“I am first and foremost a writer, the written word is how I process everything—myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication.”
In Manifesto Bernardine Evaristo presents us with a retrospective of her life: from her childhood and family dynamics to discussing her love life and career. Her candid, often humorous, voice grabbed me from the get-go and I found myself speeding through Manifesto. Not only does Evaristo have a knack for bringing various episodes and periods from her past to life but she always pairs these with a piercing and thought-provoking social commentary.
“You feel hated, even though you have done nothing to deserve it, and so you think there is something wrong with you, rather than something wrong with them.”
Manifesto is divided into several sections, each one exploring a different aspect of Evaristo’s life. In the first one, ‘heritage, childhood, family, origins’, Evaristo recounts her experiences of growing up in England in the 60s with a white mother and a Nigerian father. She describes her early encounters with racism, from witnessing the discrimination aimed at her father to the racism she herself experienced at school and in her neighbourhood. Her mother’s side of the family was openly against Evaristo’s parents’ union, some of them refusing to speak to any of them or treating them with open disdain. While Evaristo is critical of their behaviour she does take into account the social mores that people like her grandmother grew up with, and while she doesn’t condone or minimise their behaviour and actions she does acknowledge how hard it is to free oneself of such a deeply ingrained mindset.
“It was an early lesson for me as a child, witnessing how people who are victims of oppression can turn into oppressors themselves.”
In addition to discussing race and racism Evaristo looks at her relationship with her father, and once again demonstrates admirable self-awareness as she considers how when growing up she saw her father as a strict tyrant, whereas now she recognises that his parenting was simply reflective of a different culture. Additionally, she realises how alienating his life in England was (being more or less out-of-touch with his family, to being deemed a second-class citizen, an ‘undesirable’). Evaristo’s account of her father’s experiences in England highlights the racism and discrimination endured by the Windrush generation. I found her exploration of her relationship with her father to be deeply moving and this section, despite its subject matter, was easily my favourite in Manifesto.
In the following section, ‘houses, flats, rooms, homes’, Evaristo looks back to the various spaces she’s lived in since leaving her home. Many of the episodes she recounts are rather humorous, as they feature eccentric housemates & landlords as well as some bizarre living arrangements. This section reminded me of the tales my mother (who is a few years younger than evaristo) used to tell me about her odd living situations in London and Berlin when she was in her 20s. In describing the various rooms she’s lived in Evaristo considers the meaning of ‘home’.
“Writing became a room of my own; writing became my permanent home.”
In ‘the women and men who came and went’ Evaristo gives us a glimpse into her romantic and sexual exploits. In detailing her various partners she speaks about her own sexuality and power dynamics within a relationship. Once again Evaristo demonstrates a great understanding of human behaviour and is unafraid of challenging her old views/ideas. While I loved how open Evaristo is in examining her sexuality and her past and present relationship, I was frustrated by her binary view of sexuality. On the one hand, she says that sexuality is a spectrum and yet she also compares her sexuality to a sandwich (my lesbian identity was the stuffing in a heterosexual sandwich) and speaks of having had a ‘lesbian period’. The thing is, saying that one had a ‘lesbian era’ carries certain implications ( that this period is over, that it was a phase). After a particularly toxic relationship with an older woman Evaristo only actively seeks relationships with men, ‘rediscovering’ them, so to speak. Which, fair enough…but that does negate her previous interest in women? Why only use labels such as straight and lesbian rather than queer, pan, bi (etc etc)? That Evaristo couples her lesbian era with her discovery of feminism and politics is even more…sus (as if it was simply an accessory in her counterculture outfit). FYI, I’m a lesbian and I’m not a fan of people saying that they have had lesbian periods or phases (or people assuming that my own sexuality is a phase and that i will inevitably ‘revert’ to heterosexuality). And given that Evaristo did initially speak of sexuality as a spectrum, well, it makes it even all the more disappointing that she would go on at length to talk about her queerness as an ‘era’. Still, even when discussing her sexuality Evaristo incorporates other issues & factors into the conversation (class, gender, race, politics, age) so that even this section (in spite of its somewhat dated view of sexuality) has an element of intersectionality.
In ‘drama, community, performance, politics’ writes about theatre. While her love for theatre is apparent she’s once again able to be critical, in this case, she highlights how racist and sexist this particular sphere of the art was and still is (from the roles made available to poc to the few opportunities that woc have in comparison to their white, and often male, peers). Evaristo goes on to discuss performativity and rejection. In the fifth chapter, ‘poetry, fiction, verse fiction, fusion fiction’, Evaristo continues to consider her ever-evolving relationship with her creativity, this time focusing on her writing. She gives us a glimpse into the early stages of her writing and provides us with some insight into her creative process. The way Evaristo talks about her work made me want to read it, a great sign I believe. While she now and again expresses some criticism towards her earlier ideas and stories, you can tell how proud she is of what these have achieved. While her experimental style is not something I usually would go for, the way she discusses her ‘fusion’ style is certainly inspiring and interesting. In ‘influences, sources, language, education’ Evaristo talks about the books and authors that influenced her as a writer. She speaks about the importance of representation, of finding one’s voice, and of resilience (in face of rejection etc.). In the final chapter, ‘the self, ambition, transformation, activism’ Evaristo discusses politics, the publishing industry and the academic world (both of which still are very white) and the various prizes and schemes she created or had a hand in creating that seek to elevate Black and Asian writers. There was one paragraph here that was a bit jarring as it starts with “The impact of Geroge Floyd’s murder in May 2020” and ends with “Many plans are afoot to open up. These are exciting times”.
We then have a concussion in which Evaristo gives us a quick recap of what we’ve so far read and briefly writes of the impact of having won the Booker Prize.
All in all, this was a solid piece of nonfiction. My favourite sections were the first one, which focuses on her childhood and family, and the second one. While I did appreciate the other chapters they at times had a textbook-like quality. I also got tired of frequent ‘back in those days’ refrain (we get it, “there was no internet” back then) and at times she explained things that didn’t really necessitate an explanation (again, just because some of your readers are younger than you does not mean that they are ignorant of what came before them). But apart from her occasionally patronising asides, I did find her voice equal parts compelling and incisive. Her wry wit added a layer of enjoyment to my reading experience. This is a work I would certainly recommend to my fellow book lovers, especially those who loved Evaristo’s fiction. I liked Manifesto so much that I have decided to give her Girl, Woman, Other another go (fingers crossed).
ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
my rating: ★★★★☆