In My Own Words: Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo by Katie VandyckMy first prose novel is called Blonde Roots (Riverhead USA 2009) and in it I turn the transatlantic slave trade on its head and create a world where Africans enslave Europeans. My protagonist, Doris, is kidnapped as a child from the Cabbage Coast of England and enslaved in the West Japanese Islands. As an adult she is moved to the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa where she becomes the personal assistant of her formidable master, Bwana, a.k.a. Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I. The novel is about her desire and attempt to escape slavery and return to the Motherland – England.

As a writer I always want to do things differently, to stay true to a creative impulse that wants to re-create and re-imagine the world from unexpected viewpoints. I want to push the boundaries, to venture into new and sometimes precarious territory. I have previously written verse novels, one of which, The Emperor’s Babe is about a black girl growing up in Roman London. I was astonished to discover in my twenties that African soldiers had been stationed in the north of Britain during the Roman occupation 1800 years ago. I just had to write about it.

When I sat down to write about the slave trade in 2005, I wracked my brains about how I could do this in a way that enabled people to see it afresh. I really didn’t want to write the kind of novel about slavery where the reader knows where they are going emotionally and morally. I didn’t want to be predictable because there’s a safeness to that, a familiarity, that reaffirms what we know rather than leading us into new terrain. I had long been aware that the slave trade is a subject that elicits strong responses including anger, defensiveness, resentment, self-righteousness, guilt, sadness. So I decided to ask the question What if? What if the history as we know it is turned on its head and Africans enslave Europeans over a four hundred year period? What if Africans assume the moral and intellectual high ground and notions of savagery and civilisation are inverted? What if Africans see Europeans as depraved, lesser creatures and themselves as superior, more evolved beings? This idea is not without comic potential, so while the novel is a serious re-examination of the transatlantic slave trade, it also lends itself to satire. And while it is in one sense historical, I’ve written it in such a way that it sometimes appears contemporary. The world I’ve created is a parallel universe.

Blonde Roots re-investigates what we accept as the truth of this particular slave history and at the same time references and challenges still-prevailing attitudes towards race in our societies today.

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Bernardine Evaristo was born and raised in London where she still lives. Blonde Roots is her first prose novel. She has previously fused fiction with poetry in the novels, Soul Tourists (Penguin 05) and The Emperor’s Babe (Penguin 01). Bloodaxe Books will publish a new expanded edition of her verse novel Lara in 2009--the story of her family history with roots in England, Nigeria, Ireland, Brazil, and Germany. In 2007 she co-edited the Granta new writing anthology NW15. She has received several awards, her books have been a Book of the Year nine times for national newspapers and publications, and she is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts. For more information, please visit her website: www.bevaristo.net or her blog: www.bevaristo.wordpress.com.

Photo: Bernardine Evaristo by Katie Vandyck

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