Yes, Bernardine Evaristo really did regret not being able to smell us, as well as see us, and hear us, last night at the book festival. The audience was there for her Black Britain, Writing Back event with Judith Bryan, S I Martin and Nicola Williams, but the authors themselves were not.
Bernardine would be my ideal English professor and she can teach me anytime. Although, it seems not how to pronounce incomparable, which she admitted she’d been getting wrong until very recently when her husband pointed it out. She’s the one selecting the ‘black novels’ that are being republished by Hamish Hamilton, after first appearing in the 1990s.
I freely admit to never having heard of the authors she had invited yesterday. All three were interesting and had a lot to say, about themselves and other black authors, why they wrote what they did, and how they got there.
Judith sat in front of a nicely curated bookcase as she talked about her novel Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, and read a short piece from it, about a young couple meeting for the first time after getting to know each other by writing letters (!), after finding each other in a lonely hearts column. The book won her the Saga Prize, and she talked about attending writing classes at City Lit where she met Andrea Levy, among others.
[Steve] S I Martin sticks to writing about black Britain before 1948. He wants to show readers that this country has had black people living here for hundreds of years. His novel Incomparable World is set in the London of 1786, and whereas he’d hoped it would be discovered by black readers, he reckoned it mostly ended up on coffee tables in Hampstead. But that was fine, too. Bernardine said she feels his books would be perfect for becoming films, and Steve said he’s still waiting.
Barrister Nicola Williams wrote her legal thriller Without Prejudice about a black, female barrister, and she did so from midnight to four in the morning every night for nine months. (The audience question was when she slept. Between four and eight, apparently…) Nicola read the bit where her character goes back to her old, failing secondary school to give a talk about her success thanks to the school, but changing it to ‘despite’ her school. This went down well with the students. Nicola’s inspiration was reading John Grisham.
Asked who they grew up reading, the answer was mostly American authors. For closer to home now, two of the authors mentioned Luke Sutherland (from Blairgowrie) as their black Scottish inspiration, and Jackie Kay is much admired. And Judith managed a charmingly muddled senior moment when looking for a name and a place, and finding neither. I’m glad I’m not the only one!
This was another book festival event I most likely wouldn’t have chosen to go to in person in ‘the olden days’. Being able to sit at home and run the mouse down the list of events and picking – almost at random – yields some fantastic experiences. And when reading time becomes plentiful, I know what to look for.