A memoir and manual of careers advice for creatives
Bernardine Evaristo hasn’t always been a star. But she has – at least according to her own Manifesto – always gleefully aimed beyond the stratosphere. A sort of memoir-manual, her latest book chronicles her life up until the present day and offers career advice for any creative who’s ever had a crisis of confidence.
Though her fandom may have expanded dramatically after her Booker win in 2019, Evaristo’s zeal for writing – whether poetry, prose or a blend of the two (“fusion fiction”, as she calls it) – has been consistent since well before publication of first novel, Lara, in 1997, as has her determination. Though she may have grown as a thinker (“I see now that my feminism as a young woman was paper thin,” she muses about her early, mischievous days as a theatre practitioner), she has, it seems, always been a fighter: for what’s right; for the space to express herself; and for the benefit of others with dreams like hers.
Manifesto combines the personal with the practical to powerful effect. The chapters run the gamut from Heritage, Childhood, Family, Origins, to The Self, Ambition, Transformation, Activism, and the book ends with the eponymous manifesto, in which Evaristo drives home her message to “pass on what we know to the next generation”, with the reminder that there is a manifesto in every one of us. Unconventional as it may be, the format works: the autobiographical parts of the book serve as vivid lessons about the power of change, growth and self-confidence.
Evaristo’s frank observations about British society and the challenges of growing up in it as a mixed-race woman are entertaining as well as instructive. She is good on the complexities of Britain’s class system, a structure “we are all subliminally inculcated into the nuances of … from birth”, but which works differently, she observes, when gender, race and culture are brought into the mix. Her British-Nigerian father was “of the brown immigrant class” but her white, British, Catholic mother’s “education and profession were considered middle class, even though her parents were working class”. Together, as a mixed-race family of 10 – she has seven siblings – they occupied a unique space, both firmly a part of the local community and denigrated by it, “with violent assaults on their family home”.
Fly-on-the-wall depictions of 1960s and 70s “white Woolwich” and the 80s black creative and underground queer scenes are especially intriguing. Many of the social issues of Evaristo’s youth feel highly relevant today, a reflection of the sometimes cyclical nature of social history.
Through all of it runs Evaristo’s unshakable need for self-expression, a passion that has shaped her first as a performer, then as a writer, but above all as a person: “Through joining the ‘arty class’ via the youth theatre … I was now willingly owning my outsider status, and moving away from the self-conscious child who looked at the pavement rather than ahead.”
The personal stories Evaristo tells – the great loves of her life, the ones who never stood a chance, the ones who should never have been given a chance in the first place – serve as drivers of the central theme: her honesty about rejection and, consequently, the power of never giving up.
Since it’s easy to imagine that a writer of her stature started out with a knack for producing award-winning fiction, details of the insecurities that haunt her are comforting, even inspiring. Discussing her first book-length work, Island of Abraham, a collection of poetry published more than a decade after some of the poems were written, she admits that on its release she felt that they were “too simple in terms of style, craft and psychology”. She writes “When someone told me that Hello Mum is my finest work, I thought to myself: but it took three weeks to write!”
Evaristo’s exposure of the bare bones of the publishing process feels like being let in on a great secret. “When I first received critical feedback that required massive rewrites, I used to get upset, although I’d never show this. I’d hide the manuscript in a drawer, not wanting to see it lying around taunting me with enormity of the task ahead.” But she always pressed on. As she writes about her choice to leave her last office job to become a full-time writer: “I took faith from the aphorism ‘Leap and angels will appear’, and they did.”
Manifesto: On Never Giving Up is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.