‘This has never happened before!’ Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge on their history-making year

By Sirin Kale

This year, in twin firsts, black British women topped both the fiction and nonfiction charts. Both successes were a long time coming, but sparked a ray of hope that the Black Lives Matter movement may be creating space for new voices and stories. The novelist, playwright and poet Bernardine Evaristo, who made history with Girl, Woman, Other, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, the groundbreaking author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, talk about this unprecedented moment.

Bernardine Evaristo: This year, everything came to me. Absolutely everything. At times, it was quite overwhelming but I also welcomed it. Because I have been in this game for 40 years now. So to suddenly break through has been a great opportunity to use my platform in all the ways that one can. And then, of course, we had Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. Attention had been on my book anyway, because it had been doing really well. But the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to start reading books by writers of colour. You had all these book lists circulating on social media. Black authors were topping the charts. That’s never happened before.

Reni Eddo-Lodge: For me, personally, this year has been weird, because although Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race reached a wider audience than ever before, I’ve seen even less of my readers than usual, because none of us have been out and about at literary events. And I’m not bumping into readers on the tube, which I always seemed to do!

BE: Absolutely. I feel quite sad for the debut writers, actually, because they’re not meeting other writers or their readers in person.

RE-L: I miss having those conversations with readers. Just hearing their critiques, you know, it doesn’t always land the same way when you read it over text, and those conversations expand my thinking.

BE: You know, your book came out in 2017. The fact you had so many interviews and interest is so amazing. When I think back to 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. It was really only in the 90s that a number of black women started getting publishing deals in this country. And those women came into a climate where there was very little receptivity for their work. So much has changed now. The industry cannot get enough of black British creativity.

RE-L: That’s a good point. Because, honestly, this is my first book, and I don’t have any experience to compare it to.

BE: If your book had been published 10 years ago, it probably would have been an academic publisher that picked it up.

RE-L: I don’t even think I’d have got the deal, to be honest with you.

BE: There’s a phrase, isn’t there? Luck is the meeting of opportunity and preparation. Obviously, we were very well-received. But to break through in a big way, you need more than that. I realised years ago that I needed to win a big prize for things to shift for me in my career. And then, lo and behold, I won the Booker, and everything shifted. As this year has progressed, I’ve realised how powerful the Booker is. I knew it was a career-changer, of course, but I didn’t realise how much it would alter my access to the market, readers and perceptions of me as a writer.

Reni Eddo-Lodge … ‘I graduated into a recession and I had nothing to lose.’
Reni Eddo-Lodge … ‘I graduated into a recession and I had nothing to lose.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

RE-L: My question is: what are the structural conditions for writers to be able to come forward? Because, you know, I graduated into a recession and I had nothing to lose. I was applying for jobs and not getting them. Internships were unpaid. Maybe if I’d been able to go into a comfortable job, post-graduation, and build up savings, I’d never have found activism because I’d have been contented. When I came to write my book, I could be as radical as I wanted to because I didn’t have anything to lose.

BE: You know, it was the same for me in 1982 when I left drama school. We formed the Theatre of Black Women because there were no other options for us. Theatre companies did not hire people of colour. And we’ve been in the dark, trying to honour our creativity ever since. And, you know, in terms of the macro issues we need to deal with, that begins in schools, right? Let’s talk about the education system, about what children are given to read at school, about whether they’re nurtured or not. Let’s talk about systemic racism in the arts. Let’s talk about why there are so few black female professors. What do you think?

RE-L: I feel nowadays there’s all this discussion about why young people are so leftwing. And I’ve always thought: don’t you have to have capital to be a capitalist? And now we’re in an environment where people are questioning everything. It’s not a coincidence that nonfiction is doing so well at the moment. People are looking for information to make sense of the world, and they’re starting to question the unfairness of it. When I was younger, I felt: even if I do assimilate, things are not going to be fair, so eff assimilation. I know that “fair” feels like a really juvenile way to discuss inequality …

BE: I think we have to acknowledge there has been progress. My dad came to the UK from Nigeria in 1949. Back then, people could say what they liked and get away with it. Now, a lot of institutions are soul-searching. Of course, we saw performative ally-ship over the summer. But there were also serious conversations being held, especially with the Black Writers’ Guild, which formed in July this year. We’re going to be monitoring progress, and making sure that the publishing industry delivers on its promises. And part of that means that publishers aren’t just commissioning books about racism from writers of colour. Often, that’s what publishers expect, certainly with nonfiction books. We have to be careful that the industry doesn’t pigeonhole black writers and say: “This is the only thing you can write about: racism. That’s your subject. That’s the box we’re going to put you in.”

RE-L: Definitely. People should be unapologetically themselves. I don’t think any writer should position themselves where the money is, too. When I wrote Why I’m … I pursued what I wanted to write about, which was racism. I didn’t feel pigeonholed: you’re black so you must worry about race. In journalism, there is often this debate about whether black people should write about race, and I think that black people should write about whatever they want to write about. You have to follow your passion, not what you think will be commercially successful – otherwise I would have written a commercial thriller, which I guess would have been fun, but it’s not very me.

Bernardine Evaristo … ‘Novelists write because they want to create stories and characters and magic.’
Bernardine Evaristo … ‘Novelists write because they want to create stories and characters and magic.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

BE: I think if I’d tried to follow the path to commercial success, I wouldn’t have written any of the books I’d written. Same as yours, Reni. Why I’m … was not seen as a commercial success, until it became a commercial success. Girl, Woman, Other was not seen as a commercial success until it was a commercial success. People need to write what’s in their hearts.

RE-L: If you want to make money, don’t become a writer! I also feel that an industry or wider public that feels that any writing about black life is there to educate the white public … the entitlement! The arrogance of it! I’m sick of it. Not everything’s for you. Maybe we’re doing this work to be creative in the same way that Dickens was. We don’t read Dickens or Yeats or Sylvia Plath and think: wow this taught me so much about the white community. I accept that Why I’m … is a learning resource, but that’s not why I wrote it. Why I’m … was, for me, a self-expression.

BE: I’m going to disagree with you! It is educational.

RE-L: I accept that!

BE: It’s not why you wrote it. You needed to get it off your chest and explore it. But when you go through Why I’m … it is a 101 into racism. With fiction, it can be educational for some people. But that’s not the point of it. We don’t write to educate people. Novelists write because they want to create stories and characters and magic.

RE-L: Absolutely. If publishers start publishing black writers’ work in service of white self-help, it’s a huge disservice to black [writers’] creativity.

BE: For me the most important thing is that black and Asian writers write across the board. Every genre, from literature to cookery to gardening books to thrillers.

RE-L: I keep coming back to what we discussed earlier: our works weren’t commercial successes until they were. And for anyone coming up who is not white and is trying to write: listen to that! If we’re in this time when things that weren’t considered possible commercial successes in publishing are commercial successes, for any writer that has to be freeing. It’s like: wow, I can write about anything I want.