Bernardine Evaristo Recalls a Life on the Outside

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On Never Giving Up
By Bernardine Evaristo

Growing up in the 1960s in a middle-class white neighborhood in South London, Bernardine Evaristo stood out on multiple fronts. The bricks hurled through her parents’ windows were frequent reminders of their difference as an interracial family (her mother is white English, her father Nigerian). There was also the house itself. The four-story Victorian with unfinished concrete walls and unpolished floorboards was a ramshackle giant among cozy two-story suburbia. Today, she notes, distressed décor is prized in hipster renovations: “Come to think of it, my parents were actually interior design pioneers.”

“Manifesto” is the sturdy, exuberant memoir of a writer who, in pushing herself, also pushed an entire field. Four decades and eight novels into her career, Evaristo became an “overnight success” in 2019, when her polyphonic “Girl, Woman, Other” won the Booker Prize. Her unconventional path is laid out here in breezy prose, as she proselytizes on the stamina, discipline and P.M.A. (positive mental attitude) that counterbalance her “wild, disobedient and daring” nature. A lighter work than her novels, and more straightforwardly told, “Manifesto” is a behind-the-scenes companion text that goes down smoothly.

From the Catholic Mass of her childhood, Evaristo learned early lessons in story structure: “God as the goodie and the devil as the baddie,” with “heaven or hell as our denouement.” As an adult, she rejects traditional encumbrances to her artistic and personal freedom (marriage, mortgages), apartment-hopping from her teens into her 50s, each budget flat awhirl with her poems and play scripts and lovers (“Romantic love. Random sex. Hopeless crushes. Short-lived flings. Proper relationships”). At 25 she falls for “the Mental Dominatrix,” an older woman who soon silences Evaristo with a single glance and suffocates all outside friendships. Evaristo’s remaining embers of artistry glow only at night, after T.M.D. has gone to bed, and fueled by Marlboros and increasing amounts of whiskey. In one terrifying passage, Evaristo scraps her plan to perform at a literary festival: “T.M.D. persuaded me that as she was better at reading my poetry than myself, she should do so, insisting I sit next to her on the stage. I agreed.”

Evaristo admits her complicity in this five-year romantic Alcatraz; “the payoff was to be with someone who was devoted to me, who focused her attention entirely on me.” (Fans of “Girl, Woman, Other” will find echoes of this discomfiting episode in the chapter on Dominique.) When Evaristo finally leaves T.M.D., her innate ambition settles into the firmer resolve of someone who knows what she stands to lose.