December 7, 2003
wordplay
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma

She has an English mother and a Nigerian father. She brushes aside her prose and dives into verse. She could challenge and convince the Museum of London about the earliest historical Black presence in Britain.

She was briefly in Chennai as a part of the British Council’s efforts to promote interaction with Britain’s new writers. This is her 45th trip abroad.

I met Bernadine Evaristo in a swanky bar drinking tea just before lunch. Tall and frizzy-haired, a wide smile and throaty laughter, an eye for detail and a firm grip on her profession. She’s written two critically acclaimed novels-in-verse: Lara (1997) traces the roots of a Nigerian-English family over 150 years and seven generations. The Emperor’s Babe (2001) tells of a Sudanese girl growing up in Roman London 1800 years ago. Her novel-in-progress is about a European journey that runs into historical ghosts. She’s done other things as well, but we’ll let her speak:

I went to that big old temple. (Kapaleeshwar temple, Mylapore, Chennai). I’ve never been inside a Hindu temple before. It was interesting. Very open and lots of different parts to it. There were all these people sitting around in this rectangular space. A man walked up and down with a stick. My driver said, they are poor people and they have come to get food. Mmm, it was fascinating, but it also made me realise I know nothing much about Hinduism! Ganesh is one of the gods. There’s the woman, isn’t there? Shiva? (Me, speaking from within the brackets: Shiva is the man! Shakti is the feminine aspect. Parvathi, Durga. Or Kali.) Kali, Kali! I know some of the names, but I don’t really know what they mean.

It’s very different to life in the UK. Most of the Catholic churches are empty. They are not vibrant places where people are always coming and going. We are not a nation of very religious people any more. So to go to a temple like the one in Mylapore that is vibrant, interactive, and has a real role in the community - Most churches are locked up because people go inside and steal things!

My other impressions of India, people might find it strange but it actually reminded me a bit of Africa.

Which isn’t so surprising really because the climate is similar. And they are both former British colonies.

The older architecture is very British. There’s a lot of street life, people riding bicycles and wheelbarrows with all sorts of fruits and vegetables on them, selling things on the street. And also, the bright traditional costume which the women wear. Traffic is mad here. In Nigeria, it’s madder!. People here are much quieter.

In Nigeria they shout and fight. (And violence?) Yes, there’s violence. In Nigeria, my father’s people - they are very aggressive. (Why do you think-) That’s just the way they are, very warlike! People get out of their cars if there is trouble and literarily have a fight on the streets.

My impressions here are superficial, but one of the things I noticed about Chennai is that people move about very quietly, I didn’t see anybody shout. People here are vegetarians? (Yes, generally, but now eating habits are changing) You know, eating meat makes you aggressive. Seriously! If you’re not a meat-eating country, that makes you much more - placid.

(I’d understand it if someone began writing in verse and then threw the whole lot away because it didn’t work and started afresh in prose. But you wrote more than 90,000 words of your novel in prose and threw it away and then started writing in verse!) I didn’t throw them all away. What I have done is, some of them I have kept, some I have reworked, and some I have turned into poetry - so it’s not as if I threw 94,000 words away! When you transform prose into poetry you lose so many words. I had no choice! It wasn’t good, you know!

(Once your ideas start to flow, do you find it difficult to stop and attend to the technical details? Because, poetry has to conform to a certain pattern -) No, rewriting in a way is the most easy bit. Because when I’m rewriting and shaping my prose, I know I have got something good there, because if it’s not good, then I don’t keep it. And all I need to do is keep shaping it. And with each draft hopefully it keeps getting better. So that is the really rewarding part.

(What sparks off your writing?) See, if I think about it, it’s an interest in history, in historical narratives, how they have been told, and how the history impacts on the present. How, in fact, our contemporary lives are always straddling both sides. That, I think, is the heart of it, that’s what interests me.

(How much do you have to throw away in this case? One of the books I was doing, there was so much research material I’d gathered and the book was much smaller-) Okay, I was writing about Romans in London, so I did some general research but not too much. I kind of roughly knew what I was going to write.

So each time I wrote a section I’d do the research I needed to do. That means you don’t read everything, you know what you’re going to focus on. (Is that a break in creativity when you do that, stop in the middle of the writing and research?) No, it’s all part of it! The research is also really exciting. So, as I’m researching
I’m being excited about how I’m going to write it!

(I’d like to know something about your experience in theatre.) I trained to be an actress, I left drama school, put together my own company with two other women. But it was mainly about making space for Black women in theatre because at the time there were very few job opportunities for Black actresses. (So, was it a sort of passionate thing for you?) Yes, we believed in it, like 24 X 7!

(Tell me about your trips.) Well, Europe is less interesting to me. Eastern Europe’s different but it’s not so different to the UK. But going to Australia and New Zealand was very interesting. In their sensibility they’re quite different. I met a lot of South Pacific island writers. And I love travelling around Africa. I’ve been to Singapore and Malaysia, incredible places. So different! And then I like going to America. Because America is a big market for a writer. I like the American positive attitude. Jamaica is so beautiful and the people are absolutely lovely. And so far India’s been a very good trip.

(And these trips are sponsored?) No, no, they invite me, they have to pay everything, and then pay me a fee. You know, you have to get paid for it. So it’s like a job!

(Do you make use of any of your experiences?) No, I haven’t. But I may, in future. Maybe in ten-fifteen years time I might probably use some of it.

The author can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com
Bernadine Evaristo
History and the art of writing

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