On Thursday, 21 October, two years after her novel Girl, Woman, Other made her the first Black woman ever to win the prestigious Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo returned to Eltham Hill School, the secondary school she attended as a girl, to inspire and engage the current generation of students. It was a touching moment, for the students, teachers and for Bernardine herself: “I have a very deep connection to this school,” she told Penguin.co.uk.
In a Q&A chaired by YouTuber Vee Kativhu that spanned topics like resilience, living creatively, and family history – all of which she covers in her candid new memoir, Manifesto – Bernardine regaled the packed school auditorium with stories from her life: from growing up in Eltham, to making the transition from acting to writing, to publishing her first novel and, finally, feeling like the time was right to publish her manifesto, which she explained to the students as being “a statement of intent about what you might do” – and, in her case, “what I’m about as a creative artist”.
Asked about her memoir’s title, Bernardine also pointed to its implicit second meaning, related to “manifesting”: that is, bringing a hope or vision to life by speaking, acting, and otherwise willing it into existence. Career-wise, she quipped, “it’s something I’ve been doing for about 24 years.”
It was one of many questions the students asked during the second half of the Q&A, in which the teenage audience – who were captivated, quiet, and engaged as Vee and Bernardine chatted in the talk’s first half – burst enthusiastically to life, eagerly waving their hands in an effort to be chosen, pointing to peers who they felt had urgent questions and cheering when they were selected. They asked about how to write books, how to title them, about her career and, in particular, the obstacles that stood in her way; across the afternoon, the theme of Bernardine’s ‘unstoppability’ (as she put it) emerged, and some of the afternoon’s loudest applause came after Bernardine spoke candidly about leaving an abusive relationship.
Which is to say the students were moved. In the school hallways afterward, they swarmed around Bernardine, hoping to get their copies of Girl, Woman, Other and Manifesto – handed out to each student at the Q&A’s end – autographed and to chat with her for even a moment, awed and appreciative that somebody so successful would return to the school.
“I think it really inspires us to feel we can do anything. Seeing that in person makes it really real,” one student excitedly told Penguin.
“It made me gain confidence, and it empowered me, as I’m a Black girl,” said another. “It made me happy that she grew up where I grew up, and has lots of siblings, too.”
Asked what stood out to her most, another student enthused that “It was probably the message to keep on going no matter what obstacles come about. That was a really strong message.”
At the end of the Q&A, Bernardine was presented with an issue of Eltham Hill’s school magazine from 1974, in which a young Bernie had drawn a picture of a suffragette, and in the green room after the event, she spoke about the meaning and importance of events like these.
“The actual act of writing is very solitary, you and a computer,” she said, “but when you go out and do public events, then you're connecting with audiences and your readership. That can be very energizing. And then introducing my work to school children is wonderful – especially Manifesto, and especially this school because I went here.”
Earlier in the day, after a nostalgic tour around the school with the headteacher and head girl, Bernardine met with a handful of A Level English students, where she had an intimate chat about her career and writing. Then, as the main event neared, she lingered in front of the school photographs, pointing to her younger self and reminiscing.
“The girls at the school come from ordinary backgrounds,” she said. “This isn’t a rich area; a lot of them come from immigrant parents. So you see somebody who is perceived to be successful out there in the world, and to know that they come from the same stable in a sense, I think is probably inspiring for them because it closes the gap between what you consider to be success and where you are in your life as a young person – especially as I’m a woman of colour and this is a very diverse school. I’m like one of them.”
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Image at top: Will Fahy for Penguin
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