Tag Archives: Bernardine Evaristo

Not smelling us

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.

Kazuo Ishiguro – wanting to go electric and get booed, just like Dylan

He’s got his grey world of hitchhikers, possibly stuck off the M5, on a roundabout in Cumbria. But there is no plot. Yet.

I suspect that geographically the above doesn’t make any sense, but who cares? This is Kazuo Ishiguro who made up his own Japan as a child, based on what his mother told him, the comics his grandparents sent, and sheer speculation. It had little bearing on the real place, which he left at the age of five.

This makes a lot of sense to someone who knows what it’s like to belong in two places where you don’t necessarily belong. He was 20 when he realised this Japan perhaps didn’t exist, and by leaving it alone, it has faded away. It gave him a sense of liberation when by his third novel there was no Japan in it.

Tuesday evening’s Guardian event with Kazuo talking to Alex Clark, and with thousands of us listening in, was the first in a virtual book tour to launch Klara and the Sun, his new book. He promised to give us all the best stuff.

Although, there wasn’t as much about the new novel, about AI friends for lonely teenagers, as you might expect. There was so much else to talk about. Kazuo’s daughter Naomi had prevented him from making this a children’s book, saying they’d be traumatised. It is now a much more optimistic novel for adults…

Kazuo likes testing new genres, a bit like we might try some new food. He also reckons he could easily move the plots of his books into other settings, should he be legally required to do so.

Alex Clark called him bonkers, then apologised, but Kazuo said ‘bonkers is good’ and ‘I am not a professional writer, but quite limited in what I do’. He meant he can only write what he can write. And with a Nobel prize behind him, that writing isn’t all that bad.

The organisers had planted famous people, like Bernardine Evaristo, to ask particularly good questions. His pal David Mitchell wondered about the frequent mentions of Worcestershire, which appear to be some kind of cameos, coming from a hotel stay in Minneapolis.

Emma Thompson wanted to know whether films of books can reach the depths the books do, and it seems that if she writes the script, they can. She sported pandemic hair, and had also had time to paint her walls the same colour as her jumper. Kazuo did point out, though, that an actor only ever has to learn to be one character in a book, whereas the author needs to know everything.

Kazuo always knows the endings of his books; he knows where he has to land. ‘You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say’.

He refused to commit to an opinion of how the pandemic might influence his writing. It is too early and too many people have died. It would feel wrong to escape into his world, ‘where my work sits in the word’. He has many great worlds with no story, and great titles without a story to go with it. The worlds and settings in his head wait for ‘the play’ to come.

You will not be surprised to learn that the event overran. But that’s what you get from an author who dares to presume he knows about butlers, giving his readers an ultra-English novel, even mishandling the port. Foreigners, eh?