Lewes 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 https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:8371)
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.
Bernardine 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.