Bernardine Evaristo has published eight previous books, covering poetry, prose, and her own blend of the two (‘fusion fiction’) as seen in the Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other, but Manifesto is her first work of prose non-fiction: it’s part memoir, part analysis of the development of her own creative sensibility and process, part study on various facets of bi-racial identities in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain: cumulatively, then, as the title has it, it’s a manifesto on being ‘wild, disobedient & daring’ on the path to fulfilling one’s ambitions. It’s also a rattling good read (it took me only a few hours): Evaristo’s work here, as elsewhere, is bitingly funny as well as politically incisive.
Manifesto isn’t a straightforwardly autobiographical account of Evaristo’s life; rather, it’s arranged thematically (albeit following a roughly linear chronology), looking first at race and ancestry, followed by a history of her living arrangements, her relationships, her early career in the theatre, her publishing trajectory, her education and influences, and, finally, her activism in raising up Black and bi-racial voices, both in Britain and abroad. These categories all overlap, of course, but the broad division works: what Evaristo is doing here is studying her own experiences in terms of how they influenced and affected her as a writer, so she tracks how her career developed and/or stalled in relation to particular circumstances. The opening section explores her British (and other European) roots, and the gaps in her knowledge in terms of her Nigerian relatives; she’s incisive in her recognition of both the bigotry encountered by her immediate family and that fomented within her wider family, and how this combination has informed her own interests as a writer and, later, as an activist. She’s generous and careful too in how she contextualises, for instance, her father’s disciplinarianism; she recognises his own activism and generosity within his London community, and writes frankly about her conflicted emotions around her childhood in his home.
We see, too, here, an economic and political snapshot of an England that’s since been systematically dismantled by successive governments: how relatively affordable housing and accessible education facilitated Evaristo’s ambition, how her parents’ trade unionism filtered through to her own later initiatives to give a platform to marginalised racialised voices. On the flipside, while her account of drama school applications and community theatre projects illuminates both her own energy and vitality as a practitioner, it also highlights the dangerous exclusivity of institutions that purport to be inclusive – like the National Youth Theatre. Evaristo details her relationship history, too, with a bare honesty that allows her to articulate how she came to an awareness of what she needed from a relationship in order to thrive, particularly as a writer, whether she’s explaining the abusive relationship that took up years of her twenties or the ‘harmonious synchronisation’ she ultimately found with the man who’s now her husband.
When she turns to her publication history, then, we see the evolution of the complex relationship between poetry and prose in her evolving oeuvre, and the tricky nature of independent publishing: the willingness to embrace formal experimentation, but the lack of a marketing budget to get those books sold. Evaristo is frank about the creative difficulties she encountered when she first began writing prose, and how she eventually reconciled her poetic practice with her novelistic ambitions; she is clear, too, about the importance to her of maintaining open and constructive critical relationships with early readers and editors.
Any Cop?: The way Evaristo weaves her politics, her lived experience as a working class writer of colour, her sexuality and her writing career makes this a fantastic read – a UK version, in many ways, of Audre Lorde’s Zami. Very accessible, very absorbing, definitely recommended. (And you should read her back catalogue too.)