October 2013

Margaret Howie

features

An Interview with Bernardine Evaristo

At seventy-four years old, Barrington Jedidiah Walker should be settling down into a disgraceful old age. It would befit his well-lived life of hard work, dedicated fatherhood, and committed drinking, dancing, and general hell-raising. But in Bernardine Evaristo's seventh novel, Mr. Loverman, Barry is about to face up to his past growing up in Antigua, his immigrant experience in London, his rocky relationship with his wife, Carmel, and his secret heart -- his best friend and lover, Morris. A coming-out story set in the Caribbean community, it's gracefully told and ripsnortingly funny. Veering between the perspectives of wisecracking hedonist Barry and the disapproving and disappointed Carmel, who finds her own refuge in Bible-thumping and interior decorating, Evaristo brings us a love story with more than two sides.

Bernardine Evaristo's work has blended verse and prose, satire and history, humor and tragedy, in seven books, including her acclaimed alternative history novel about slavery, Blonde Roots. An editor, teacher, and activist, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts, and was awarded an MBE. She is probably the only Royal Fellow to use a Shabba Ranks song title for a work of art. Via email, she let us in on some of the secrets behind the book with the year's most dapper cover art.

Where did the voice of Barry come from?

Barry's voice comes from multiple sources. One of my oldest friends is Antiguan and I've heard her voice since we were teenagers. So in one sense Barry's voice is modeled on her. But he's also modeled on practically all the Caribbean men I've known. I used their syntax and expressions when I was writing in Barry's voice, which initially came very naturally, and then I had to work to make his voice consistently inconsistent -- which is what happens to Caribbean people when they've been in the UK a long time.

Have you known people who've gone through a late-in-life coming out process?

I have known people who have changed sexuality in later life, and also people who have come out in later life.

His story is interwoven with his wife Carmel's rather different point of view -- what led you to you decide on this kind of narrative?

I find that the shape of my novels comes about through trial and error.  In early drafts it became clear that Carmel needed to be a fuller, more sympathetic character and that this wasn't going to happen through Barry's point of view, as he is so cynical about his wife of fifty years. So I then decided to create Carmel chapters interspersed with Barry's that would allow me to get inside her head and her life. The end result is an unusual structure. Barry is the main protagonist, narrated in his first person voice, and Carmel's sections are told in the second person. I've never used this point of view before and really liked it as it allowed write Carmel from both the inside and outside.

Barry has thrived in life, emigrating from Antigua and having a stable marriage and successful career, but even though he lives in liberal London in 2010, coming out terrifies him. Do you think it is getting any easier for the closeted Barrys of the world?

Interesting question! The problem with Barry is that he's lived in the closet for sixty years and coming out feels like an impossible hurdle to overcome. Barry is an older man, seventy-four, born at a time when homosexuality was illegal -- until 1967 in the UK and still illegal in his home country of Antigua and Barbuda. This is very different to, say, a twenty-something bar-hopping black Londoner born in a time of greater freedom and possibility for gay men. Barry is embedded in his local Hackney Caribbean community that is, on the surface, heterosexual. So yes, I think it's very hard for men of Barry's generation to come out.

Barry reflects on hippies: "I couldn't believe the way these radicals was grabbing their freedom when I couldn't even contemplate taking mine." That's the sixties, and he takes half a century to follow through. Why you think those social movements that made his adopted home, Stoke Newington, so liberal, still managed to leave a lot of people behind?

Barry came to Britain in 1960. He was an immigrant struggling to make his way in his adopted country. His generation didn't mix with the local populace in the way that we take for granted today. I'm second generation (English-Nigerian) and my family and social world is very racially mixed. However, although Barry does have some hippy (trippy) friends, his main community was his Caribbean one, and mostly still is. Barry talks about the changes he's seen in Stoke Newington and about the radicals and political movements that have come and gone, but it's from an outsider perspective, as an observer. He didn't participate. This is why, I think, he's been "left behind" as you say. 

When did you first discover the James Baldwin quote you use as an epigraph ("Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced")?

Mr. Google helped me with that one. But I'm a huge fan of Baldwin and first read his novels in my teens.

Did you do a lot of research to capture this alternative London that Barry so adores for fifty years?

I guess you mean his Caribbean Hackney community? I've had Caribbean friends all my adult life. I've never lived in Hackney, but I've worked there and family and friends have lived there and I lived in Islington next door for ten years. It's one of those London boroughs I keep returning to, so it's very familiar to me. So I drew on what I already knew, asked friends questions, and did a couple of special "research trips" to Stoke Newington -- to make sure I was getting things right. I also did some research in Antigua. 

This story could be made into very serious subject matter -- immigration, coming out, family secrets -- but instead it's a comic novel. Did you ever worry that you were sacrificing gravity for comedy -- or did you struggle to kill off jokes that didn't sit right in the final work?  

Comedy is something I draw on very heavily in my writing. The point is, however, that my comedy always has bite -- it's not humor for its own sake. The novel isn't "lightweight." Its intent is very serious. I consider it a comi-tragic novel. The tragedy is that Carmel has been married to a gay man for fifty years and suffered as a consequence, and that Barry has lived a lie all his adult life. Comedy is very hard to pull off and I think it's often more powerful than fiction that is devoid of humor.

Sex scenes in literary novels are notorious for unintentional humor and awkwardness, but Mr. Loverman manages to be convincingly sensual and even manages to eroticize Hackney Council's office stationery. Were you ever wary of writing about sex?

I've written about sex quite a bit in my novels, and I always try to find inventive ways of doing so. There is a sex scene between Barry and Morris in Mr. Loverman, but I didn't take it too far, so it's quite a modest scene that nonetheless gets the point over that these two septuagenarian men still desire each other and make love. With the Carmel "office stationery scene," I had an absolute blast. 

You write poetry, verse novels, and prose novels: do you feel pressure to stick to the one thing instead of this marvellous variety? It seems that our culture likes people to specialize, and not try out different kinds of work.

I am an experimenter at heart -- pushing the boundaries of form and content. Even Mr. Loverman, while very accessible, is an experiment in two different voices and points of view. I see myself as a storyteller who uses whatever forms seem to fit the story I want to tell. I started off as a poet writing verse dramas for theater, then just wrote poetry, then moved into the verse novel genre (Lara and The Emperor's Babe) and in Soul Tourists I (maybe?) invented the novel-with-verse genre, which used verse, prose, prose-poetry, scripts, and other non-literary techniques. Blonde Roots was a prose novel. Hello Mum was a novella. I've also written verse drama for radio.

On your Tumblr, you posted a picture of yourself, captioned "I used to be a boy." I thought I saw a little Donna there. Is there a connection between younger Bernadine and Barry's stroppy, troubled oldest daughter?

Now that would be telling! To be honest, I'm not Donna, older or younger, but there is a wee bit of me in both Donna and Maxine. 

This is your seventh book. Is there any advice you would give your debut writer self circa 1994's poetry collection Island of Abraham?

The advice I'd give my younger self is really about the things I was learning to be and do in the early '90s. I was learning how to develop my self-belief and self-motivation, and how to give one hundred percent commitment to my craft and writing by putting in the thousands of hours at my desk and working part time (for little money) so that I could write the rest of the time. I was learning how to be resourceful in making contacts and how to promote my own work (as in, not waiting for others to make things happen for me). I was learning the art of bouncing back when you get knocked back. I was learning how to use my own voice and do my own thing, irrespective of trends and the expectations of others. This is the advice I'd give to other writers as well. It takes a lot, but the rewards are worth it.