Evaristo’s Annual Round-Up
I started the year in my role as the President of the Royal Society of Literature for the next four years. I was so thrilled to be elected to this position, having already served a term on the RSL Council and as Vice Chair for four years. As the first person of colour to take on this role since it was founded in 1820, I feel a huge sense of responsibility, and I am honoured to be succeeding Dame Marina Warner, the first woman to be appointed president. I am so proud to be working with such a positive and progressive leadership team: Molly Rosenberg (Director), Martha Stenhouse (Head of Operations), Daljit Nagra (Chair) and Irenosen Okojie (Vice Chair). Click here for more information about the RSL and our wonderful inclusion schemes whereby brilliant writers from under-represented communities in literature have been elected as Fellows, as well as producing a raft of prizes, mentoring schemes and public events: https://rsliterature.org/
RSL Chair Daljit Nagra presented the 2022 Benson Medal – the RSL’s most important prize – to Sandra Agard: storyteller, children’s writer, and literature development worker of many decades working with lots of different ‘grassroots’ communities. She was one of the unsung heroines of literature – but not any more!
I also continued for a second year in my role as President of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, from whence I graduated in 1982. This is the college’s main house, facing the lake in Lamorbey Park, Sidcup. I spent three very happy years in this idyllic setting studying on the Community Theatre Arts course – training to be an actor and theatre-maker. It gave me the foundations for my future practice as a creative person. Check out their Theatre and Social Change course – open to everyone, not just actors: https://www.bruford.ac.uk/learn/undergraduate-courses/theatre-and-social-change/
My memoir, Manifesto, was published in the USA with the lovely team at Grove Atlantic in January; the paperback is out January 10 2023. They also published Girl, Woman, Other. For UK and USA reviews: https://bevaristo.com/manifesto-2/. Unfortunately my scheduled three-week US tour last Jan/Feb was cancelled due to the global onset of Omicron, and so it went online – zooming out to many venues and cities from my study. I did an event with Roxanne Gay, my second online event with her in as many years, although we’ve never met in person. I’m a huge fan. And I’m still smarting that I couldn’t take up the offer of flying to the US to appear on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah just as we went into the first lockdown.
A highlight of the publicity for Manifesto was a profile on me in the New Yorker in February. One of the many pinch-myself moments for this Bookerette. Still slightly stunned.
We produced a second set of books in 2022 for ‘Black Britain: Writing Back’, the series I curate with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin, with Hannah Chuckwu (Series Editor up to the end of 2022 and now Literary Editorial Director at Dialogue Books/ Hachette; Ruby Fatimilehin is the Series Editor going forwards) and Simon Prosser (Publisher). It was heartening to see how receptive people were to these five non-fiction titles, some published so long ago (Britons…for eg, in 1909), and such a joy to install these books in their rightful place in literary history. I write introductions for each of these books. Do check them out. We are publishing more books this October and you can find the complete set thus far of 11 books here. https://shop.penguin.co.uk/products/black-britain-writing-back-complete-collection
Very sadly, Dillibe Onyeama died on the 10th November.
I am so glad that he lived long enough to see the reissue of his incredible book, A Black Boy at Eton (originally called A Nigger at Eton) and to witness such a fantastic reception for it. Fifty years ago, when he first published it, he was vilified in the media, and banned from ever walking through the doors of Eton again – why? – because he had written about the terrible racism he had endured there as a pupil in the sixties.
I was also saddened by the death of Biyi Bandele, a writer, director and photographer I have known since the 90s and who was admired by many of us – so successful and more active than ever on so many fronts – novels, theatre, film, television. He was very much part of our writing community.
From May onwards I returned to in-person touring abroad, and enjoyed travelling freely again after two years without it, and meeting my publishers and audiences in other countries. I toured to Dublin, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Portugal and Croatia, and I appeared at the Times/ Cheltenham ‘Literature at Sea Festival’ which took place on the gargantuan ocean liner, Queen Mary 2, sailing from New York to Southampton over seven days. There were about 4500 people on the ocean liner, including about 30 writers and 1500 crew. Writers included Mary Beard, Simon Armitage, Jojo Moyes, Ian Rankin, Okechukwu Nzelu, Alexander McCall Smith, Satnam Sanghera, Rachel Joyce, Alex Clarke, Ed Balls, Rachel Johnson and Pru Leith.
I also began my two year tenure as the Literature Mentor for the Rolex Protege & Mentoring Initiative (to 2024) one of five mentors in different art forms. The selection process was extensive and rigorous and I chose to work with the Ghanaian novelist, Ayesha Harruna Attah from a shortlist presented to me of four writers. I am so looking forward to working with her.
The roll call of previous mentors over the past twenty years is staggering: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor… and many more familiar names from different fields. You can find out more: https://www.rolex.org/rolex-mentor-protege#literature
‘We must pass on what we know to the next generation, and express gratitude to those who help us – nobody gets anywhere on their own.’ (Manifesto)
Toni Morrison passed on her wisdom and vision – through her literature, her political commentary, her teaching, her outspoken presence. I was so pleased to be invited to write the introduction to a new edition of Beloved, published by Vintage. You can read it in its entirety in Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/bernardine-evaristo-on-lessons-learned-from-toni-morrison/
I’ve written a lot of introductions to books in the past few years, over twenty, I think, and I try and promote a lot of talented authors on social media, especially on Twitter, and have provided many book blurbs over the past two decades, but in 2023 I’ve decided to a take a long break from providing them. I do this every so often simply because it’s never-ending and overly-determines what I read, leaving little space for my own choices. I also write and broadcast occassional A Point of View essays for BBC R4. My most recent was The War with Words, calling for a rethink of the media’s overuse of the terms ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’. You can listen to it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00174lg And here’s a ‘Literary London’ piece I wrote for the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/12/books/london-books-bernardine-evaristo.html
For a second year I taught my monologues module at Brunel University London where I am Professor of Creative Writing. The module is a combination of writing and performing, which energises the students who produce exciting new writing. Acting requires physical activity which frees up creativity. Here we are after the last class with my co-tutor, Angela Ekaette Michaels – theatre director and acting coach – who is just terrific. This spring I was given a Lecturer of the Year award for last year’s class. Only academics on faculty are eligible for these awards, otherwise we should share it. I couldn’t do it without her.
This year was the tenth and final year of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, which I founded in 2012 and have run ever since, with financial support from Brunel. The winner was Zibusiso Mpofu from Zimbabwe. You can find his winning poems here: https://www.africanpoetryprize.org/previous-shortlists/zibusiso-mpofu
When I started the Prize, African poetry wasn’t much of a presence on the international literature landscape, and now it is, and I was tired of running the prize on my own – ten years is long enough. The wonderful poet, writer and academic Professor Kwame Dawes of the African Poetry Book Fund at the University of Nebraska has now taken it over, and changed its name to the Evaristo African Poetry Prize. I’ve known Kwame, one of the kindest, gentlest and wisest souls, for nearly 30 years and we have worked on our prizes together over the years. Check them out: https://africanpoetrybf.unl.edu/
While I’m on the subject of prizes, I am deeply appreciative of the recognition that came my way over the course of this year. I received seven honorary doctorates and fellowships, including from Kings College London; from Goldsmiths, where I did my PhD; and from Glasgow Caledonian University, where I met Annie Lennox, the Chancellor – what a treat. Check out her charity for women and girls. https://www.thecircle.ngo/?team=annie-lennox .
I also went to MIT in Boston for my induction as an Honorary International Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1780. I didn’t realise how big a thing this was until American academic friends told me. I made the UK Black Powerlist for the third year running, and won the Stylist Remarkable Women Awards – Writer of the Year, and the Soho House Writer Award. I was also ‘A Big Jubilee Read’ for Girl, Woman, Other – one of 70 books chosen to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and I was No. 26 on the Sky Arts’ list of Britain’s 50 Most Influential Artists of the Past 50 years, and a Forbes ’50 over 50′ honoree for EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa region). For the full list: https://bevaristo.com/honours/
On the matter of gowns (I know, but bear with me…) -the University of Greenwich gown was the most spectacular gown I wore this year, but the Kings College London gown was the most comfortable (below), designed by the legendary Vivienne Westwood – who knew how to shape clothes for women. Most university gowns are designed for men and slip off the women’s shoulders. The conferral of doctorates at Kings took place in its beautiful chapel – opened in 1831.
I delivered the annual Baggs Happiness Lecture at the University of Birmingham, which was a departure for me in terms of theme, and an enjoyable challenge; and I took part in a few UK events around Manifesto. As always, there were lots of media interviews, especially around foreign translations of my books, which have now hit over 60 in 40 languages.
I also had a postponed do to celebrate Manifesto in September. Here I am with Simon Prosser, my editor of over twenty years. I can’t ever thank him enough for his essential role in shaping my career. Thank you, Penguin, for the fabulour shindig. (Photo: Sharron Wallace.)
A highlight of the year was being in conversation with Warsan Shire on the publication of her first poetry book, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, for the Guardian, and I also interviewed her on stage for her launch event at the Southbank Centre. I have known Warsan many years – a wonderful person and one of my favourite poets. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/feb/26/warsan-shire-bernardine-evaristo-suoperstar-poet-beyonce
I also interviewed Edward Enninful, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue and European editorial director of Condé Nast, for the publication of his memoir A Visible Man for the Manchester Literature Festival. I have so much respect for how he has been at the forefront of inclusivity in fashion and beauty and because he is at the helm of the fashion bible, the ripple effect throughout the industry, advertising and popular culture has been seismic. Likewise with Vanessa Kingori, Chief Business Officer, Condé Nast Britain and Vogue European Business Advisor and British Vogue’s Publishing Director. These are two amazing people who are changing the system from within. Here she is (centre) with Baroness Valerie Amos (left), Master of University College, Oxford (the first female appointed to the post and the first black head of any Oxford college) and Roselyn Cason-Marcus (Global Leader, McInsey & Co) at a ‘Vogue 25’ private dinner I attended. Other guests included Emily Maitlis, Soma Sara (founder of Everyone’s Invited) and Munroe Bergdorf. (Photo: Jennifer McCord)
The year was filled with the engaging with the arts I need to regenerate my own creativity. Standouts include Hew Locke’s Procession at Tate Britain (surely a shoe-in for the Turner 2023), In the Black Fantastic at the Hayward, curated by Ekow Eshun; Yayoi Kusama and Lubaina Himid – both at Tate Modern; Lynette Yiadom Boakye and Cornelia Parker – both at Tate Britain; Africa Fashion at the V&A: Ingrid Pollard at Milton Keynes Gallery, nominated for this year’s Turner Prize. I’ve known Ingrid since the 80s and was so excited for her. I also went to the Venice Biennale to see Sonia Boyce, who was representing Britain, and Simone Leigh (sculpture below), representing the US. Both won the Golden Lion, the highest prize of the Biennale.
Here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian about older women in the arts forging ahead later in life. Since then, Veronica Ryan, who also emerged in the Eighties, won the Turner Prize this year – at the age of 67. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/apr/28/bernardine-evaristo-on-the-artistic-triumph-of-older-black-women
Theatre is an important part of my cultural life and I can’t live without it. These are some of the plays that stood out for me this year: Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth at the Apollo; Daddy by Jeremy O Harris at the Almeida, Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City (immersive theare) at Woolwich Works; Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric; Girl on an Altar by Marina Carr at the Kiln and The Crucible at the National Theatre.
I also attended my first fashion show this year – Roksanda at the Serpentine, which I loved – like a moving art installation – exquisite, colourful and strange garments floating by in a dreamscape. Who knew, all those years ago, that we would be living in such a visual age, whereby cameras are everywhere and every event is photographed and published online. Image suddenly becomes very important and learning how to pose and smile for the camera a necessity. The alternative is to have awful photos of yourself floating around the internet forever, and actually, there are plenty of those out there. So – I take it seriously, even if it fosters narcissism and accusations of superficiality. Whatever – it’s part of the currency of being a creative person in the twenty-first century. I’m not fighting it.
And my first film premiere, Wakanda Forever in Leicester Square, where I said yes to posing for the paps, just after the mesmerising Lupita Nyonga, who was poured into a silver Alexander McQueen creation. I used to say no to these glamorous invites when they occassionaly came my way, because I’d feel like an interloper, wouldn’t fit in, or know what to wear. These days I say yes. I find them fascinating, and while I’m having fun star-spotting, I’m also making a statement that a 63 year old black female literary writer can also be part of this scene – suited and booted – a Wakanda warrior on her own terms.
Meanwhile, I am writing. This is what I do, and all of the above is because I am a writer, who is writing.
‘I am first and foremost a writer; the written word is how I process everything – myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the heart of how I exist in the world.’ (Manifesto)
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