When Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe was first published in 2001 I was a young buck with buck teeth and a badass approach to the world. I’m no longer a young buck but the buck teeth are still in place (mzee, dental care is a morass of expenses, y’know? And brotherman is still on some Destiny’s Child ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ tip that ain’t gonna ease up until my fine, sexy self is six feet under). As for the badassery, the most boomfiya ting I do these days is count my coins and cosy up to the fact that I’ll be impecunious until my fine, sexy self is six feet under. I know you know the score.
Whilst I may not have aged well, sixteen years after it was first published Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, a verse novel set in AD 211, has retained its vibrancy, linguistic deliciousness and straight-up zest. This book is funkier and saucier than Rick James at his super-freakiest. The language still crackles and the metaphors and anachronistic energy will have the reader giddy with pleasure.
Set in Roman times, Zuleika, who happens to be the daughter of Sudanese/Nubian immigrants to Londinium, becomes a child bride and then the mistress of the emperor Septimus Severus. Zuleika is a young OG with mad gumption and knows how to kick booty up and down the block with ease. In the age of feminism-as-fashion-accessory it’s heartening to read a novel with a female protagonist who doesn’t kowtow to insta-conventionality, and whose sense of power is completely self-generated.
The novel is written entirely in verse and as I was re-reading it I kept marvelling at the level of craft and care that went into this book. Writing poetry (good poetry, not Instagram bromides) is incredibly difficult anyway, but to construct a whole novel out of verse takes a genius level of understanding of how both poetry and prose work. Once you add the challenges of historical interplay and slanguistic inventiveness with narrative momentum into the mix, then you have the potential for a genuine obra maestra. The Emperor’s Babe is a tour de force and a reminder of Bernardine Evaristo’s radical genius.
This is the same author who upended the possibilities of slavery narratives by creating a landscape where white people were enslaved by black folks in Blonde Roots. This is the same author who created a tender and hilarious love story focused on a gay septuagenerian British-Jamaican dandy in Mr Loverman. Part of being a literary genius is knowing how to expand the emotional vocabulary of your readers, and this is what Evaristo has done again and again. Part of our collective duty as black artists and thinkers and critics is honouring our geniuses whilst they’re still creating work.
In the spirit of that notion: Ms. Evaristo, here are your flowers. Long may you continue to create magic.
Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (Penguin) is out now.