First of all, a big thank you to all my readers. We writers would be nothing without you! I am deeply grateful to everyone who has bought, circulated, supported and posted about my books and other writings.
And as always, a massive thank you to my publishers around the world, especially my editor of over twenty years, Simon Prosser, Publishing Director at Hamish Hamilton, Penguin UK, and his team. And to Peter Blackstock and his team at Grove Atlantic in the USA. Too many publishers and names to mention here, but if you read this, please know that I am very thankful for everything that you do for my books.
In 2021 I completed my first non-fiction book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, which was published in the UK in Oct. 2021 (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin); and shortly in the USA (Grove Atlantic) and Germany (Tropen) – both in Jan 2022, as well as other territories. It’s a book about my life and how its been shaped by my creativity and vice versa. Loved launching it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank hosted by someone I greatly admire, Afua Hirsch, the writer and broadcaster. It’s a 900 seater and it sold out. Sounds like showing off? Hell yes – it wasn’t that long ago that I sometimes rocked up to events, usually in bookshops or libraries, where the fingers on my hands outnumbered the audience.
I also wrote a short book for Tate Britain’s ‘Look Again’ series of commissioned books by non-art writers, in preparation for their major rehang in 2023. Mine is called Feminism (Tate Publishing, November 2021) – a personal essay on the representation of women of colour in British art. I’ve been visiting art exhibitions and museums all my adult life yet I’ve never written about what I’ve seen, thought, experienced. Writing about art forced to me to think a little deeper about what it means to me. I’d like to do more of this in the future.
Funnily enough, I had a third book published in 2021, although it’s a bit of a stretch to say that I wrote it, because although my name is on the book, I didn’t actually write many words to justify it. I mentioned in my 2020 summary that I was commissioned by Valentino for one of their 2020 campaigns, Collezione Milano, to write poetic text to accompany the designs of Valentino’s Creative Director, Pier Paolo Piccioli, photographed by Liz Johnson Artur, who is Ghanaian-Russian. (A truly international collaboration.) This became a coffee-sized table photographic book. I enjoyed finding a way to write about fashion without losing my own voice and politics. One of the lines: ‘They are refusing to be boxed, labelled and shipped away from their possibilities.’
Unusual and unexpected commissions such as these, take me into new creative territory and provide fresh challenges. It’s one of the reasons why I accept them.
My husband, David Shannon, also published his first novel this year – Howul (Elsewhen Press).
It took him over ten years to write and I’m very proud of him. The Observer reviewed it thus: ‘In this post-apocalyptic future, the description of the titular hero runs: “Hims face is also most grumpscrut… hims thinkings is sweet and kind.” It’s first a barrier and then a blessing; Howul is a naive beacon of light and healing in a brutal world, his entire outlook on life – that words and books are weapons – making this adventurous novel cohere into something more profound.’
I tried to keep January to June as clear as possible for writing, but I couldn’t turn down an invitation to be the subject of a BBC Imagine documentary with the legendary Alan Yentob. Bernardine Evaristo: Never Give Up was beautifully, artfully produced by Luke McMahon and is still available on BBC iPlayer. Last year I was the subject of The Southbank Show, interviewed by the equally legendary Melvyn Bragg. Amazing to be featured in these two longstanding documentary series about artists – veritably a dream come true.
Vogue also came calling, asking me to participate in their Vogue Masterclasses partnership with You Tube.
My ‘Vogue Visionary’ film, On Writing, is still available online. (I didn’t get to keep the Dolce & Gabbana jacket, by the way…)
The Women’s Prize for Fiction, founded by the novelist Kate Mosse, has been incredibly successful at promoting women’s literature for over twenty-five years. I was Chair of the jury for 2021. Judging a prize such as this one means that you gain an overview of what is being published at the moment. It’s an education. I read about 70 books in total and as a result I’ve decided to give judging prizes a rest for a while. I miss reading for pure pleasure. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy many of the books I read as a judge but it demands a more analytical kind of reading, often at great speed, even when I want to savour a book slowly, and then there are the inevitable debates as to the merits of each book with a panel of judges.
In February, the first set of my curated ‘Black Britain: Writing Back’ series of books (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin UK) were published (see 2020’s summary) and I curated the next set – five non-fiction books – out February 2022. The research involved rummaging around to discover or rediscover many out-of-circulation books in order to unearth some hidden gems. I am so proud of this series and working with the fantastic team at Penguin, esp Hannah Chuckwu (Series Editor) and Simon Prosser, Anna Ridley and Rosy Safaty – together we are bringing books from the past back into print that were overlooked at the time, or not taken seriously enough, and reinstating them in our literary history.
The second half of the year was spent involved in an extensive publicity campaign for Manifesto, courtesy of my publicist at Penguin, Anna Ridley and her team. It was chosen as the BBC’s ‘Book of Week’, read by myself (as is the audio version of the book), and I was featured and interviewed comprehensively in the broadcast media including for Good Morning Britain (ITV); This Cultural Life (BBC) with John Wilson, and podcasts with Grace Dent (Guardian), Graham Norton (BBC), James O’Brien (LBC) and Out to Lunch with Jay Rayner (Apple). The last interview took place while being wined and dined at the restaurant, Bob Bob Ricardo Soho, which has a special champagne button built into the wall by the table for speedy orders. We utilised it, needless to say.
Manifesto was very well-received (reviews), making several Book of the Year lists, including for the Times, Sunday Times and Evening Standard, although I felt less precious about it than if it was a novel. I’ve chosen to write about my life in the best way I see fit. I hope people find it interesting and even inspiring, but I won’t have a nervous breakdown if they don’t. Very few memoirs are published by black British women and I’d love it to reach people in the arts, creative writing students in particular.
I toured Manifesto from October to December to many festivals around the country. My first live events since lockdown in March 2022. It was so good to be out and about and meeting people properly again.
don’t let yourself down, when on tour, always match the soles of your shoes with your outfits
A highligh was a visit I made to my former school, Eltham Hill Girls, to talk to a hall full of girls – it was a very special event organised by Penguin Live. My host was Vee Kativhu, an exuberant inspirational speaker who at 23 has just published her first book, Empowered. I left the school in 1977 and here was I in 2021 talking to teenagers born around 2007. I hope I bridged the age-gap and inspired them to work towards achieving big dreams because everything is possible for them, even though the route might be circuitious and require a great deal of stamina.
with the current headmistress & headgirl
My activities also included becoming an ambassador for Sky Arts and initiating a partnership and mentoring project for women writers of colour between them and the Royal Society of Literature (RSL); choosing classic books and talking about them for the Sky Arts Bookclub on Sky Arts TV; chairing the RSL Open scheme, which will see 60 writers elected as new Fellows from underrepresented communities over the next two years; and curating a project for Canary Wharf during Black History Month in October, whereby five writers had extracts of their novels available for free at the ingenius ‘short story stations’ in the area – booths where you press a button and the fiction emerges looking like a long retail receipt.
writers: Nicola Williams, SI Martin, Irenosen Okojie
In the autumn I returned to teaching at Brunel University London after a sabbatical, thankfully avoiding the nightmare of on-line teaching during lockdown.
my class at Brunel, autumn 2021
Girl, Woman, Other has continued to sell well, and now has sales of over one million in all formats in the English language, plus sales in many foreign languages. For a glimpse at some of the covers: https://bevaristo.com/foreign-editions/. It was a bestseller in many countries last year, spending ten weeks in the Top 10 in Germany thanks to my German publisher, Tropen. Screen and theatre adaptations continue to be in development for both this book and Mr Loverman. I now have nearly sixty foreign rights sales for my books (compared to two years ago when I only had four), and it’s a real delight to see my backlist translated into foreign languages. The latest is Mr Loverman into French. Love this cover!published in France by Editions Globe
At the start of 2021 I was announced as the new President of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance (RBC), my old drama school, succeeding Sir Richard Eyre who held the post for ten years. It was nearly 40 years after I graduated from the Community Theatre Arts course at the College and they have recently instituted a new Theatre and Social Change course. It felt fitting that I should be the figurehead of a college that had been instrumental in shaping my creative practice and cultural politics all those years ago, and which was now committed to doing the same for a new generation.
At the end of 2021 I was announced as the next President of the Royal Society of Literature (2022-2026). Established in 1820, I am only the second woman and the first person of colour to take up the role. I am also the first President not to have been educated at Oxford, Cambridge or Eton.
This is what I had to say about it when it was announced this autumn.
‘I am deeply honoured to take on the role of the new president of the Royal Society of Literature. Although founded two hundred years ago, the Society is neither fusty or elitist, but it is boldly embracing the twenty-first century as a great champion of the possibilities of a more egalitarian culture for literature. Storytelling is embedded in our DNA as human beings – it is sewn into the narrative arc of our lives, it is in our relationships, desires and conflicts, and it is the prism through which we explore and understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Literature is not a luxury, but essential to our civilisation. I am so proud, therefore, to be the figurehead of such an august and robust literature organisation that is so actively and urgently committed to being inclusive of the widest range of outstanding writers from every demographic and geographical location in Britain, and to reaching marginalised communities through literature projects, including introducing young people in schools to some of Britain’s leading writers who visit, teach and discuss their work with them. I look forward to the next four years as the figurehead of such a wonderfully impressive organisation.’
In other news, I received several awards and honours in 2021, and it was announced just before Christmas that I had been selected as The Bookseller’s ‘Person of the Year’, which goes to the 151st honoree on their annual list of the top ‘150 most influential people in UK publishing’. What a surprise, what an honour.
I also keep appearing as a question on television quiz shows, with recent outings in the past three weeks on University Challenge, The Weakest Link, Pointless and Only Connect. I never catch these myself, but friends text me to tell me when I’m on and even send me video clips. It’s amusing, that’s for sure.
By the end of the 2021 I was exhausted. I haven’t had a break for years and while I feel very energised by my writing and career and excited to all the opportunities coming my way, I was starting to run on empty.
2022 will be quieter. I need reading time and dreamtime, and of course I’ll be writing. I’m looking forward to it.