Written by Miranda Larbi
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
Speaking on the Stylist Live Sessions podcast, the Booker Prize winner and author of Manifesto discussed how to be more wild, disobedient and daring in 2023.
Bernardine Evaristo always aimed to win the Booker Prize… she just didn’t know it would happen months before a pandemic that’d change the way we live for years to come.
“I wasn’t writing in order to win the Booker prize […] but it gave me something to commit to,” she told Stylist’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski, on the second day of Stylist Live, in a conversation that’s now available as an episode of our podcast, Stylist Live Sessions.
When she eventually did win, she dug out her old affirmations which had all been about nabbing that prize, and thought, “Oh my God!”
It might seem like the author has had a meteoric rise. In 2019, she became the first Black British person to win the Booker Prize for her seminal book Girl, Woman, Other, and in 2020, she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Earlier this year, Evaristo was named Writer of the Year at Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards. And now her memoir, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, is flying off the shelves. But the author has been plugging away at her craft for years – starting with her 1994 collection of poems, Island Of Abraham.
She credits her success, in part, with being “wild, disobedient and daring”. “In terms of creativity, you don’t want to play it safe – it’s important to push the boundaries of the art form you’re dealing with,” she explained.
And perhaps that philosophy has set her up to deal with all kinds of unexpected life challenges too. Evaristo, like the rest of us, has been battling against the seemingly never-ending ‘Permacrisis’: “We’ve been living through unprecedented times and no one has been untouched by it. We were at risk of death just by being around other people
“I felt that too. [During Covid], for the first time, I contemplated my own mortality.”
Extraordinarily single-minded, Evaristo has never waited for opportunity to come her way. Having started her artistic journey in drama, she started her own theatre group called the Theatre of Black Women back in the 80s. “That was the beginning of me doing what I wanted to do; the alternative was to leave drama school, look for work, not find it and give up,” she said.
As she transitioned into writing, she spent years working on her material, “Investing in it because it was giving me joy. I lived very cheaply and didn’t take a job that would take me away from my writing.”
Crucially, she said: “I always intended and visualised winning the Booker. The important thing was that I’d found the thing I wanted to do.”
And that was exploring the African diaspora through her writing, and making an active decision to talk about the experiences and lives of people who are still largely left out of mainstream discourse (despite how large the diaspora is).
“You have to be single-minded to achieve what you want,” she said.
So what about rejection and failure? After all, all authors go through some degree of pain. Did she ever doubt that she’d reach her Booker dream?
“Negative self-talk talks yourself out of doing stuff you want to do. [If you talk negatively to yourself], always expect the worst outcome,” she explained.
Talking to the packed crowd at the main stage, she shared that she often advises her students that when everything is going wrong, it’s important to turn your mindset around before it’s too late. “Bounce back in the act of falling. It’s harder to get up when you hit the ground.”
Her strategy, back in the day, was to hide her ambition so that people wouldn’t know what her goal was and therefore tell her that it wasn’t possible.
Optimism, she says, is a choice. “I’m a bit intolerant of self-pitying people. I don’t think self-pity gets us anywhere.”
So, what’s next for the writer? “What is the impossible dream? That’s the thing I’m focusing on.”
Image: Bronac McNeill
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