Bernadine Evaristo talks racism, power dynamics and cultural appropriation
The tent in Mantua’s Piazza Castello was as packed as it could be in the age of Covid. At the front, a giant screen where Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo, streamed from her home in London, talked to Italian author, podcaster and feminist Michela Murgia.
The interviewer remarked on the difficult job of translating Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other into Italian. The completely original syntactic construction, distinctive rhythm, and careful attention to the appearance of the sentences on the page, make it almost untranslatable. Was this a conscious effort to create dissonance for the reader?
Her style is the result of decades of experimentation, Evaristo explained. She considers it ‘fusion fiction’, and it is rooted in her early work in theatre, where she wrote verse dramas. In poetry, you are allowed to play with syntax and punctuation, and over time her style evolved into a free-flowing waterfall of prose which soon drags you into its vortex.
Girl, Woman, Other takes characters from social groups that are often considered ‘other’ and puts them at centre stage. The twelve women the book follows are all black, and all different from one another: powerful, successful, migrant, queer, working class, older. Categorisation is important, said Evaristo; we have to identify and deconstruct problems before we can address them. “To tackle racism, we have to acknowledge that black people have been disadvantaged in white societies.”
Murgia commented that cultural appropriation is common in Italy. Where does solidarity end, and appropriation begin? Evaristo finds the concept problematic, because it is rooted in the basis that culture can be owned. Instead, culture is nebulous, constantly transforming in response to global influences. Modern British society is a result of millennia of migration from many different places. We need to find a different way to discuss the issue.
“I appropriate all the time,” said the author. “The stories and cultures I write about are not my own.”