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‘I feel like I’m now known’: Bernardine Evaristo on becoming everyone’s lockdown read and the books she’s turned to in 2020

The author of ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ tells us how the Booker changed her career, and shares the books she turns to for comfort

Written by
Alexandra Sims

In 2019, Bernardine Evaristo became the first Black woman and the first Black British author to win the Booker Prize with her novel ‘Girl, Woman, Other’. To round off her year in the literary spotlight, she’ll be interviewing Douglas Stuart, the 2020 winner, in an empty Royal Festival Hall. We spoke to the author and Londoner about how her life has changed since winning one of the biggest literary accolades in the world.

What has changed for you since winning the Booker?

‘My readership has changed. Being in the bestseller list on and off for 41 weeks is just phenomenal. I am staggered that Middle England has embraced the book: who’d have thought it? It took the Booker for that to happen. That’s how important the prize is. The level of recognition within the industry has also been great. I feel like I’m now known. As a Black woman, we need to be known. We don’t want to be marginalised and we don’t want to be considered inferior in any way.’

The 2020 Booker shortlist is the most diverse in its history. Is there a meaningful shift in publishing?

‘I think there is a shift happening, for now. The jury for the [2020] Booker prize is incredibly diverse and that makes a difference. I love the fact that there is so much diversity. I don’t know whether we’re entering a new era, or whether this is just something that’s going to come and go, whether there will be a backlash. We had Obama for two terms and then Trump for a term. It always feels like you have progression and then you go back, and then you go forwards again.’

This summer was defined by Black Lives Matter protests and ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ was included in lots of anti-racist reading lists. How did you feel about the spike in anti-racist reading lists? 

‘We always have to acknowledge that it happened because of something terrible. What happened to George Floyd wasn't a one-off, it's just that we saw it happening, almost in real time, so everybody was so upset and outraged. It was staggering to realise that people were really hungry for this literature, because for most of my time in the charts I have been almost the only writer of colour there. It's made me realise how our books have not, for various reasons, been the massive economic successes they need to be.’ 

Many people have turned to ‘Girl Woman Other’ for comfort this year. What did it feel like for it to have such an impact on people during lockdown? 

‘I find it staggering that people have turned to it for comfort, because for me it is a provocative book. I see it as a challenging, radical experimental novel about people who are generally perceived to be on the outside. But there is compassion and there is hope, and hopefully these women appeared on the page as very alive and real and complex.’

What books did you turn to for comfort in lockdown? 

‘I try to keep abreast of my peers and focus on British writers, especially ones who are overlooked. The two outstanding books for me this year have been ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennet. The other is [2020 Booker Prize winner]  ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stewart. It tears away at your heart in so many ways. The characters are so alive. I don't know if they've comforted me, but I found them very uplifting.’ 

What’s your relationship with London? It’s been the setting for a lot of your work.

‘London is a really important muse for me... It’s a city I feel I can endlessly explore. I grew up in Woolwich, which was very white and now it’s very multicultural. London is a city that is always in transformation and I’m always acquainting and reacquainting myself with it.’ 

The Southbank Centre’s 2020 Booker Prize Winner in Conversation event is available to stream until Nov 30. £5. 

Literature lover? This new website is supporting your local bookshop in time for Lockdown 2.

Get to know New Beacon Books: the UK’s first Black publisher, that’s still educating Londoners 50 years on

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