with Bernardine Evaristo
BERNARDINE EVARISTO INTERVIEWED
BY KAREN MCCARTHY
debut novel Lara — an epic ancestral odyssey that tells the
of a Nigerian-Irish mixed-race girl growing up in 1970s Britain — was
in 1997 to widespread critical acclaim. It established Evaristo
a luminous new talent and a writer who has stretched the linguistic
of the novel form to great effect. She won the EMMA Best Book of
the Year Award in 1999, and it was also a book of the year for The
Daily Telegraph and The New Statesman. Her new book,
is also a novel in verse and it confirms her reputation as one of
most distinctive, witty and original poetic voices. The Emperor's
is set in Roman London, AD 211 — "a city of slum tenements and
villas, of orgy queens, drag queens and drama queens. A city
the currency is often sex, where children go to work aged five and
is a career move." Karen McCarthy, the editor of Bittersweet:
Black Women's Contemporary Poetry talks to her about the writing
Zuleika the book's feisty heroine, and how The Emperor's Babe
Babe is set in Roman
some 1800 years ago. What made you choose this period in
in a sense. I was writer in residence at the Museum of London in
1999, a museum devoted to the history of London. I wanted to
some poems about London's black history then I found the Roman
which are a recreation of Roman London: rooms, shops, etc, and felt
to write about this period. I created a character, Zuleika, wrote
one poem imagining her life, and it eventually turned into a 250 page
a fantastic carnival of characters that people the city, including
its heroine, whose parents are Sudanese shopkeepers. Is the
you describe anything like it is now in terms of cultural
never know how multicultural Londinium really was, but it was a busy
city, and we all know about port cities. It would have been
by people from the Roman Empire — but how multiracial it was, who knows?
Empire stretched over 9000 kilometres at its greatest extent, including
North Africa, the near east and they traded with Asia, and the Romans
excellent roads and means of transportation. Rome itself was very
multicultural with people from all over the empire living
there. To date, the earliest evidence of Africans living in
is the legion of Moors who were stationed at Hadrian's Wall in the
at the beginning of the 3rd Century AD, which is when The Emperor's
Babe is set.
has always been multicultural, and to a greater or lesser extent,
certainly from the 16th Century when there were significant Black
in the country. So, in one sense, The Emperor's Babe is a
dig at those Brits who still harbour ridiculous notions of "racial"
and the glory days of Britain as an all-white nation.
today London is incredibly multicultural, with over 300 languages
in the Greater London area alone.
many fantastic feasts and potions — from "powdered mouse brains" and
flamingo tongue" to "bear cutlets" and "fried jellyfish." I was
as to whether the Romans actually ate food like this?
It's all true!
of 11, Zuleika is spotted at the baths by a powerful senator, who is,
she puts it, "thrice her age and thrice her girth." Zuleika rails
against the marriage internally, but knows she has no choice. How
true to life is her story for a girl at that time?
Girls were married off at around that age and of course they had no say
in the matter. In that sense, Zuleika's story is very similar to
the situation for many girls in parts of the world today.
did you find that as a character Zuleika claimed her own voice?
told in Zuleika's voice, with other characters' voices coming in
her, and with dialogue. She introduces herself in the prologue as
this feisty, passionate, slightly bitchy, slightly petulant, drama
and through the book we discover all the nuances of her
I think that characters do claim their own voices, at least in my
With Zuleika I imagined what sort of person she was in terms of family
background, age, etc., and I remember thinking that I wanted her to be
strong. Then I started writing and the character came through the
act of writing. Thatâs why writing is magic! I didn't
beforehand and think that Zuleika will be feisty, bitchy, etc.
most important thing for me was to give myself the freedom to take
with character and language and hope that it would work.
to write a love story, or was Zuleika's affair with the Emperor Severus
something that developed in a similar manner?
include Severus in the story because he was from Africa, the country we
now know as Libya, and he was Roman Emperor for over forty years, which
was no mean feat; and he had been ridiculed when he first arrived in
because of his thick African accent. From surviving images he
North African/Arabic. Once I'd made this decision to include him,
I needed to find a way to engage him in Zuleika's life, and a love
seemed the most rich for exploitation.
husband Felix buys her two Scottish women as slaves and I was
in the way Zuleika reacts to them. What struck me is how rarely we read
about slavery as something that occurred outside of the black/white
first began to write The Emperor's Babe people assumed Zuleika
a slave, simply because most people associate the presence of African
in the west, in the distant past, with the slave route. I wanted
to turn this on its head. The Romans enslaved across the board,
wasn't based on skin colour or race. Zuleika, as a rich married
would have had slaves that she would have treated according to the
of the time. What she finds difficult to take on board is the
that they are suffering because of their position as slaves.
rather not dwell on their pain as her own is at times so
relationship between historical accuracy and story in literature is
Did you find that difficult to negotiate as a writer, or did the story
win out every time?
true to say that I stay faithful to history in terms of how the Romans
lived, their occupations and general lifestyles. What I then do
this is to play with history and use my imagination. The novel is
full of anachronisms, which help create the humour whilst also drawing
attention to comparisons with today's society. For example, the
did love to give recitals of their poems and other works, they did have
parties for this, and sometimes people would go on for five
So the performance poetry scene that I describe is simply taking
with what really happened. It wasn't difficult to negotiate
and the story; in fact it was tremendous fun to spin history and
into the air and to see what happened to it.
to create a very contemporary feel to this ancient world. I think
one of the effects this has is to make this period far more live and
Do you think we need to be less "precious" about history in some
recorded by those with the power to do so. Fact. There are
always different versions of the "truth." I don't feel at all
about British history because I know that so much has gone unrecorded
well as undiscovered. There are many parallels to be made between
Londinium and contemporary Britain/London, and I simply played on this
to make the period more lively and accessible, as well as using
to do this. The language that Zuleika uses is very now, very
The novel is peppered with Latin, Italian, Cockney-rhyming slang,
American slang, pidgin Scots-Latin, and in the case of Severus, broken
English. Using language in this way greatly aids characterisation
as well as making the text dynamic. No, the Romans didn't speak
all of these vernaculars or languages, but it enriches the story for me
to do so. And we mustn't forget that the English language itself
is a hybrid of several other languages, so I'm just continuing the
that poetry in the novel form becomes more accessible to people who
normally read poetry?
few novels-in-verse and they are all so different in terms of form that
it's hard to generalise. Some are accessible, others so clogged
and dull that they give the form a bad name. Certainly one of the
attractions of Lara and The Emperor's Babe is that lots
people have read it who wouldnât be seen dead near a poetry
and have not only lived to tell the tale but enjoyed it. The
to remember is that accessible writing need not be simplistic or any
sophisticated than more obscure, denser work. While my books are
accessible on one level, they are also complex and layered; there are
references and allusions to plummet.
two highly, successful novels in verse, Lara and The
Babe. What attracted you to that particular form?
of sounding crass, the form found me. I first wrote Lara
a prose novel that was two hundred pages worth of uninspiring
So, after three years of struggle I chucked it in the
bin and then re-wrote the story using poetry, eventually recognising it
as a novel-in-verse. As soon as I switched to poetry, the text
alive. With The Emperor's Babe, it began life as a single
poem, which became, interestingly enough, the epilogue of the
Then I built it up to a sequence of poems, and, because the story
let me go, expanded into a novel-in-verse. My forthcoming novel
in prose, but it began life as a novel-in-verse, then it was a prose
then a novel-in verse again, and finally now a prose novel.
novel, with some very poetic elements, that involves a car journey
Europe in 1988 alongside a journey into European history going back
have influenced your work?
have inspired me over the years, sometimes with just one book such as
or Okri's Famished Road, and at other times with their entire
such as Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott.
that come to mind: Gloria Naylor. John Updike. Dylan
Tennyson. Yeats. Keri Hulme. Ann Michaels.
Ishiguro. Alice Walker. James Baldwin. Kamau
Patrick Chamoiseau. Ben Okri. Bessie Head. Michelle
Patrick Suskund. William Kennedy. Keri Sakamoto. S.I.
Martin. Matthew Kneale. Albert Camus.
Bertold Brecht. Louis de Berniere.
one book or one poem that has changed your life, could you name
is no one book. It's not just writers who influence me as a
writer — I am influenced by all the art forms, especially music, as
well as the
small and big screen.
moment when you made a conscious decision to be a writer and a
through writing for theatre originally. I do remember making a
decision to get published, and several years later I made a decision to
earn my living from my writing, which is what I do now.