Monthly Archives: November 2015

Bernardine Evaristo – Lewes Lit Society

BernardineLewes on a wet November evening was a cosy indoor affair at Lewes Literary Society’s new home. The All Saints Centre was full. John Agard and Grace Nichols were among the poets in the audience. I hadn’t seen Bernardine since I interviewed her in 2012 on a hot summer’s day at Dartmouth House in London. The sunny courtyard had been a perfect location for an interview on her novel, The Emperor’s Babe set in Ancient Roman London – with a fountain trickling water in the background we could very well at have been in an Ancient Roman atrium. Stark contrast to the November storms howling around the Lewes church.


Bernardine started her talk by taking the audience back to 70s Woolwich with the bricks thrown through windows by racist school kids and her grandmother’s difficulty accepting her grandchildren of colour, although she loved them. Bernardine’s father was from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe and would run down the street after the vandals, walk them to their door and insist their parents paid for the damage. He was a strict man and the only freedom in her teens was the local drama group, where she developed a love of the spoken word and subsequently set up a Black Women’s experimental drama group. Her parents also instilled in her a sense of the political. One can see so clearly how the values and experiences of her childhood have filtered into her work. Her novels deal with race, identity, sexuality and gender with honesty and sharp humour.


I’m pleased Bernardine chose to read from The Emperor’s Babe, one of the chosen texts for my PhD in Creative Writing. It’s a novel which has had a profound influence on me since her agent, Hannah Griffiths handed it to me 15 years ago in the offices of Curtis Brown, and said: ‘you must read this!’

The novel’s first person narrator, a Nubian girl-bride called Zuleika, has an affair with the Emperor Severus when he visits London in 211 A.D. It’s been categorised as a postmodern novel for its playful rewriting of history, and the way Bernardine allows fact and fiction to mingle in the narrative.

When I asked Bernadine in interview whether the reason for the intentional use of anachronism was to make the history more accessible, she replied:

‘I didn’t want it to feel this was a historical novel that was remote, distant, that people couldn’t relate to. Or rather, I wanted them to believe in Zuleika almost as a contemporary figure. I wanted to make it as vivid as if she was a girl living in London today.’

(Dartmouth House Interview with Bernardine Evaristo, London, 2011

As Bernardine notes, although it is unusual for a novel to be written in verse, the poetry is accessible. As I noted in my thesis, if the rapper Puff Daddy and Martial were locked in Dr Who’s Tardis and told to write a novel together, the product might not be so dissimilar to The Emperor’s Babe’s rhythmic language mash-up. We are reminded of the modern poetry of hip hop and rap music by lines like:

‘Puff Daddy Fabius on the tube
and Madd Marcia on caterwauling vocals.’

The novel started as a few poems penned on a residency at the Museum of London. One of the positive outcomes of the residency was that an actor of colour was given the job of acting the part of an ancient Roman tour guide. Prior to Bernardine’s residency, the museum staff had dismissed the idea that there were Ancient Roman Africans in London. Since then, archaeologists have unearthed the evidence. Certainly, London would have been a melting pot of race, reflecting the geographical scale of the Roman Empire.

During the Q&A, Bernardine was clear when asked about the lack of representation of black people at literary events, that it is an issue. As with her books, there’s no meandering about in her answers; she’s erudite, but gets directly to the point. I imagine she got that trait from her father, rather than the English habit of beating about the bush.

lovermanBernardine moves on to read from her latest novel, Mr Loverman about Barry, a 74 year old Antiguan man, married for 50 years to Carmel. Carmel knows Barry has affairs, just not with whom. Barry has another life as a gay man in the closet, in love with his boyfriend of 60 years.

Bernardine’s years in acting are evident when she convincingly delivers Barry’s Caribbean narrative voice. Guyanese poet, Grace Nichols, who was in the audience validated it sounded authentic, and asked Bernardine how she developed it. Friends and an ex, was the reply. Bernardine spends a lot of time listening to how people speak. This is a useful tip for novelists.

We finish with a book signing. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my copy of Mr Loverman along – there’s something personal about having the author’s signature in the front cover. I did however bring a copy of Rufius for Bernardine, to say thank you for a gift she gave me three years ago – I was not confident that Rufius would win the heart of a publisher; she told me, ‘you must believe it will be published.’ I never forgot the force behind her words. A novel, when it is an unformed thing, can plague even an established writer with doubts. Bernardine exudes a rare determination, and it comes across so strongly in her work. There aren’t many novelists who would convince Penguin to publish a novel in verse.


Voices Beyond Boarders

An evening of poetry music and song in aid of Europe’s Refugees

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Lewes is blessed with a Mayor who supports the arts – Cllr Susan Murray opened the evening in Lewes Town Hall to the haunting sound of the oud melting away in the background, played by Brian Tewson.



Mebrak Ghebreweldi shared her experiences as a child solder and life as a refugee. Her family fled her hometown in Africa, her mother and father grabbing the closest things to them in their rush to get to the mountains to hide until the fighting stopped. Days, weeks, months went by. Eventually they gave up hope of ever going back home, and Mebrak joined the army as a child soldier. She spoke with the heart and strength of a woman who has had to fight for peace in her life.


The poets and musicians who gave their time freely delivered their work with similar passion on themes of love, war, and displacement from one’s home.






john-agardJohn Agard’s poem ‘Little Green Man’ started with the arrival of a little green man at Heathrow Airport bemused with what box he should tick for ethnicity: white, black, but no green. Although he had the audience in stiches, it is a reminder of how daunting British immigration must be.


Pam Hewitt led members of the Russian Choir with anthems of emigrants who fled Nazi and Russian invasions. Norman Baker and his band, The Reform Club sung ‘Give War a Chance’ from their new album, a satirical take on war sung in the voice of a war-mongering British politician who cannot be named (but was quite obviously Cameron). The audience were in hysterics at the lyrics – he’s not entirely left politics.


Grace Nichols, Catherine Smith, and Elsa Hewitt read poems on the theme of love – in addition to a steamy sex scene of martial sex in a Kings Cross hotel.





girl on a planeMiriam Moss read from her novel, Girl on a Plane, a fictional account of her ordeal on a plane hijacked in the Jordanian desert in the 70s. She recounts the moment when Anne, the 15 year old narrator of the story, loses it with one of the young hi-jackers. He asks her to imagine his life as a refugee, forced off land that had been in his family for centuries. The extract drove home the complexities of war. Here’s a great blog post and interview with Miriam:



Dirk and Adam Campbell and Paul Johnson played the ‘Pleasure of Giving’ on the flute, kora and kalamangoni. And Adrienne Thomas rounded off the evening with an Afghan Phasto Lullaby and Blowing in the Wind. Listen here: IMG_9041

All the performances were from delivered with passion, but the delivery that cut to the heart of why were there, and stayed with me long after the evening had ended, was from a woman from Lewes Action for Refugees raising money for Doctors of the World and the International Rescue Committee. She told us about her direct experiences of the conditions in the ‘Jungle’, so called by the thousands of refugees who are encamped in Calais, as it is not fit for humans to live in. Her and her daughter visit to help pick up rubbish and give support to the women in the camp, many of them who throw themselves on to trains, desperate to get through the tunnel to the UK. She spoke of the hideous, toxic conditions and the rising tension in the previous landfill site that only has 6 showers for the growing thousands of refugees who arrive everyday. I spoke with her afterwards. She is not a public speaker and hoped her delivery was clear. It was more than clear – it cut through the politics to the everyday challenges faced by refugees whose lives have been torn apart by war and climate change. The atmosphere in the Town Hall was thick with the horror and compassion, and a will to do what one could to support the cause.

Half way through the evening, £2400 had been raised. Lewes Actions for Refugees needs volunteers to help with anything from counting the donations in the buckets to trips to the Jungle in Calais to help pick up rubbish. Please contact Lewes Actions for Refugees on Facebook.

Martina Cole – Crime Writing Tips

Martina ColeThanks to the fabulous Martina Cole, No 1 Bestselling UK crime writer, New Writing South and Lewes Live Lit for a fascinating evening into the process of crime writing – and for helpful advice on my novel, THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE.

The studio at the Brighton DOME was packed with jolly fans (the bar remained open throughout the interview) and wannabe crime writers.

She advised the writers in the audience to let themselves go: ‘follow the characters, follow each thread as it arises – edit later.’  She adds: ‘If you don’t like a character, you can kill ‘em off.’ Martina laughs in her warm East End twang. She laughs a lot – and so do we as she’s got a knack of making everyone feel at ease, like we are all in an East End pub in one of her novels.

With over 14 million novels sold, and several adapted for TV, Martina found a winning formula with her first novel DANGEROUS LADY. Her advice to me when I gave her my elevator pitch for THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE was that I should believe in what I was writing and create a new genre in crime like she did. Back in 1992 when DANGEROUS LADY was published, Martina innovated the crime genre by writing from the woman’s perspective. She showed her readers the family life of her criminals.

When asked the inevitable question writers are always asked: ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Martina replied: ‘When Stephen King was asked that at a conference I was at in the States, he replied, “I have the brain of a 4 year-old boy … on my desk!”‘ We all laugh at the joke. But her point is sound: to write is to play.

I’m always fascinated by writers’ processes. Martina writes through the night, no emails to cause distraction, entering the minds of serial killers and rapists – I can almost see her as she pulls on a fag in the dead of night. It’s enough to put a shiver through me. I write in the morning when my brain’s most alert – especially when I’m writing psychopaths like Kinko in THE HOSTESS DETECTIVE.

Martina is hot on research. ‘I did a lot of research into sociopaths and psychopaths. I actually felt really sorry for them. They know from a young age – as young as four or five – that they are unable to feel like other people. They have no empathy. So they imitate. Imagine how lonely that must be, knowing you aren’t like other people.’

For an author of the sort of crime fiction Martina writes, sympathising with the criminal is essential. She shows the other side of the murderer. As one fan notes, ‘I’m always so shocked at how you move so swiftly from a killer performing heinous acts of violence, to domestic scenes of him cuddling his new baby.’

Her new novel GET EVEN promises to deliver the usual fast-paced suspense, gore and edgy East End crime … with a large dollop of swear words and cockney rhyming slang. Two actors read the main characters as Martina confesses she can’t read her own work as she laughs whenever she swears.

She has that knack of keeping her reader turning the page like Stephen King – a skill essential in mainstream crime/mystery and horror genres – which I likened to the method used in Porn fiction to propel the reader through the narrative, in a public lecture I gave with Dr Rob Clucas at the University of Hull.

Martina does a lot of work in prisons with Lewes Live Lit to promote inmate literacy. She believes that people should leave prison better than they went in. ‘It’s shocking how many young men cannot write their own name,’ she says more than once.

Considering her novels are the most stolen books in UK prisons, it’s highly likely she’s succeeding in increasing inmate literacy!