Craft Episode 6 Transcript: Bernardine Evaristo
Welcome to Craft. Each month we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, Booker-Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo, shares the origin of her first verse novel, Lara.
Hybrid in structure and based on Bernardine’s own family’s history, Lara moves from Britain to Brazil to Germany to Nigeria to chart the roots of its main character. Uniquely, the book has two distinct versions, which Bernardine discusses alongside her broader composition process.
Apapa Docks, Lagos, 1949.
She stood there, in her best blue wrapper and head tie,
the the silent Zenobia, the sea poured out of her.
She stood there until the ship had pulled out of harbour,
out of sight. Still, she stood there, listening
to the waves against the harbour walls. She looked out
onto the Slave Coast, Bight of Benin, the Atlantic
which had brought Gregorio from Brazil, and Baba.
Forever, she stood there, watched the clouds converge,
prayed that her boy Taiwo would be safe on his journey,
happy in his new home. She thought of her marriage
without love, her childhood home in Abeokuta, Kehinde
about to give birth, and Baba – who was watching her now.
And she did not feel the salt sea stream down her face,
did not feel the steady breeze blow in from parts
of the world, she would never know; and when the stars
appeared in the deepening sky, she felt a tug at her arm,
it was Kehinde, come to lead her from that place
which gave life, took life, and she knew with a mother’s love
that the sea would not bring her son back.
The book is semi-autobiographical based on my family history. It began with me wanting to write about my parents’ marriage in the 1950s, and that was all it was going to be about. The reason I wanted to write that story was because at the point at which I started writing it around 1990-91, there wasn’t anything out there, you know, in British literature that I knew about, that was exploring an interracial marriage between an African person and a white English person. The Buddha of Suburbia had been published, Jackie Kay would publish The Adoption Papers, probably around 1991, but that was the experience of a child who was adopted, who is of mixed race or biracial. But there wasn’t the story of what it was like for Africans to come to Britain and marry white women, in particular from West Africa, very specifically, Nigeria. So that’s what I wanted to write. And up to this point, as a writer, I had begun writing for theatre. And my plays or dramas were always written with poetry. So, they were, if you like, verse dramas, although that makes it sound a bit formal, because I always wrote free verse. And I then also wrote poetry and I considered myself a poet. Indeed, my first book was a poetry book, just a straightforward poetry book.
But when I came to want to write about my family’s story – my parents’ marriage – I wanted to write a novel, and I had in my mind that I would write a traditional novel, because I was reading lots of novels, and I wanted to explore the expansiveness of the form, as opposed to the concision of poetry. And I thought, you know, I want more words to play with. And so, I spent three years working on Lara as a prose novel. And it was a struggle because I actually—I had never really written prose fiction. I hadn’t really written prose much since I left school, because my training was as an actor at a drama school and drama schools at that time did not generally offer academic study. So, they were very practical, and you learned about theatre and performance and so on. But you didn’t have to write essays. I think I probably wrote one essay during my whole time at drama school, which was great, I loved it, I didn’t want to write essays. And actually, you don’t need to write essays to be trained to be an actor.
So I left school at eighteen. And I think that was probably the last time I was writing prose, other than letters and application forms, and so on, because I’d been running a theatre company in the ’80s, in my twenties. And so approaching this novel, having read lots of novels, but not written any or not written fiction, was a very big challenge for me, because I didn’t know how to do it. With poetry, you can capture something in six words, literally, you know, just a few words, and you will hopefully capture the essence of something. And that’s what I had been doing. I never was a performance poet. I never wrote performance poetry was very much poetry for theatre.
So that was the background. And I thought, ‘Well, I just start writing and see what happens!’ And that’s what I did for three years. And the problem with it was that a) I didn’t understand the the ingredients that are needed in structure—and that meant that it was rambling. It wasn’t focused, it wasn’t tight, the language wasn’t tight. And most importantly, I lost my poetic voice. In making the transition from writing poetry to writing prose, I stopped writing poetic language, I stopped using even imagery. It was flat prose, I describe it as the language was dead on the page. And yet, I persisted with it, because I was not going to give up and I’m not somebody who ever gives up. So, I did persist with it for all those years. And eventually, I had about 200 pages, which should have felt like an achievement, but it was a complete and utter mess. But I was very aware that I was floundering, that I hadn’t produced something I could be proud of, so I, yeah, I feel like I just went into this kind of zone, where I was just writing very badly on an old computer, what was called an Amstrad, which was a very rudimentary kind of electronic typewriter. This is pre-internet, by the way. And so, I was writing and seeing how the story was emerging. And it was about my parent’s marriage. And that’s all it was about.
I had interviewed both my parents at length in order to get their story. I still have those recordings, actually, old cassette tapes. And that was amazing, because you may think you know, the people around you, and actually, and they may be storytellers, but until you know what you want to ask them, when you ask them the questions that maybe nobody’s ever asked them, then you will find out the stories, the family stories that have been hidden. And so, my mother was very forthcoming and told me a lot about her background. My father was much less forthcoming. And when I asked him about, for example, his mother, he would say ‘She was very nice,’ and that was all he would tell me. And it was only when I went to Nigeria for the first time, which happened during the period of writing Lara, that I talked with relatives, and they said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t like to talk about the dead’. Because I was asking them about my grandmother. And they were saying, ‘We don’t like to talk about the dead!’ So I thought, ‘Great. You know, this is really good for my research. I’m trying to find out about somebody you knew very well for the whole of her life, in terms of the relatives, because my father left when he was about nineteen, and you’re telling me we don’t like to talk about the dead, so we’re not telling you anything, other than she was very nice!’ ‘Very, very nice and very good woman’. Anyway, after three years, I knew it was a mess. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no idea how to shape it.
We’ll be right back.
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I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course. And the Arvon Foundation has now been going for Oh, I don’t know nearly fifty years. And they run these week-long writing retreats in four different locations in the country, in these big houses in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, and you get to write, and you get to be taught creative writing, different genres. And I’d never been, and I went on one because it was a course specially for Black people. And often these creative writing courses were mainly people by white people. And so, if you’re a Black person writing from a Black perspective, or Black culture, you could feel out of place. But this was a Black course run by one writer I knew, Jacob Ross, and a writer called Amber Johnson. And I thought, ‘I’m gonna go on it’. But you see, what I didn’t want to do was to be taught, because I wanted to write my novel. And so, I went on the course and then I hid away in my room, I’d managed to get my own room, because sometimes you have to share. And I didn’t join in with the course. And then the organiser said to me, ‘You’ve got to join in. You can’t come on this retreat and not take part’. So, I thought, ‘Damn okay.’
I then went and did an afternoon’s class with Jacob Ross, and I had known Jacob for many years, some of you will know him as a novelist, you know, he’s one of my favourite novelists—such a brilliant writer. And I’ve known him since the 80s, when I was in theatre, and we used to have offices next to each other and so on. And so, I went and did Jacob’s course. And he said, I can’t remember what the exercise was, but I found myself writing a poem. And I hadn’t written a poem for about three years. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve written a poem!’ And I really liked the poem. And my love of language returned through writing this poem, which was a, it was a long poem, it went over four pages. It ended up in – No it didn’t. Where did it end up? – I think it was published in an anthology somewhere all those moons ago. But I just felt so excited by writing again, that I knew what I had to do. And I went home and I literally took the manuscript—which, any budding writers out there, never do this, because everything that you’ve written is your archive. And maybe one day, somebody will be digging into your archive to write about your process, and they’ll need evidence of what your process was like. Anyway, I took this manuscript of 200 pages and threw it in the bin.
And it was gone forever. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t like it is today, where you just can save anything on the cloud or whatever. So I literally threw it away. And I knew what I was doing. Even though I now regret it, I knew what I was doing was a symbolic gesture to cut my tie with that original manuscript and to start afresh telling the story through poetry.
The prose novel hadn’t really flowed easily, but the words came, and it was a mess. And it took three years and the rest of it. When I decided to turn back to poetry, even though I was returning to the form that I loved the most, and it gave me huge pleasure, and the writing was elevated in a way that the prose version hadn’t been elevated, you know, the writing suddenly became interesting, I was using images and stuff, it did take me a long time at the beginning to create each poem. So, in terms of the structure of the book, there are however many poems, which are all interconnected with each other. But I would work on it one page at a time. So whereas with the novel, I wrote and wrote and wrote slowly stumbling until I got to a certain point 200 pages in, with me returning to poetry, I was working on the novel, building up through poems, and putting into practice my poetry writing skills—which is about concision, and using imagery, and just creating very rich poetic text, that, even though I’m using less words, can be very expansive.
So, in one poem, I can span a long period of time, even though I’m just capturing the essence of the story that I’m telling. And the other thing to say about Lara is that it’s divided into these sections and eras, because some of it is set in Brazil in the eighteenth century; some of it is set in Nigeria during my father’s childhood, which would be the ’20s and ’30s, early ’40s. And then in London during my mother’s childhood, ’30s and ’40s. And then, you know, London at the turn of the century, my grandmother’s story, and with the new material that I added, eventually, I added German and Irish periods.
So, it’s like, suddenly it was this epic book in a way. And it was all enabled through the poetic form. And I would sit at my desk, and I would think about what I wanted to say in this individual page-length poem. And I would try and find an image to start with, and it was the equivalent of what I then understood to be the narrative hook, which is the thing that hooks the reader into your novel. But normally in a novel you wouldn’t expect that necessarily in the first line. But I was applying it to this poetry. And so I wanted that first opening line to be really powerful.
The big inspiration for me was Derek Walcott. I loved his work, and we learned from the writers who we are inspired by. And I found him incredibly inspirational. He is a very imagistic writer who transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary through his use of language. And I loved – I was at that stage reading a book called Midsummer, which was a book of sonnets published about thirty, maybe forty years ago – and every first line of every poem, and every page has a poem on it, every first line is just exquisite. So, I was trying to create my version of that. But my version of that wasn’t necessarily mellifluous, beautiful poetry. I was interested more in just creating really—something really exciting and dynamic that would grab the reader’s attention. And I would wait for that line to come. And that might take several days. And once I found that first line, first two or three lines, I was then able to write the rest of that individual poem quite easily. But I was spending a week on a poem at that stage. At the beginning of rewriting Lara as poetry I was spending a week on each poem.
For about the first six months, I was very, very slow writing it. But, once I’d written a poem, and drafted – because I am the queen of redrafting – every line – every word, every line, every poem ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty times redrafted, right? Because writing is rewriting, I would then be happy with it. And I’d be like, ‘Okay, okay, I can move on to the next page/poem’. And that was the process.
I know writers who will start a novel and finish it, and then go back and redraft. And they know it’s not right, the first draft isn’t right, but they’ll go back and redraft the whole thing when they’ve finished it. Whereas I will build up my novels in units; I will just sculpt away at the language I’m using and mix things up and throw things out and add to the text, and so on, and just keep doing that until it’s in a good place before I move on to the next section.
It was very cathartic, actually, because I was kind of discovering—it was a journey of discovery into my ancestry, and my father’s childhood, as well as an excavation of my own childhood. Because, the part of my family history that I was most interested in, was the Black part, my father’s history, which he never told us anything about. And so, I think I started with my father’s section, which is now at the end of the book, and then—I can’t remember what followed, maybe my mother’s childhood—and then what happened was, when the book was finished, and I had all these units, I put the whole lot on the floor in my living room and started to shuffle them around until I found a chronology for the story I was telling. Because it’s, I suppose it’s a bit like Girl, Woman, Other in a sense. Sometimes when I talk about this book, I think, ‘Oh, yeah, it is a bit like Girl, Woman, Other’ in the sense that these sections, there isn’t a natural place for them. And there isn’t a natural chronology – as in you start in one era and move through to the next – because when you’re looking at the different ancestral strands of my family history, you’ve got various people in the nineteenth century, various people in the early twentieth century. So, it doesn’t work in terms of time sequencing. So, it was about creating an overall structure for all the pieces together. I don’t know whether they were kind of in conversation with each other, it made sense to place certain sections together… Some of them are chronological as well, although the writing process wasn’t.
So, what happened was the book was first published in ’97, with a really small publisher, who then went out of print. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m not having this. I’ve got to find another publisher for the book, because this is a book that’s very dear to my heart.’ It was about my childhood and my family history. And so, I approached ten poetry publishers, and said, ‘Are you interested in publishing this, it’s gone out of print’. And in order to tantalise them, I said, I would write new material based on my Irish and German ancestry, which I had not included in the first version.
And all of them ignored me. I think pretty much other than Bloodaxe Books, which isn’t surprising, because Bloodaxe Books has a history of multicultural poetry publishing. And he got back and said, ‘Yeah, I’m really interested’. And so, I then wrote, I usually say a third more material—I don’t think it’s quite that much. But I then wrote those stories about my family, because I hadn’t even really investigated that side of my family history at the point at which I wrote the first poetic version of Lara. Because, to be honest, I wasn’t that interested; I was only interested in the Brazilian and African side, and my own story, because having grown up in this very white culture, as I did, and not having any kind of black affirmation around me, I was really hungry to explore that for myself and explore that in my family history. And so, that was the focus of the first verse novel version of the book. And then, as a selling point to publishers, I then added that new material, and I was really glad that I did.
The things that I put in the book, and this is the original book, were things that made me laugh and made me cry. And this is something else I teach to my students, you know, when they say, ‘I want to write about this, that and the other,’ you know, something that’s historically correct, that maybe they experienced, maybe semi-autobiographical, I will say to them ‘think about the things that made you laugh, and things that made you cry’, because those are probably the dramatic moments, and they will form the texture of the book, especially the things that made you cry, the things that moved you.
So, on a personal level, it was a deeper exploration of my own history. And I thought that was really interesting for me personally, but that it was also a challenge to the monocultural myth of Britain, or the monoracial myth of Britain, because here was I, a biracial person, seen as black, identifying as black, and within that biracial, but with this very multicultural background. If anything, I’m thinking about Girl, Woman, Other and how it kind of shows our interconnectivity as women of colour in this country. And I think perhaps it also applies to Lara, that it shows the interconnectivity between different eras and generations, and cultures, and races, and classes. And that this is what it means to be human, you know: this simplistic ideology of race doesn’t account for the heterogeneity in most of our backgrounds. And so, I think that’s what I was thinking about as I was writing it.
I’ve always been very proud of Lara, because it’s my family origin story, my version of it, and I kind of fictionalised people that I knew and also ancestors I didn’t know, brought them to life for myself, but also for the reader. And I have kind of varying degrees of affection with my books; you know, some of them I feel a bit more affectionate towards and Lara is definitely one I feel affectionate towards. Nor is it over yet, I have to say, because I think there might be another version that I will feel moved to add to it in years to come. And so, we’ll see about that. But I think it’s a book that may have—maybe there are a couple more additions to be made to the book in the future.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Tom Wilson recorded this episode, and Emma Barnaby did our editing and sound design. The interviews and the introduction were done by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat did everything else. See you next month.
The other thing to say about Lara is that when I was working on it, I thought of it as a narrative poem. So, I didn’t think of it as a verse novel. And it was only called a verse novel because when my publisher and I sat down to talk about marketing it, the idea was that it would go into the fiction shelves of bookshops as opposed to the poetry section where nobody visited. So, we then called it a verse novel.
Needs must, you know, you’ve got to be resourceful people. Also with the Emperor’s Babe, which is the first novel on the cover, my publishers, a different publisher put ‘a novel’. And so, when that book first came out, I would get people saying to me, ‘You know, I bought it, and I opened the page, and my heart sank. I was like, Oh my god, this is verse. I don’t read poetry,’ but you know, because they bought it, they read it and they realised they could get into it.
You got to be a bit of a hustler!
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music and sound design is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Tom Wilson does our editing. Interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.