October 27, 2019 / 7:30 AM / 23 days ago

Booker Prize winner Evaristo hopes to build ties with African and British readers

LAGOS (Reuters) - Author Bernardine Evaristo hopes her Booker Prize-winning novel will help to alter perceptions of black British people among African readers and Britons she sees as grappling with heightened racial tension.

In an interview with Reuters on Saturday at the Ake literary festival in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, she also said she was in talks over the rights for film and theatre adaptations of “Girl, Woman, Other”.

The 60-year-old author, who described winning the Booker Prize for her eighth work of fiction as “life-changing”, split the 50,000 pounds ($62,800) annual prize with Margaret Atwood, author of “The Testaments”, in a surprise double award earlier this month by the judging panel.

Of Nigerian and British parentage, Evaristo was the first black woman to win the prize, which honours “the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK and Ireland”.

The book tells the stories of 12 characters living in Britain who are mainly female and black, aged between 19 and 93, and with a variety of sexual orientations.

“For people on the continent who don’t necessarily have access to British society I would think a book like ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ would give them insights into the multiplicity of experiences that we have in the UK,” said Evaristo.

The author, who lives in Britain and whose father was raised in Lagos and left Nigeria for Britain in 1949, said she participated in the annual Ake festival because it was important to “bridge the gap” between people in Africa and its diaspora.

The author - on her fourth visit to Nigeria - said she hoped her work would do the same in Britain, where she said she felt the debate surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union had led to an increase in “street level bigotry”.

“Literature speaks to our humanity and hopefully that’s what this book is doing, so hopefully it is helping people understand and create empathy about people they aren’t necessarily coming into contact with,” she said.

Aside from the political backdrop, Evaristo said she felt it was important for the book to be recognised because of the shortage of published literature either by, or about, black women in Britain.

“We need to see ourselves reflected in the society we’re living in. The fact that I have to draw attention to the fact that we are pretty absent from literature is a real problem because I think a lot of people don’t notice that,” she said.

The stories of the 12 characters featured in the book may yet reach an even broader audience.

Evaristo said discussions were “pretty far along” regarding film and theatre rights, both of which began when the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Talks over the film rights were with a UK production house, said the author. “Netflix hasn’t come calling yet,” she added, laughing.

“I think this would be great in the theatre. Twelve women on stage would be amazing,” added Evaristo, a former actor who co-founded a theatre company in the 1980s.

Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo speaks at the Ake literary festival, in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, Nigeria October 26, 2019. Picture taken October 26, 2019. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

“I wouldn’t want to run it or write it. The company who took it would take care of the writing. I might work with the writer but not writing it myself,” she added.

While the prize has been jointly awarded twice previously, the rules changed in 1993 limiting the award to one author. The judges defied those rules this year, saying they could not agree on a winner between the books by Evaristo and Atwood.

“I’m just happy to get the Booker Prize. I’m happy to share it with Margaret Atwood. It’s all good,” Evaristo told the audience during a panel discussion at the Ake festival, with a smile. 

Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Frances Kerry

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