Bernardine Evaristo, a Forward-Thinking Literary Pioneer

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Bernardine Evaristo is a forward-thinking literary pioneer who has paved the way for many writers, myself included, by expanding the scope and vitality of stories about the Black British experience. She is a genius who has altered our perceptions again and again by showing us that our realities and histories are worthy not only of documentation but celebration as well. On the eve of the re-release of her groundbreaking verse novel, The Emperor’s Babe, she sat down with us to discuss the inspiration behind her work, the power of social media, and why we need more than one seat at the table in order to create real change within the publishing industry.

The character of Zuleika has such an iconic, fully-fleshed out energy. How did this character come to you?

Well, it was like this. I began writing a few poems about a black girl growing up in Roman London and through the act of writing she began to write herself. I know this sounds odd, but she wasn’t fully-formed in my imagination before I put her on the page. I knew that I wanted her to be young and feisty and to feel very modern, to make the past feel as contemporary as we are today, to vivify history. The Emperor’s Babe does this through its use of anachronism, but also through her voice. She emerged as someone who is a victim of circumstance, but not a victim in terms of her personality or an acceptance of her fate. Zuleika’s life is restricted, married off at eleven to a rich Roman three times her age etc, but she makes the most of the limits imposed on her. She has agency and is determined to live life to the full, whether that’s through her friendships, her full-blown affair with the emperor or through the poetry party she hosts. Zuleika has lots of chutzpah, but she’s also a very flawed individual which should make her relatable and realistic.

What was the research process for this novel like, given you’re essentially world-building with every book that you create?

The book actually came about through a Poetry Society residency I had at the Museum of London. I was looking for inspiration and at that time they had Roman London galleries with recreated Roman rooms for visitors to wander through. I remember feeling very excited as I walked into it because it made history experiential in a way that ‘pots in glass cases’ exhibitions will never achieve. The Romans were already embedded in my imagination because I’d studied ‘Classical Civilisations’ (Western, of course) at ‘A’ Level at school, which included the Romans. I’d also studied Latin at school for five years up to ‘O’ Level standard, which I’d enjoyed. This was my background in Roman history and language, along with the 1970s comedy show Up Pompeii and the drama series I Claudius. I think both these influences are also apparent in the book!

In a sense Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, the first major book about black British history, was the most important trigger for the book. His first sentence packed a punch. He wrote: ‘There were Africans in Britain before the English came here’. He then went on to explain that during the Roman occupation of Britannia, a legion of Moors was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall in 3 AD. At this point I knew little about the deeper black roots of British history which Fryer went on to explore in the books, especially from the 1500s onwards. But it was the idea of black people in Britain nearly 2000 years ago that made the most impact.

My research involved reading the kinds of books that explained how people lived in the Roman Empire rather than academic tomes. As a writer I want to know the details of people’s lives and the quotidian: what they did from the moment they woke up to the time they went to sleep, and then what happened in the city while they were sleeping. So I would research things such as: where, how and what they ate, clothing, toilet and ablutions, marriage and relationships, social hierarchy, freedom, especially for girls and women, leisure and entertainment, modes of transport, shopping and so forth.

Zuleika has an affair with the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who was from the place we now know as Libya in North Africa. I was eventually able to go to his birthplace, the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya, but this was post publication. I was teaching a short creative writing course for the British Council there. The ruins are vast, sprawling and badly kept, but it was amazing to be there and I wished I’d been able to visit while writing the book. Nothing beats the experience of physically going to the locations I write about. It’s not always possible, and not always helpful in terms of factual information, but I do it as a kind of pilgrimage, to soak up the atmosphere, stimulate my imagination, and to visualise and situate my characters in the environment. I remember walking around the City of London one Sunday morning with a map I’d found which superimposed Londinium on the modern city. I could work out the geography of Zuleika’s life as I walked around. This is where she lived; this is where her trans friend Venus’s drag bar was down by the river; this is where the forum was located; this is where the walls were that encircled and protected the ancient city.

How did you create the verse and sustain it over the course of an entire novel, with all the challenges of narrative momentum and plot thrown into the mix? Talk me through the process.

The book began life as a few poems written during my residency at the Museum in which I imagined a black girl living in Londinium (Roman London). This was eventually expanded into a full-length verse novel. I applied a very loose structure to the work, as I do most of my books. Zuleika’s desire for life propels the narrative forwards and then I put obstacles in the way of this, chiefly her husband, but also the limitations imposed on girl children, and women, during that era. The book begins with Zuleika proclaiming, ‘Who do you love? Who do you love? /when the man you married goes off/ for months on end, quelling rebellions/ at the frontiers, or playing hot-shot senator in Rome’. And so it opens with a problem and continues with them. This should provide the necessary tension and suspense of fiction. For example, the horror of her wedding night is relived when she says, ‘Pluto came for me that night,/ and each time I woke up, it was my first night/ in the Kingdom of the Dead’. As a writer of fiction or verse fiction, I get to make things difficult for my protagonists. At the same time, Zuleika’s tremendous zest for life means that she makes the most of it. The novel is a tragi-comedy. It is to be enjoyed.

How did you manage to make the verse so cool and accessible to an audience that might not be knowledgeable about poetry?

I’ve never thought of it as cool but perhaps it’s the mix of ideas and language that make it appear so. I draw on Roman mythological references throughout the book, but equally on the popular culture of today. The clothes of Versace and Armani put in an appearance, for example. To be honest, I had a lot of fun playing around with creating something so anachronistic. I think this helps enrich both the verse and the story. The reader is being transported back into ancient history with gladiator matches et al, while in the next sentence I’m mentioning Hyde Park or Threadneedle Street.

The language is playful and Zuleika as a narrator is a very sparky and deeply sarcastic young woman. We experience my anachronistic version of Roman London through her eyes and the poetry is an extension of her personality. The two are wedded, and if the reader is captured by her then I hope they also accept the poetic voice. You’re right, the poetry is very readable, while also having the necessary depth and complexity to sustain a full-length narrative. Sometimes it charges along as a page-turner, other times, especially when I’m exploring Zuleika’s emotional and unspoken interiority, it becomes more lyrical and reflective with shorter, stand-alone poems. However, essentially, the language, the poetry, is subservient to the story while having a few starry moments in its own right.

With every novel of yours, I know I’m entering a new dimension. Your work has an epic, almost science fictional quality to it that is rooted in a very specific reality. Where do the ideas come from for each novel? And how much time do you need for each idea to bear fruit?

Each book has its own journey. If I pick some of them out here, Blonde Roots, my reverse slavery story, where Africans enslave Europeans, was my attempt to explore transatlantic slavery from an original perspective to see how the history could be viewed afresh. I created another kind of parallel universe, both contemporary and historical, and through this I was able to not only write about slavery, but to draw connections between that and the legacy of it today, namely, how racism arose to justify it, and how racism manifests today.

My verse novel Lara, based on my family history with its origins in England, Nigeria, Ireland, Germany and Brazil, took five years to complete and actually began as a prose novel that I abandoned because it wasn’t working, the prose was in a coma on the page! At that stage I was new to prose fiction and killed off my poetic voice in order to write it. Wrong! I’d wanted to write about my parents’ interracial marriage in the 1950s, and when I reapproached it as a verse novel the novel mushroomed into an epic that spanned 150 years of a fictionalised version of my family history.

My novel Mr Loverman arose out of my desire to write the stories that are absent from literature, in this case a septuagenarian Londoner, Barrington, from Antigua who is a closet homosexual. He’s been married to his wife Carmel for fifty years and lovers with Morris for sixty years. Hackney features strongly in this novel as a character in its own right over a period of fifty years. The district undergoes huge changes during this period, which serves to remind us that Barry and his wife, trapped in a loveless marriage and addicted to old patterns, haven’t changed enough. Barry is a bon vivant, he goes out raving, owns properties, has sex with Morris, is sociable, flamboyant, a local character. Like Zuleika, he is determined to enjoy himself, but his problems are psychological, his whole life has been a façade, and will he be able to summon up the courage to leave his wife and move in with the man he loves.

If there’s a connecting theme with my novels, it’s a desire to write about the African diaspora from multiple perspectives and ideas and explorations of unusual literary forms.

The other thing that’s exciting about your work is the musicality of every phrase. As somebody who loves hip-hop, I feel like your work has the swagger of a hip-hopper. Do you listen to much hip-hop?

You’ve got me there! I rarely listen to hip-hop or even much music these days. I tend to listen to it when driving, which isn’t very often. My tastes vary from soul to jazz to classical to African music.

What are you working on at the moment? Can you reveal anything about it?

Just finishing off a new novel. That’s all I’m saying!

I genuinely feel like it’s a brilliant time to be a Black British artist. I look at you, Inua Ellams, Warsan Shire, Reni Eddo-Lodge and other artists who are really making use of digital tools and expanding the scope and breadth of the Black British experience. What do you make of the digital revolution as an artist who has a big presence online? Do you think we’ll get to a point where white, middle class gatekeepers will become irrelevant to us getting our stories out there?

I agree with you. This is an exciting time. I’m not sure that I do have a big presence online. The artists you mention above, all of whom I admire greatly, are very internet-savvy, which is essential these days. I play at Twitter but I don’t really understand how it works. I tend to spend ages writing a tweet and then delete it because it doesn’t quite capture what I want to say. I’m not good at thinking in soundbites. The main thing about the internet is that communities can find each other and speak to each other across time zones and geographical distances.

We still need publishers and I’m all for people setting up their own, as I did with others when I was in my twenties. The internet presents us with endless possibilities to create work and communicate but I have to admit, I am a big fan of The Book As Object. We need to be working inside the big publishing houses and making editorial and other decisions. We need not just one seat at the table where we are isolated and the lone voice advocating for change, but several seats. Then we can say we’ve arrived.

Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (Penguin) is out now.

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