person to win made the experience bittersweet, because while I’m deeply grateful for having such an amazing career lift, I’m also very aware that it took 50 years to reach this point.

In a literary career that goes back to the early ‘80s when she co-founded the Theatre of Black Women, Evaristo has established herself as a writer who challenges the myths of the African identity in an experimental and even subversive fashion. She’s acclaimed for blurring the boundaries of genre while touching boldly on culture, class, history, gender, and sexuality.

“I’ve been experimenting as a writer since I first started in the theatre, using poetic monologues in productions that were highly unorthodox,” she says. “As a Black woman theatre-maker who didn’t fit into any traditional British theatre practices, I was determined to create theatre that worked for what I wanted to explore. Many of my books have likewise been experimental in form and subject matter. . .Essentially, as an outsider artist for much of my life, I’ve wanted to do my own thing.”

Impactful award dissolves barrier to 'radical, experimental book' 

Because of this approach, there had long been a barrier between Evaristo’s writing and a broad audience. “Winning the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other made that barrier dissolve overnight,” she says. “Before that, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of readers probably thought a radical, experimental book about Black British women, which is deeply intersectional, wasn’t for them.

"The Booker Prize is so prestigious and impactful, the barriers came down and people realized it was a book for them. I’ve had a lot of feedback from people who connected to the novel’s characters, even though they weren’t necessarily from their own demographic. That’s because the novel explores our shared humanity through individual lives.”

In addition to her literary career, Evaristo, who is also a professor of creative writing at Brunel University London, has been a lifelong advocate for the inclusion of writers of colour in the literary world. Among her accomplishments in this area, she established The Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the Complete Works Poetry mentoring scheme which helped develop the careers of some of Britain’s leading poets of colour.

Lifelong advocacy for writers of colour

Most recently, she began curating a new book series called Black Britain: Writing Back, which is bringing back into print books by Black authors — ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s — which were either overlooked or cut off from a mainstream audience

“My activism has always run parallel to my creativity,” says Evaristo. “We’re living in very different times compared to the '30s, the '50s, or even the '90s, and many of these books did not get the attention they deserved. I’m so excited by these books. All of them are valuable rediscoveries.”

As a Distinguished Visiting Writer for the CDWP, Evaristo joins a long line of literary luminaries who have taken part in the annual event before her, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Michael Ondaatje, Lee Maracle, and Zadie Smith.

An Evening with Bernardine Evaristo is free to attend but advance registration is required. Register to attend.