Award-winning author Bernardine Evaristo has been appointed as the first ever Woolwich Laureate. The year-long residency is part of a three-year cultural destinations programme rolled out by Visit Greenwich the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust and Festival.org, writes Laura Burgoine…
As part of this role, Bernardine is investigating the story of Woolwich at a key moment of change in its history, drawing on the inspiration of the people she meets and the day to day life of the historic riverside community.
“I’m the first lady of Woolwich,” Bernardine laughed. “I’ll spend a lot of time there and visit community groups, which I’ve already started to do.”
Born in Eltham and raised in Woolwich, Bernardine is the author of eight books of fiction and verse fiction exploring aspects of the African diaspora: past, present, real and imagined. Her latest novel Girl, Woman, Other is a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood.
As part of the residency, Bernardine is writing a Woolwich narrative, likely in the form of a long poem.
“I was born in Eltham and lived in Woolwich until I was 18 then I left in 1978 and lived all over London: Kilburn, Brixton, Notting Hill, Islington, Brockley, New Cross,” she said. “I have family living in the area; my mother lives in Thamesmead, my father was in Abbey Wood. Our family history in this area goes back to the 1860s.”
Bernardine’s father, who passed away in 2001, was from Nigeria and her mother is British. Her great-great-grandfather came to Woolwich from Germany in 1860 and opened up a master bakery. He lived by the docks and died in 1920 in Plumstead. Bernardine’s mother’s side of the family worked in the arsenal during the 19th century.
“My family was in Woolwich in the ‘60s and back then people said “go back home” but we had deep roots in the area,” Bernardine said. “My father was the only Nigerian in the village, and all these years later, Woolwich is an incredibly diverse area. There are lots of Nigerians.”
Bernardine studied at Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Sidcup while her introduction to the arts was at Greenwich Young People’s Theatre. “I spent weekends there from age 12 to 18 at drama groups,” she said. “GLYPT is still in existence. It’s expanded and grown.”
Girl, Woman, Other is the author’s eighth novel. “It’s about twelve different, mainly Black British, women, from a 19-year-old university student to a 94-year-old farmer in Northumberland. It spans different ages and cultures. Some characters are mixed race, some have roots in Africa or the Caribbean. They represent different parts of the country, different sexualities, and occupations. I wanted to explore a wider range of black British womanhood than we get to see,” she said.
Five years in the making, the stories segue into each other. The author calls her style fusion fiction. “The text is shaped on the page. My work is on the experimental side, very free flowing.”
Having first been published in 2001, Bernardine is a literary veteran. “I’m proud to still be publishing,” she said. “A lot of people come and go for many reasons. We need more British black voices and we need people who have published a body of work. We also need older writers because younger writers tend not to write older characters,” she continued. “Mr Loverman [the titular character of Bernardine’s 2013 novel] was 74 year old, a closet homosexual. When I was writing I thought no one writes this.”
Bernardine makes her career work by “juggling lots of things and compartmentalising every one of them.”
“It’s all day every day with lots of breaks,” she said. “I start work very early, around 5am or 6am. I’ll exercise, I also teach. And you have to have a life. At nine o’clock I’ll switch on the telly and watch something. I think it’s important to decompress.”
As Woolwich laureate, Bernardine will naturally be spending lots of time visiting the library. “People feel passionate about the area and want to look after their neighbourhood and they do that through libraries and cultural centres,” she said. “It’s wonderful even though it’s an area that isn’t a wealthy area, people are looking after each other.”
“There’s a grassroots culture that exists all over this country.”
Girl, Woman, Other is out on 2 May.
Photo: Jennie Scott