What I’m Reading: Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

June has been a crazy month. The first set of my Fettling workshops ended (keep eyes peeled as I’m about to open the next set for bookings) my Fantastic Ekphrastic 2 course ran beautifully with a really lovely group of writers bedding themselves into some very challenging, but I hope interesting, prompts around art.(new course starts this week, there are three places left so don’t hang about! – sign up here) I was lucky enough to get to run my first Creative Non Fiction workshop for Crossing the Tees festival and also my first live gig in…forever… at Darlington for the same festival. And of course my lovely Writers on Writing group is continuing. The first live author event for WoW, with Daniel Sluman was fantastic. Daniel is such an open and responsive poet and the group got such a lot of of it. Thursday’s live event is with Polly Atkin (If you’ve not got a ticket yet, grab one here)and I know it is going to be excellent. I’m also pulling Spelt 6 together and fighting through the Arts Council Grantium portal to put a complicated, brain-hurty funding application together for some stuff for Spelt. And I’m also organising a big unfunded thing for Spelt, which is nerve wracking and time consuming but I hope will be worth all the work. I feel like I’ve barely had time to come up for air, and as a result my blog has slipped further and further down my To Do list. This week is much less manic. I’ve started to deliberately put some ‘recovery’ spaces between intense work weeks. I have started to not judge myself so much on getting so overwhelmed and burnt out by ‘peopling’ – face to face stuff. I struggle with face to face stuff. I don’t want to talk too much about this sort of thing, but I did recently start thinking about how quite a lot of the things I struggle with can be attributed to something else that I think is quite prevalent within the creative community and it’s something I’m looking into. I reached out to someone about it recently and they were very very supportive, so thank you to them. It’s good to know that someone else has been in this place and is able to act as guide. All a bit vague, I might talk about it at a later date.

I have always felt such gratitude to those people in my life who have been supportive, especially other writers and creatives who ‘send the elevator down’. There are so many people who don’t, who pull the ladder up behind them. Which leads me on to the title of this post. I don’t intend on reviewing every book I read, (you can see a list of all the books I’ve read on my twitter feed if you so desire – follow this link) and this isn’t really a review in a traditional sense, but I thought it might be nice to share some of the books I’ve read that have helped me in one way or another, especially in my slow journey to self as writer.

I picked Manifesto up on a recommendation from another writer, but for the life of me I can’t remember who recommended it. So thank you, mystery book lover. I’m always on the look out for writers talking about their own journeys. I feel I’ve learned more from creating my own reading list, exploring the art, auto biographies and essays and examining the lived experiences of other writers, than I did in my MA. Although I don’t regret doing any of my degrees, I do feel there is a great deal of value and growth in finding your own way too. I’d loved Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s Booker Prize winning novel. The novel was non traditional in terms of structure and style and I found this fascinating. I wanted to know what drove Evaristo’s choices, where she’d come from and what she had to say about writing and the writing world. I’m pleased to say I found Manifesto both fascinating and surprising.

Manifesto is a book that spans different genres. It does its own thing, it is not simply autobiographical, it is more than that. It is a set of sign posts, but it is also not a guide, in the traditional sense. It’s the story of how this extraordinary woman worked towards goals she set herself, how she learned from her own transitional stages, how she observed the mistakes she made in love and life and in art and determined how she would do better. It says in the blurb that the book is an ‘intimate and fearless account’ and that description is entirely deserved. Not because there is some harrowing story of overcoming odds, though the odds that Bernardine Evaristo has overcome are indeed harrowing, but because the author herself is so willing to be honest about being human and having faults. We live in a society that is increasingly polarised over everything with very little room for honest debate, discussion and acceptance, so it’s very refreshing to see someone being an ordinary human being, but an ordinary human being with a strong sense of moral purpose, and someone not afraid to use their platform for good; recognising the value of supporting others.

I liked in particular the way that Evaristo developed the narrative voice in the book, as the reader is reading it. It starts out simply, the language uncomplicated, the voice describing the world in which Evaristo came from which is one of love, certainly, but also one of racism and complex family dynamics, alongside somewhat claustrophobic judgement from schools and church. But as the ‘story’ develops and the author becomes more confident in herself and in her work, as she builds her CV the narrative voice slowly changes to one that includes a more authoritative academic style, without ever losing the humour, the ballsiness or the vulnerability. I love the way the author is playing with the book, how she is expressing this growth in style, manipulating and reflecting content. She has always chosen her own route through poetry and prose and this book is no exception to that. I also like how the author calls out shitty behaviour from exes, whilst simultaneously accepting this as part of her journey. She does not hold back on the folk who have wronged her, but she also doesn’t hold back on herself, recognising that she was/is also capable of shitty behaviour with partners.

But the thing I liked the most about this journey is that Evaristo set out a map, a route for herself and she did. not. give. up. There were so many places where anyone would have forgiven her for admitting that odds were stacked against her, but she didn’t let herself believe that, or rather she acknowledged that and did it anyway.

What I’m taking away from this book are two things: The first, a reminder about generosity. She recognises how hard it is, especially in the world of social media, to see other writers doing well, and the feelings of imposter syndrome and slight despair in wondering if you don’t fit in, or are consistently doing something wrong or aren’t good enough. She meets those feelings in herself, including jealousy, with acts of generosity. I think this is the key to surviving the literary world, which can be quite back biting and certainly quite elitist. Because you hope others do the same; are generous in return, when you are on the up turn of the wheel. You will always be either at the top or the bottom of that wheel. You can’t really change that, but you can change how you react to it. The second thing, a very practical thing, that I’m taking away from this book is the idea of creating affirmations for yourself and your writing projects. These aren’t simply ‘I am brilliant’ on a post it note stuck to the mirror, they are short descriptions of the finished project, the awards its won and the people its reached, done before one starts writing it. I tested this method out while I was having yet another moment of self doubt around the book/s I’m working on, and it actually helped me to recognise and remember what it was that I was trying to do with the book/s.

Bernardine Evaristo is not afraid to set her targets high. Her model of determination is to say ‘why not me’. Just because you are from a non traditional background, don’t have money, are learning as you go along, why does that exclude someone from attempting to meet those high standards that the industry sets. Why not me, why not challenge the gate keepers of the literary world, why not. What do you lose. Don’t give up.

Until next time

x

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