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Bernardine Evaristo, the First Black Woman to Win Booker Prize Whose Name the Media Tried to Erase from History

Nigerian-British writer Bernardine Evaristo made history on October 15 as the first black woman to win the Booker Prize.

Formerly known as the Booker-McConnell Prize from 1969-2001 and the Man Booker Prize –from 2002-2019, the Booker Prize is a literary prize each year for the best original novel written in the English Language and published in the United Kingdom.

Evaristo won the award for her novel “Girl, Woman, Other.” She shelved off competition from four others including fellow Nigerian Chigozie Obioma.

Before Evaristo, however, Ben Okri won the prize in 1995 for “The Famished Road.”

The Booker Prize judges also broke the rules governing the award and jointly awarded it to famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood and Evaristo in another historical twist.

The literary world was shocked when the chair of the judges Peter Florence disclosed that they had decided to unanimously flout the rules which have been in place since 1992, that the Booker “may not be divided or withheld”. 

This is the third time the award has been split in its 50-year history and Brittle Paper reports that the judges described the decision as “explicitly flouting” the rules.

Recently, the BBC was forced to apologize to Evaristo after its presenter Shaun Ley compared the Turner prize nominees’ decision to share that award to the Booker judges’ split decision.

“Now, this is a bit different from the Booker prize earlier in the year where the judges couldn’t make up their minds, so they gave it to Margaret Atwood and another author, who shared the prize between them,” he said.

In response, Evaristo wrote on Twitter: “How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”

Evaristo was born in London to an English mother, who was a schoolteacher, and a Nigerian father who migrated to Britain in 1949 and became a welder.

She is the fourth of eight children.

Evaristo was educated at Eltham Hill Girls’ Grammar School, the Rose Bruford College of Speech & Drama, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where she earned her Ph.D. (Creative Writing). She spent her teenage years at Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, which was where she first became involved in the arts.

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Evaristo’s paternal grandfather was a Yoruba Saro and a returnee from Brazil to Nigeria and her paternal grandmother was from Abeokuta in Nigeria.

Her mother’s paternal great-grandfather arrived in London from Germany in the 1860s and settled in Woolwich, south-east London, and her mother’s maternal grandmother arrived in London from Ireland in the 1880s and settled in Islington.

Evaristo is the award-winning author of eight books and numerous other published and produced works that span the genres of novels, poetry, verse fiction, short fiction, essays, literary criticism, and radio and theatre drama. Her writing and projects are based around her interest in the African diaspora.

She is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London.

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Photo: Reuters

Her verse novel The Emperor’s Babe was adapted into a BBC Radio 4 play in 2013 and her novella Hello Mum was adapted as a BBC Radio 4 play in 2012. In 2015 she wrote and presented a two-part BBC Radio 4 documentary called Fiery Inspiration: Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement.

The first monograph on her work, Fiction Unbound by Sebnem Toplu, was published in August 2011 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. A second monograph by Ester Gendusa was published in Italy in 2015. Her books have been translated into several languages including Czech, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian & Mandarin.

In a recent interview, she said: “I want to tell stories that engage and excite the reader, for them to believe in my characters enough to be invested in what happens to them while maintaining the necessary drama and suspense to keep them turning the pages.

“I also like to disrupt possible reader expectations through creating characters who defy reductive notions of who we are in this society, in the world. Because black British women are an almost invisible presence in literature, our portrayal is limited.”

Touching on the novel that won her the Booker prize she said: “I’ve created a chorus of voices in Girl, Woman, Other, and some might challenge some readers, which is a good thing. Multiplicity and variety are weapons against stereotyping and invisibility.

“In pursuit of this, I couldn’t create twelve heterosexual cis-gender characters. That would be doing our plurality, our individuated humanity, a disservice. For example, the womxn in the novel have various sexualities, one is non-binary, which is why I refer to them as ‘womxn’ — a trans-inclusionary term which embraces women of color.

“I imagine this might challenge people, take them out of their comfort zone. Ultimately, I want to tell dynamic stories which take readers on an imaginary adventure that offers insights into who we are as a people. I can’t help but be subversive, it’s in my DNA, and expressed in various ways in all of my books.”

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Written by MT

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