Doris is a white, slim, blue-eyed slave with long blond hair, snatched as a child from the English countryside and sold to the very rich black owners of a plantation. Blonde Roots recounts her search for freedom in a world dominated by violence and oppression. A dystopian novel that tells of slavery with reverse colours, that shatters our imagination and paradoxically reinforces it.
Bernardine Evaristo's Italian tour reached Venice, where she was a guest of Ca' Foscari in the Writers in Conversation series (linked to Incroci di civiltà). Evaristo was in dialogue with Shaul Bassi in a fully-booked Auditorium Santa Margherita.
How does it feel when a book takes on a second life in another language?
Blonde Roots takes us into a world turned upside-down, in which “Blaks” enslave “Whytes” (nehri and bianki in Martina Testa's equally modified Italian translation). I am curious to find out what people think of it here in Italy. It is a female-focused story in which I wanted to subvert the idea of slavery.
As of 2019, I have been translated into 66 languages and it is nice to know that I can be read by many more people in their mother tongues, in their own country. For Blond Roots is almost a dream come true, even after so many years.
Now for a peek into the writer's workshop: how did you build your book? Did you have everything in mind from the start, or did it take shape as you went along?
I was aware that I was dealing with a subject in an entirely new way. I knew that I wanted to offer many issues for consideration: religion, marriage, housing, hair. (In this distorted world there are also whyte hairdressers, forced to style hair with fine combs such as those used for afro hair). The aim was to tell a path to freedom, rugged and uneven as it may turn out to be. The slave owner is an African chief, and one section of the book is dedicated to him, and to his point of view. He explains why he thinks slavery is just and morally acceptable, indeed almost salvific. And I have not invented anything: that part is based on documents and primary sources from the archives of 18th century slaveholders that I found at the University of London.
“I have to admit”, says Shaul Bassi, “that I had a hard time imagining Doris as white. The imagery associated with slavery and oppression of blacks is very strong. But with this reversal, isn't there the danger of falling into another easy stereotype, that of 'violent blacks'?”
Let's say that when you read the book you understand that I am telling the story as it really happened, only with the characters reversed. We British have 200 years of slavery history behind us, and readers have a good understanding of the upside-down narrative. Only once at a presentation did a black man say to me, "You took our history away from us and gave it to the whites!" I then asked him, "Have you read the book?" and he candidly answered: "No."
In 2019 Evaristo won the Booker Prize with Girl, Woman, Other, ex aequo with Margaret Atwood. She was the first black woman to receive Britain's most prestigious literary award. Since then, the book has been a huge success and became a worldwide sensation, triggering profound emotions and captivating readers.
The most banal question of all: did success come as a surprise?
I obviously did not expect this much success. Girl, Woman, Other is my eighth book, it took me six years to write it, starting in 2014. In the meantime, we saw the rise of two important movements: the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. I realised that public awareness could change, that our societies could be awakened. Thanks to these two movements, black women began to be visible and to be considered interesting. Until then just we were not important enough, and that is why I wanted to include all these characters. I wanted us all to have a role in literature and culture. It must also be said that I finished the book at a time when social media was having a positive, global impact: thanks to Twitter, conversations were opened worldwide, opinions were exchanged and links were created between black women. But the Booker Prize, I believe, was instrumental in this explosive success: people started talking about women and about black women. This opened the door to all the topics covered in the book.
Let's go back to the writer's workshop: were all the twelve protagonists there from the beginning, with their mutual relationships? Did you do some fieldwork to observe the different places and contexts that you described with such acumen and precision?
The book developed organically. I wanted to talk about many stories: a thousand at first, then a hundred, then I thought it was ridiculous. I ended up writing about twelve characters. I didn't start out with a list. The first character that took shape was Carole, then her mother Bummi, then LaTisha.
But I could not start with Carole and her trauma, because I was afraid that it would set the wrong tone for the book, which is not and does not want to be a book about victims. The opening tone is crucial, and I wanted it to be clear from the outset that the book is about many issues: family, relationships, racism, sex, gender. I decided to open the story with Amma, who is elderly, queer, and involved with art and theatre. A new kind of character, perfect to start with.
I grew up in a family of four brothers and three sisters, and it wasn't until I was 19 that I became involved with black women communities, because I lived in a white neighbourhood. I started doing theatre with people from the Caribbean, and I have four girlfriends that introduced me to black sisterhood. I did a lot research to secure as much authenticity as possible. I met a lot of businesswomen, women artists and teachers, I read extensively about farming in northern England. I studied a lot before I could write about the non-binary protagonist, because I didn't know what the feeling of not belonging to any gender was. This book is based on the research I have done. I am a listener and a keen observer of the world around me, and this has been essential in constructing my fiction.
Amma owes something to me as a young woman. Penelope is inspired by a real person, a co-worker that I didn't like at all. I spent a lot of time trying to make her likeable and removing my own judgement from the character, to make her more human. Yazz is very funny. I am not a mother, but I know a lot of mothers and daughters and for her character I drew on my experiences of how such relationships work. I am 64 years old and I have sharp memories of how it felt being different ages: this was very useful while constructing my characters.
Besides being a great writer, you are also an extraordinary cultural activist. Do you have any advice to make us more aware of our past and of the beauty that variety and diversity bring to our present?
Awareness is the outcome of a long process, just as facing our past is a necessary challenge. Knowledge of the grey areas of the past, in particular, is essential for awareness. We must consider our colonial past if we want to understand the present. Denying it does not help, because we must be conscious of our history and remember at all times that history is shaped by whoever tells it. Our history was predominantly told by men, by white colonisers, while stories told by women, workers and slaves were mainly lost. To fill this gap we can turn to history, geography, sociology. In the art world, and in the cultural world in general, many have taken it upon themselves to build on this awareness to explore and interpret society. Everyone can play a role in narrating the past: academics, of course, but also people working in films, radio, songwriting and music. Everything that concurs to heightening our attentions towards the past and awaken our consciousness is of huge import.
Bernardine Evaristo was born in London in 1959 to an English mother and Nigerian father, the fourth of eight children. She is the author of novels, plays and essays, and has always campaigned for the inclusion and visibility of black artists. Girl, Woman, Other was the first book by a black woman to top the British paperback fiction chart.
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