Never Forgetting The Source
Bernardine Evaristo makes productive use of history
By Toh Hsien Min
Bernardine Evaristo is the author of two critically acclaimed novels-in-verse, Lara (1997), a colourful tapestry of the cultural history of a mixed-race Nigerian/English/Irish girl and her family, and The Emperor’s Babe (2001), a story about a Nubian girl in 211AD London who catches the eye of the visiting Roman emperor. Lara won the Emma Best Novel Award in 1999, and also garnered Book of the Year awards from the Daily Telegraph and New Statesman. The Emperor’s Babe was a Book of the Year for The Times, Independent, Daily Telegraph, Independent on Sunday and Irish Sunday Independent. Her writing has also been published widely in journals, newspapers and anthologies, and she has written for radio, theatre and multi-media. She was the Poetry Society’s Poet-in-Residence at the Museum of London in 1999, Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Course in 2002, and Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. Since this interview, she has won a Fellowship from the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts. During her recent visit to Singapore for the Singapore Writer’s Festival, Toh Hsien Min met with her at the Botanic Gardens.
THM: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s begin with something that I think we’re both enthusiastic about: why the verse novel?
BE: The form always finds me, in a sense. Lara began as a prose novel of 200 pages, which, after three years of struggle, didn’t work at all. I then transformed the story into poetry and it really took off. The poetry version took another two years. I didn’t use a single sentence from the prose version, which says something about how flat the language was. I loved the process of writing Lara as poetry, the compression and distillation, the crystallisation, poetic monologues, the abundant use of imagery. The Emperor’s Babe began life as a single poem, written in my voice and imagining this black Roman character. This poem ended up in the book as the epilogue (with changes). The character of Zuleika, then called Claudia, took hold of my imagination, and I then wrote some more poems in her voice and the rest, as they say, is history. It ended up as a 250 page novel in verse. So there you go – the novel-in-verse form always finds me and I love it: the hybridity, the fusion of form, marrying the best of poetry with fiction, finding a different way to approach story.
THM: It’s interesting to learn that Lara started out as a prose novel, because one of the books it reminded me of was Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia. It’s true that who we are is a function of where we - and our ancestors - have been, but it still has to be beautifully said. In that respect, Lara ranges over time and place, like a Dickensian great shadow. How fundamental is this odd structure, this recursive flow to past and forward to not the present but more recent pasts and back again, to your project in Lara?
BE: I cannot help but give my characters’ history because in so doing I am giving them psychological roots, as well as indulging my obsession with the past and how it impacts on the present. It’s interesting you mention Allende because I enjoyed her earlier books although I haven’t read her recently. Lara was created as a series of units, chapters; each one encapsulated a time, a place and a particular character or characters, and ran for about ten pages.
I like this building block approach, which wasn’t sequential in the writing of it and the chapters were moved around like a jigsaw in the final editing. I am always astonished that writers can successfully create fully-fledged characters without their histories being divulged, sometimes not at all.
You mention it as an odd structure but it slots into the novel-in-verse format, which allows such liberties. Prose novelists often segue the past with the present, often quite seamlessly, often within the body of the text so that the reader is shuttling back and forth in any one chapter. In Lara the shifts are more marked and it allows me to incorporate a wide swathe of history within the story.
THM: Yes, perhaps some of the shifts in Lara, for example the co-existence of two points of view within the one poem ‘Tears are for sissies’, are allowable because of the hybrid form. But history on its own seems to be very much one of your interests. I’ll say in a bit - if you don’t say it first - why I think The Emperor’s Babe isn’t a historical novel, but you have in your writing a passion for historical flavour, quite apart from what it can impart to your characters. It’s the archaeologist’s instinct, to “sink into rivers of effluvia, / layers of chalk, dark clay and down / into the lithosphere where plates shift / deeper still and subducted into miles / of tectonic crust”. What duty, if any, does a poet and/or novelist owe to history?
BE: All writers are part of a continuum of literature, whether we admit it or not. I recently interviewed my favourite novelist Toni Morrison for a magazine and she cited her main literary influence as Greek drama, which pleased me no end because I too love Greek drama, for example I still re-read Antigone, many years after having studied the play at school. Derek Walcott, my favourite poet, sees himself as writing in a tradition, with an indebtedness to the poetry of the earlier part of the Twentieth Century. Our poetic sensibilities and poetic forms do not spring out of a vacuum but we are growing upwards from very old roots. Now history is yesterday, I choose to go back further because I am driven to find and record hidden histories, but in a sense every poet is making history and is born of history.
THM: Or as the Yoruba proverb you cited in Lara goes, “However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source”, which is curiously similar to a Chinese proverb, “When you drink you must remember the source.” Yet when Zuleika chooses to “make” her “history”, she disses the Aeneid and cries, “What I really want to read and hear / is stuff about us, about now”. Derek Walcott completely renovates the Odyssey. Is there in the heart of every writer also a contempt for history, or even an imperative, of whatever nature, to destroy or make up rather than record history?
BE: China, Yoruba... doesn’t it show we’re all connected? Yes, Zuleika is very disdainful of the Aeneid, which can be read in two ways. On the one hand, she’s rejecting ‘classical’ poetry yet creates pretty awful poetry herself. On the other hand that section is satirizing a belief system about poetry which says that you can only write good poetry if you’ve imbibed the canon that’s gone before, and that good poetry deals with the so-called major themes which, in this case, is all about war and nationhood etc. It’s up to the reader to decide what they think about this.
I disagree that to revisit history is to be contemptuous of it or to want to destroy it. We have to examine what we mean by history, and how the versions of history that has generally been recorded as fact actually leaves out lots of narratives that were not considered important by the makers of history, or which they wanted to bury. What Walcott does with the Odyssey and Omeros is to use myth and story to underpin a narrative set in the Caribbean. Lots of good literature does this, using and filtering myth in a modern setting, or a just a different setting. Now in my case, why is it that 99.9% of people in the UK don’t know that Africans were in Britain in at least the third century A.D.? Their presence is recorded fact, not myth or fantasy. So what I am doing is re-visiting British history, in the case of The Emperor’s Babe, and filling in the gaps. A very productive project, not a destructive one.
THM: I agree that it’s a very productive project, and yes, African presence in early Britain is historical – the discovery of which I owe to you. But The Emperor’s Babe is, unlike Lara, ultimately a contemporary novel, isn’t it? The IT Girl of Londinium speaks to a decidedly fin de millénium audience rather than the historical amateur; it’s “stuff about us, about now” from your perspective as well as Zuleika’s.
BE: Aha, but it’s both, you see. It’s revealing the past through the present and vice versa. I acquired a map of the Roman City (of London, as in the financial district today) which is transposed onto a map of the contemporary City. It’s wonderful because you can see where the Roman City lay, street names, rivers, temples etc. but within the same scheme of the modern City. This is what I wanted to do with the book. A transparent layering, if you like. Much of the book is truly, deeply historical, but I’ve given Zuleika a modern girl’s sensibility and outlook, but not completely. Yes, she wears Versace but yes she’s completely accepting of the notion of owning two personal slaves. Her camp buddy Venus is a transvestite. Again, some Romans liked to cross-dress, but then again, they probably didn’t run drag bars. So it’s this intermingling of periods which hopefully illuminate aspects of both history and modern society. As we’ll never really know the thought processes of those who lived nearly 2000 years ago, it’s a liberty I enjoyed playing around with. But essentially, I do believe The Emperor’s Babe is an historical novel – but one with a difference.
THM: I’d actually been wondering whether it was possible for a St Paul’s Churchyard to exist in 211AD, before Constantine. But my point was rather that the history is almost adornment; the story could have been as easily set in the France of Louis XIV or the Malacca Sultanate of Mansur Shah. I think the layering works, the liberty had to be taken and the energy is there, because it’s much more Candace Bushnell than Tacitus.
BE: The Roman city is almost a character itself in the story. It’s a vibrant, chaotic, overpopulated metropolis with slums and mansions, a society built on wealth and slavery with toilets and bathhouses, running water and central heating; a city where girls are sold off by their fathers and people are mauled to death at the gladiatorial games; a city where women are subjugated and can be killed off at a husband’s whim; it’s a city where the overlong performance of poetry and texts is commonplace, and fashion is considered important. In this sense, it’s very much a city like Rome. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere else with all this historic detail, both broad and everyday. Yes, comparisons can be made with other historical periods in other countries, but that would be true of most fiction. The book can only be compared to Sex and the City in terms of the female friendships and their interaction with each other. By the way, I did a reading and Q&A with her in New York two years ago... but I’m not one to name drop! A strange partnering, to say the least.
THM: That is a nice way of putting it – your cities have personalities. When you describe the Arundel Road leading down to Woolwich common and find the “wild mix of town and country”, one can taste the flavour, and it’s one that different from Liverpool or Londinium or Lagos. Do you find it harder to characterize a city or a person?
BE: I don’t really intend to characterise a city, it just happens in the act of writing because I’m very interested in describing and evoking place. It’s a way in for the reader and a good challenge for the author. Developing characters is much harder. One has to try and create interesting, multi-faceted people through which the stories unfold. Characters have to have depth and dramatic needs (as in a purpose). They obviously need to be distinct from each other, each with his or her own voice, history, idiosyncracies and so on. Most of all, they need to be as flawed as we humans are, and often full of contradictions. The racist Edith in Lara is also deeply religious. Love thy neighbour as onself doesn’t seem to apply, does it? Zuleika is imprisoned within her marriage but is quite happy to imprison her two female slaves. Characters also reveal themselves through the act of writing, which is the magic of the creative process. How a character will develop is not pre-destined, but they unfold when pen is put to paper, as if they’re directing me rather than me waving a wand and playing God.
THM: Yes, Edith is another enthralling character, and I did find the exchange between Ellen and Edith: “But I love him, Mummy.” / “You must love me more!” to be a sharply Christian figuration. Going back to your protagonists though, I found it interesting that both Lara and Zuleika are imaginative in personality though or because both are to differing degrees held back by their circumstances. Was that a structural necessity, or was there a common point you wanted to make?
BE: Actually, at some point I had this idea that I’d write three books and each would feature a different female protagonist who is creative in some way. So Lara is an artist, Zuleika wants to be but ends up a poet and the final character, ah well, you’ll have to wait for my new novel.
THM: I’m on tenterhooks already.
BE: Oh, alright then! She’s called Jessie and she’s an ex-singer/comedienne. And you’re absolutely right, they are all unfulfilled in their ambitions. What can I say? That’s it’s much more interesting for me to write about people who have ambition that is not realised than vice versa? That creative self-expression and making one’s mark on society through the arts is a legitimate preoccupation? Mmm, yes, I’ll say that.
THM: And creative expression is one of your strong suits. The linguistic vitality in The Emperor’s Babe especially is outstanding: daring yet sure. There’s a recognition of how much language, or etymology, we can recognize. For example, we understand “futuo-off” not only by context and construction but by French “foutre”, or “Civis Romana Sum” by taking the sum of its parts, as it were. There’s also the way you insert Mockney, as in “Let me ball-of-chalk you home”, and Scottish accents. In terms of the non-standard English and foreign languages, did you have a set of criteria for what you used and what you didn’t?
BE: Well, the Latin was restricted to what sounded plausible rather than pretentious and to the fact that most people don’t know it, so that most of the Latin used is either self-explanatory, usually because it’s a root-word of English, or translated into the subsequent line. The whole idea is to communicate the story rather than to baffle the reader. In fact using various languages and vernaculars was incredibly entertaining, for myself! I didn’t know if it would work but it happened organically/naturally as I was writing as opposed to an idea I had beforehand which I decided to implement, so it did feel right. Once it started to happen naturally, I felt I could exploit it, such as the Scots-pidgin-Latin spoken by the two slave girls, which is hopefully entirely comprehensible simply from context and character. The Emperor’s Babe is translated into Finnish and Czech, God knows how they did it, but do it they did!
THM: Yep, I’d like to see - and understand - that! In principle, on this particular aspect of the book, it should be simply transposing the element of play into their own languages. Some of the colour stands on its own, though - untranslatable because in a sense untranslated in your original. The bit of flavour that stands out for me is the food imagery – joll of rice, fish fingers and mash, and the sublime Bounty Bar, in Lara, and the exotic foods in The Emperor’s Babe... though if I recall correctly wine history records no known instance of sparkling wine made and consumed before the early modern period. Is food an inspiration?
BE: Food - isn’t it always! Food is an immediate and recognisable technique of evoking time and place, especially when it’s historical, and especially when it’s Roman with their sophisticated and sometimes strange, at least to a Western palette, cuisine. I did notice in Singapore that some of the Chinese food was similar to the Romans’. The meal in the poem ‘Venus Winks at Lover’s Game’ in The E Babe, is also clearly constructed to be a metaphor for flirtation and a prelude to sex. The Romans absolutely did have sparkling wine, and indeed champagne, the latter having recently been discovered, as reported in the ((London)) Times in 2000. But if my use of it had been poetic license, then that would have been okay too. The E Babe plays around with anachronism a lot, but in this case, not.
THM: Ah, there’s still some dispute about what that sparkling wine was. Certainly the clay the Romans used would not have been able to withstand the 6-plus atmospheres of pressure we get in champagne. But no matter, it’s something for the wine historians to sort out, if the champenois marketeers don’t get there first.
BE: But it’s not important to the story or my creativity. We’re writers Hsien, let’s leave archaeological quibble to historians – at the risk of sounding abrupt, but you know your questions have been fab!
THM: Where I was leading with that was marketing: how much input did you have into the marketing of The Emperor’s Babe?
BE: Marketing? I did approve the cover image (UK edition), which was witty and modern and therefore made a novel-in-verse about Roman Britain appealing. Marketing is the publishers’ arena, really. I’ve done a lot of touring, domestic and international, to promote my books. I don’t believe in sitting on my bum and waiting for things to land in my lap. I’ve been very proactive in getting my career off the ground.
THM: That’s a really interesting response. On the one hand you say that marketing is the publishers’ arena, but on the other you say you do go out and market yourself quite actively with your touring and seeking of opportunities. In your experience, do you find, as we do in Singapore, that writers have to spend proportionately so much more of their time working their ground than, say, film-makers, musicians or theatre companies?
BE: Writing is a strange business and I do mean the word business. There’s the creative side and then there’s the business side and one has to engage with the latter, especially in this era of hype and the highly competitive marketplace. Most poets in the UK do quite a lot of domestic touring to earn their bread and butter; this requires administration and an organised mind... hopefully. It’s an accepted fact that the film, theatre and music industries need to promote their products, but the idea of self-marketing, or self-promotion is generally seen as a dirty word within the world of writers. Publishers will promote your latest book, but rarely your entire oeuvre, which may cross into different mediums such as script writing. So it’s up to the individual writer to put him or herself about. And yes, it can be tiring and time-consuming but one has to accept that some degree of promotion is inevitable, and that often it is very rewarding.
THM: Finally, what do you see for the future of the verse novel?
BE: I think it will continue to be explored by the odd writer here and there. There have been a few novels-in-verse published internationally over the past couple of decades and what’s interesting is that each book is so completely different from the other. Each writer uses very different forms of poetry which makes for considerable textual variety, more so than in prose fiction. It would be great if this quirky, hybrid form became the new rock and roll, but then it would lose its inherently unique quality.
THM: Thank you for a fascinating interview!QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004