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Just what was it that turned me into the kind of person who wants to spend thousands upon thousands of hours sitting completely voluntarily at my desk living in a world of make-believe, a career best suited to producing premature typist’s bum, bingo wings and dowager’s hump? I’ll hazard a few guesses and trace some clues back to my childhood. For a start I loved reading because I had (and have) a low boredom threshold and my childhood was pretty boring, I did not have a special friend among any of my numerous siblings so I did not enjoy hours of shared entertainment, and we kids weren’t allowed out to play.
What else was there to do but read books which I could borrow free of charge from the local library? And through reading books I was introduced to the magic of fiction. I don’t remember all the books I read but I do remember the experience of devouring them, the excitement of the long walk to Woolwich Library on a Saturday afternoon, roaming the dark wooden shelves in the hope of discovering something which would stimulate me, the librarian’s stamp in my chosen object of desire, walking back home wondering if I was going to like it. I loved the way in which I found books so totally absorbing, the experience of losing myself in other countries, other periods, other people’s lives and minds - rather like the process of writing books now.
I was also the fourth of eight children and they say a middle child is usually overlooked and spends his or her adulthood making up for it. I was neither in the blessed first batch nor in the cute youngest batch. Instead I was lumped in the middle: moody, awkward, sarcastic, independent. There are some major attention-seeking careers in the world such as music, acting and politics, and I have to admit that writing books which have my name on them has to belong in that category. What better way to make my mark than in print, a legacy that can last for aeons. A lifetime and beyond of getting noticed – the very thought!
The theatre also made me a writer. The one exception to my father’s rule was the local stage centre, Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, where I went religiously and happily every Friday for four years. The wonderful youth theatre became my escape from home and it was my introduction to the world of acting which I adored. (Notice me! Notice me!). Let’s not forget that acting is about stepping into another person’s shoes, the escaping of oneself, the creation of imaginary worlds (rather like writing, once again). I went on to attend drama school and it was there that I began writing for theatre, at first, poetry plays and then moved on to independent poems. When I graduated I was an actress for a short time but fell out of love with it, but the writing has never stopped. I had discovered what made me tick.
I also grew up in a home of dualities: my mother was white English, my father was black Nigerian; my mother was a die-hard Catholic (until she fell out of love with the hypocrisy of the church), my father was a Communist, for a while; my mother was a white collar worker = school teacher, my father was a blue collar worker = welder; I was of mixed-race in London at a time when it was neither common, discussed or understood. Our family stood out in what was then a very white part of London and at school I was, for most of the time, the rare black child. Surely the effect of all this duality and difference, these contrasts, polarities and contradictions subconsciously fed a desire to work out these aspects creatively. Never quite slotting into any social grouping, being a badge-bearing Outsider, but never quite understanding or articulating that this was the case, I escaped into my imagination, first through theatre and then through writing, which attempts, among other things (I hate to limit myself), to make sense of the contemporary and historical place of black people in our societies.
Writing has long been an integral part of who I am, it is my raison d’être, it keeps me feeling dynamic and someone who is constantly engaged in transmuting experience, people, perceptions and histories into a literary legacy. In literature anything can happen and what a liberating universe that is to inhabit.
© Bernardine Evaristo
Read more: Extract from Soul Tourists - Story
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