Interview: Bernardine Evaristo

The arts are far more entwined than many will ever realise – artists of all forms know this. As a music student I couldn’t help but wonder how influential music was to 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. Born in South London, she is currently professor of creative writing at Brunel University London and President of Rose Bruford College. Alongside many other genres, Evaristo has written eight books and is the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize. After a chaotic 24 hours of power cuts and carpet removals in my student house in Durham, I was delighted to sit down on Zoom for an interview with the eminent Evaristo. I was intrigued to learn about her relationship with music throughout her life, how music played a part in the writing of her novel Girl, Woman, Other, and her experience on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs earlier this year.

The Indiependent: How much of an influence would you say music has had on you throughout your life?

Bernardine: When I was a teenager, music had a lot of influence, I think that is probably the case for a lot of teenagers. I was an avid follower of music and would listen to the charts and watch Top of the Pops. It was a family occasion where everybody sat down and listened to the top songs in the charts. I loved the Jackson Five and groups like Sweet and T-Rex. Then in my twenties, I got into women singers; even now I love their beautiful voices, like Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Edith Piaf, and Kathleen Ferrier. Kathleen was an opera singer, and she had this beautiful voice that just felt was coming from somewhere else. They were really important for me, those singers in my twenties, especially as I was beginning to have more serious relationships. And I would be lovesick sometimes and those songs were the sort of soundtrack to me being lovesick and yearning and all that stuff, which was very important to me then.

Singing was a big part of drama school – learning how to use your voice, how to project it. And so, I started to learn how to sing, and I really loved it, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had this idea of how I wanted to sound, I used to listen to those singers I mentioned, and I would pretend that I was singing when they sang. I’m still a bit like that now, when I really like somebody singing, I pretend it’s me. If you’d have asked me what my ideal singing voice was, it would have been Roberta Flack singing ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – that almost made my Desert Island Discs. When I play those two songs back now, I realise that her singing was so slow, you don’t hear that slowness these days, everything’s so much more sped up. I sang in shows as well, and I kind of got away with it, but there were people at drama school who were the standard that we all aspired to reach. I actually sang on a professional television program in 1982. It was a series called One in Five, and I sang a verse of a song, but I never heard it because I was away in Holland having fun – it aired on New Year’s Eve. I found it online earlier this year and I always thought that they had broadcast the whole song, but they hadn’t! And so, for about 40 years, I thought that a film of me singing this verse was broadcast, but actually they’d cut it!

There was a period where I didn’t listen to much music. I was I was doing a lot of travelling, I’d left a relationship, I was living at home and music just wasn’t part of my life. Then, about 20 years ago, I started going to the gym, and they used to have these MTV programmes on and those really got me into listening to music to exercise to. I listened to that generation of singers – Jennifer Lopez and Alicia Keys, I was really into their music. I would also play my own music in the gym, and it would help me on the treadmill, or cycling, believe it or not! Nowadays I mainly listen to music when I’m driving, and sometimes when I’m writing, but not often. I do love music, but I never set aside time to just listen to it – it comes and goes.

The Indiependent: Would you say that music is part of your identity and how do you think it has shaped you, and vice versa?

Bernardine: That’s a really interesting question, I do think music is part of my identity actually. The kind of music that touches me most is often Black music. Like the Kannah-Mason family: what I love about them is that they are associating classical music with people of colour, not that there haven’t been other Black classical musicians, but because they are so high profile, and they’re so young and they’re a family and there are so many of them. I feel like people of colour are going to identify with classical music and be introduced to it through this family, myself included. I don’t buy a lot of classical music, but actually, when I listen to it, I love it. I’ve bought their family album as well as a couple of their individual albums, because they just made me listen to it. So it is about your identity and the kind of music that you choose to listen to. So funk, African music, it’s all part of my identity – my dad’s Nigerian, and I grew up listening to James Brown and Fela Kuti, with my family. There’s also something to be said for staying in touch with each new generation of music that most people are listening to. And when you stop knowing what their music’s about, it’s almost like you’re not connecting to them in the same way.

The Indiependent: You mention so many different artists in Girl, Woman, Other when building characters. How did you go about the process of using music to create their stories?

Bernardine: There are certain ways in which I can create character, specifically through shortcuts, and music is one of them. The other shortcuts I employ are food, people’s visual appearance, how and where people live, like a sense of place, and in this book in particular, the books that people read. In fact, with Amma, the first character, I remember very consciously having a list of singers, people I was listening to at that time, and I just wanted to give a bit of attention to the music I loved when I was younger and still now today, actually. And also, if people know the songs, then it might even evoke an emotional response to whatever the characters are describing and therefore add another texture to the story. Hattie, who is 93, also talks about music in her section, but it’s from when she’s much younger – in her 30s or something, from in the 1940s, or 50s. And that’s creating history through the music that I’m having as part of her life. So, music is about establishing era, but it’s also how I can set historical moments as well.

The Indiependent: What was the process like when you were picking the songs for Desert Island Discs?

Bernardine: It was lovely. First of all, it was a dream come true, so when they asked me, I said yes, of course. I picked music that meant something to me, it was all music that expressed something throughout the different stages of my life. The songs I chose were actually from my earlier years, like my twenties, and I think it’s because that’s when music registered with me the most. You’re coming into yourself at that age, discovering your emotions and emotional range. And so the songs that I picked were often songs that meant something to me then, but that I still love today, and maybe even mean something else to me today. For example, I chose a song called ‘Woyaya’ by Osibisa that is about us going heaven knows where and who knows how, but still that we’ll get there. I listened to that in the 70s and loved it then, but I still love it now and look where I’ve got to!

I thought carefully about why I chose each track so that when they asked me, I had things to say. They interviewed me for about two and a half hours long distance, all remote. They edited it beautifully – there was so much material to work with and they just created this lovely narrative. Of course, they’ve been doing it for decades, but I truly loved every bit of it. And now there is this record that is part of that archive that is there for anybody to listen to. It is such a beautiful thing, to have eight tracks somehow tell the story of your life, and it’s a privilege to be able to have done it.

Listen to Bernadine Evaristo’s Desert Island Discs here.

Words by Martha Lily Dean


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