Bernadine Evaristo on ‘Blonde Roots’
interviewed by Lane Ashfeldt July 2008
Blonde Roots is a really great title. Have you ever dyed your hair blonde?
No, but I did have low-lights put in once which didn’t really work as it seemed to dry my hair out. Years ago the only black woman who got away with blonde hair was the singer Yazz, now everyone gets to be Barbie.
I like the cover too - any stories behind that?
Only that I love it. When my publisher emailed it to me I just went Wow! It’s so unusual and tactile, the printing is embossed. The designer is called Matthew Green. Talented guy, huh.
The most shocking thing to me about Blonde Roots was that after your success in writing verse, you should now have decided to write a book entirely in prose. How did that decision come about?
Oh, it’s complicated. Lara, a novel-in-verse, was originally a prose novel but it didn’t work so I kept the story and ditched the manuscript. Yes, literally into the bin – silly me. My last book Soul Tourists mixed poetry, prose, scripts and other stuff, so it was a bridge for me between the novel-in-verse and the prose novel. Originally it was all prose and that didn’t work so I turned into what I called a novel-with-verse. With Blonde Roots I’d reached the stage where I could just write it as prose and it worked. It’s quite lush prose though. I wanted it to reach a wide audience and anything with verse makes people scream and run with flailing arms in the opposite direction.
Was there any element of your being enslaved by the form of poetry and needing to escape it?
Hey, smart question, but I never saw it like that. Telling stories through poetry was actually very liberating for me. I could essentialise everything and indulge my love of language and be non-linear and experimental. Poetry was my natural medium for a long time – it allowed me to capture the essence of story and character. It’s taken me a long time to write long sentences that work and to write, say 70,000 words.
And how were the nice people in Penguin about this change of direction?
My gorgeous publishers at Penguin (Hamish Hamilton), have been very indulgent to me. First, publishing The Emperor’s Babe, a verse novel about a black girl growing up in Roman London when they only publish fiction, and then publishing Soul Tourists, which is such an experiment with form. What other mainstream fiction publisher would have taken the risk?
How did the poetry-prose transition affect speed of delivery? Did the book take a longer or shorter period to write than one of your verse novels? And did you find the process more or less enjoyable?
The pleasures and challenges change with each book. Lara took 5 yrs, The Emperor’s Babe about 18 months, Soul Tourists 4 yrs and Blonde Roots about 2 years – but I’m not very good with figures.
Some books have an easier birth. Lara took so long because I was a novice writer, developing confidence and learning how to manage my time. It takes a lot of self-belief to write a book which no one has commissioned and, quite frankly, until it’s completed, no one gives a damn about it. The only book I really struggled with was Soul Tourists because I was never sure that I could deliver a book that was going to be good enough. Blonde Roots was a much more flowing creative process.
Were you already working on Blonde Roots in 2007, and did the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in the UK reveal any interesting new facts that impacted on it?
Absolutely, I feel as if all the coverage in 2007 has provided a new context for my book, especially for those who may not have known very much about the transatlantic slave trade prior to last year. I began Blonde Roots in 2005 so it was well under way by then.
Walking down a London street I sometimes get a feeling of stories from different eras battling it out - a feeling I also had while reading your book. Your knack for mixing period confused me at first. There’s the defunct underground train system in Londolo, and references to contemporary urban music and fashion, while Doris hails from a semi-feudal rural setting. Once I stopped trying to figure it out, it stopped mattering, but as I have the chance to ask: is there some intended period, or do you mix eras to make a point, or for fun?
I guess I just can’t help myself mixing it all up. I’m passionately interested in history but only in its relevance to our societies today. I’ve set the novel in what seems to be an atemporal past which is also very anachronistic so that it has a contemporary feel. I did this with The Emperor’s Babe too. I’ve really created a parallel universe where anything can happen. By inverting the history I’m writing about, I had to work imaginatively with time and place otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. It certainly made the world I’ve created more interesting to write. What I want people to focus on is the idea that if the table were turned historically and Africans had enslaved Europeans, what would that mean in terms of how we a) view that history and b) understand notions of civilisation and savagery. Hopefully this parallel universe gives readers a modern and historical context through which to re-examine this issue.
The book intentionally turns historical and geographical facts on their head. By reversing power roles, it accesses a way to satirize the serious subject of slavery. Can you remember when you first had the idea for this reversal?
Can I heck! I was living in Kilburn at the time so let’s imagine I was at my desk looking out at the trees in the garden and a thunderbolt arrived from the heavens. I do remember very clearly that I was commissioned by the Guardian to write a short story for their Fiction Issue in 2005* and that was my way into the novel. Although presented as a short story, I was very aware that I had begun the novel. The beginning has changed quite a lot since then but the basic story is there.
*Read this story online at the Guardian
Slavery is such huge subject matter. Once you had decided to write about it, how did you decide what to leave out and what to focus on?
Telling it from a woman’s point of view was always going to be on the cards and I wanted to write about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade which is why the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa is clearly the UK. We know and America knows about its own slave history but Britain was a key player in the transatlantic slave trade but its involvement, until last year, was very undercover. So those two things helped me focus on character and place. But slavery in the UK was, as I say in the book, ‘somewhat more corporate’, and certainly domestic, so I had to get Doris over to the Caribbean and experiencing the horrors of plantation life, hence the section in the West Japanese islands. American writers have written at length about their own slave history and I was never going to step on their toes.
A quiz on your website describes your family routes as “Nigeria, UK, Brazil, Ireland, Germany”. Have you lived in these countries, and where on the planet do you feel most at home? And, is an awareness of your mixed heritage part of what led to your writing Blonde Roots?
I’ve been to all of them, and worked (as a writer on tour) in Ireland, Germany and Nigeria. I feel most at home in London – which is such an amazing city. I am in awe of it even though I was born here and have lived here for most of my life. I do travel abroad a lot, so I do like to leave this city on a regular basis, but this is where my heart is.
The Ambossans probably resemble Nigerians more than any other African nation and my father was Nigerian so there’s a connection there, but the book draws on my experiences of other African countries too, I think I’ve been to about 12 of them. Travel has been a huge influence on my writing and I’m not sure I’d have been comfortable to create my own African society if I didn’t know the continent. My verse novel Lara is the one which really explores all strands of my family heritage – it’s being republished by Bloodaxe next year with new material about my Irish and German ancestors.
I enjoyed the scenes describing Doris’s father. Do you draw on personal familial memories in this book in any recognizable way, do you think? And would your family agree with that assessment?
I can’t say the father was based on anyone I know, nor did I use my family memories for the book, that I remember anyway. No one in my family has read the book yet.
The final lines of Blonde Roots are:
“In the twenty-first century, Bwana’s descendants still own the sugar estate and are among the grandest and wealthiest families in the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, where they all reside.Is this a depressing or a positive end-note?
Let’s just say it’s up to the reader to decide that. (Smile)
Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots is published 31 July 2008. The hardback is available to pre-order from Amazon.co.uk with a one-third discount.