Bernardine was born in Woolwich, south east London, the fourth of eight children, to an English mother and Nigerian father. Her father was a welder and local councillor and her mother a schoolteacher. She was educated at Eltham Hill Girls Grammar School and the Rose Bruford College of Speech & Drama, and spent her teenage years acting at Greenwich Young People’s Theatre.
Bernardine is the author of six books of fiction and verse fiction. Her seventh book, MR LOVERMAN, a novel, will be published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin on August 29th 2013. Her verse novel The Emperor’s Babe has been adapted into a BBC Radio 4 play to be broadcast on May 23, 2013. Her novella Hello Mum was broadcast as a Radio 4 play in 2012.
She teaches Creative Writing at Brunel University and for UEA-Guardian. She is the co-editor of two recent anthologies and a special issue of Wasafiri magazine: Black Britain, Beyond Definition. In 2012 she was Guest Editor of the winter issue (Offending Frequencies) of Poetry Review in its centenary year, Britain’s leading poetry journal. She has won several awards and her books have been a ‘Book of the Year’ twelve times in British newspapers. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006, and she received an MBE in 2009.
Her books range in genre from poetry, verse-novels, a novel-with-verse, a novella and a prose novels. She is also a critic for the newspapers and has written fiction and drama for BBC Radio 4. She has judged many literary awards and in 2012 she was Chair of both the Caine Prize for African Fiction and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and that year she also initiated the Brunel University African Poetry Prize. http://www.africanpoetryprize.org/
Since 1997 she has undertaken over 80 international trips and tours as a writer giving readings, talks, keynotes, workshops, courses and on visiting fellowships and professorships.
Overview of Books
Her books include: HELLO MUM (Penguin 2010), LARA (Bloodaxe 2009), BlONDE ROOTS (Penguin 2008), SOUL TOURISTS (Penguin 2005), THE EMPEROR’S BABE (Penguin 2001), the first version of LARA (ARP 1997), ISLAND OF ABRAHAM (Peepal Tree, 1994).
The novella HELLO MUM was published by Penguin in 2010. The narrator is Jerome, a fourteen year old boy living in London, and it’s written in the form of a letter to his mother. We come to understand how he feels about her, his home, his school, his peer group, society-at-large and the events that lead up to a major incident.
Bernardine was the Suffolk Big Read author in 2010 and 40,000 copies of Hello Mum were distributed throughout the county including to every school. Over 70,000 copies of the novella have been sold to date, through non-traditional outlets.
LARA, a verse novel (Bloodaxe Books 2009) is based on her family history and spans 150 years, seven generations and multiple characters from five countries of origin: England, Nigeria, Ireland, Germany and Brazil. (Originally published in 1997, this edition has been revised and expanded by a third.)
Her first fully-prose novel BLONDE ROOTS (Penguin UK 2008/USA 2009) is an original take on slavery: in this satirical and subversive novel Africans enslave Europeans. The protagonist is a white woman from Europa who lives out her adult life as a slave in the New World. Available as an unabridged audio book. Published by Whole Story Audio Books.
Her most experimental book, the novel-with-verse SOUL TOURISTS (Penguin 2005) uses poetry, prose, scripts and non-literary techniques. It is both a car journey across Europe in the late 1980s, as well as a journey into black European history. The novel features many ghosts of colour from Europe’s history including Pushkin, Alessandro dei Medici, Mary Seacole, Hannibal and the Chevalier de St.Georges.
Her novel-in-verse THE EMPEROR’S BABE (Penguin 2001) is the tragi-comic tale of a young girl of Sudanese parents who grows up in Roman London 1800 years ago. It’s the first British fiction to recreate the black presence so far back in British history.
The first monograph on her work, Fiction Unbound by Sebnem Toplu, was published in August 2011 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. http://www.c-s-p.org/Flyers/Fiction-Unbound–Bernardine-Evaristo1-4438-3153-0.htm
Bernardine’s radio play Madame Bitterfly and The Stockwell Diva was broadcast as the Friday play on BBC Radio 4 in 2003 & 2006, and she was co-writer of the theatre production Mapping the Edge, produced by WilsonWilson Company in partnership with Sheffield Crucifield Theatre (2002), with writers Alison Fell & Amanda Dalton, also broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Other creative work includes a collaboration with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and pianist Joanna MacGregor on Cityscapes (2003) for the City of London Festival, a multi-media, poetry/music/video performance at St. Bartholomew’s thousand year-old church at Smithfields.
She wrote the introduction to contemporary poetry for the British Council’s website and from 2006-2009 she wrote an eight-part column offering tips on writing fiction and poetry for Mslexia Magazine.
Bernardine’s poem Routes is on permanent display (engraved into perspex) in the Museum of London in the ‘London Before London’ gallery.
In 2007 she was commissoned to write a text for one of Arts Council England’s Oyster (travel) card holders, celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Bernardine has been profiled in several television programmes internationally and her books are translated into Czech, Italian, Finnish and Mandarin. In 2000 she represented Britain on the Literaturexpress Europa 2000 Tour, which took 105 European writers through 11 European countries over 6 weeks by train, travelling from Portugal to Berlin via Belgium, the Baltics and Russia.
Bernardine has judged several literary awards:
2013 Judge of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets
2012 Initiated/Chair the Brunel University African Poetry Prize
2012 Judge of the Poetry Society’s Poetry News competition
2012 Chair of the Caine Prize for African Fiction
2012 Chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize
2011 Peacock Poetry Prize (Brighton Festival)
2010 TS Eliot Prize (Poetry)
2010 Alfred Fagan Award – (Black plays)
2010 Orange Award for New Writers (Women’s fiction)
2009 Muslim Writers Awards with Penguin Publishers (Fiction)
2008 Decibel Penguin Prize (Fiction)
2007 Northern Rock Writers’ Award (Fiction & Poetry)
2006 The National Poetry Competition
2004 The Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation List
1997 Ian St. James’ Award (Fiction)
- 2007-9 Management Committee, Society of Authors
- 2005- present Advis. Cttees: Free Verse & The Complete Works/Spread the Word
- 2004-8 Advisory Committee, Museum of London
- 2004-9 Advisory Board, MA Creative Writing, City Uni.
- 2003-6 Literature Advisor, British Council
- 2001-5 Special Advisor, Arts Council London (Literature) (LAB)
- 2001-4 General Council, The Poetry Society of Great Britain
2003-4 Acting Chair, The Poetry Society of Great Britain
- 2000 – Contributing Editor, Wasafiri Literature Journal
From 1995-1999 she was Director of Spread the Word Literature Development Agency with Ruth Borthwick, London’s premier agency of its kind, committed to providing a wide range of top-quality creative writing workshops, courses and conferences, especially aimed at social groups under-represented in literature.
Bernardine initiated Free Verse (2006), a report into the lack of publishing opportunities for poets of colour in the UK, commissioned by Arts Council London and produced by Spread the Word. She followed this up by initiating The Complete Works, also with Spread the Word, a development programme to support and mentor poets of colour, now running for a second time. To date 20 poets have been on the scheme and have been mentored by many of Britain’s leading poets.
Bernardine has also mentored several writers either for organisations such as the Arvon Jerwood Scheme or Norwich Writers Centre Escalator Programme, or separate to an organisation.
She lives in London with her husband.