You are here

The perils of a Booker Prize profile

The perils of a Booker Prize profile

Bernardine Evaristo is finding that her raised profile, courtesy of being named joint winner of this year’s Booker Prize, brings complications of its own. Some are good. For example, she says: “Winning the prize hasn’t changed my novel, but it has changed the context of the novel and I delight in knowing that it’s reaching a much broader readership. I love the fact that my characters are getting inside the heads of people who might never usually get to know us, or pick up a book by us, because somehow, inexplicably, humanity and universality are the preserve of whiteness or maleness or straightness and often all three.” Some, though, are not so good. In a discussion of the shared Turner Prize, reference was made by a BBC presenter to the Booker Prize example and how the judges awarded it to “Margaret Atwood and another author”. An enraged Evaristo was forced to point out “How quickly and casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it.” The BBC then apologised for the presenter’s unscripted “another author” comment. Margaret Atwood is, of course, a household name but Evaristo is rapidly becoming one herself.

Indeed Evaristo, known for her progressive politics, nevertheless recently laid into a woke shibboleth. “This whole idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous,” she said in an interview. “Because that would mean that I could never write white characters or white writers can never write black characters. Look in television: that happens all the time. But there is this idea that when it comes to fiction that you are supposed to stay in your lane. It is a total nonsense.” To prove the point that fiction means an author can imagine themselves into disparate characters’ lives (some might argue that is the point of fiction) she noted that one of the figures in Girl, Woman, Other is non-binary, changing their name from Megan to Morgan. She defended her right to “write any character at any time [and] not feel restricted in any way”. One lane is not enough for Evaristo.

As inevitably as night follows day, Booker Prize novels are adapted for the screen or stage – the list is too long to mention. Now, however, it is the novelist who is being turned into a film. Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power is a biopic of the double Booker Prize winner, made when Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont were invited to shadow Atwood for 12 months. The film, which takes its title from Atwood’s poem “Spelling”, chronicles her life from her birth in 1939 to the writing of the joint Booker Prize-winning The Testaments. The filmmakers found that “Day to day she lives a simple life. It’s not full of fancy things. It’s comfortable and worn.” This, despite the fact that “Her schedule is like the Prime Minister’s – jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, off to Australia, off to Iceland.” What’s more, Atwood is far from morose: “She could do stand-up comedy.” Writers tend to be solitary beasts so the Atwood biopic may not start a trend. . .

One author whose life would make a film, however, is Elif Shafak. French born but Turkish-British, a novelist and campaigner, TED speaker and a fierce critic of the current politics of Turkey, there’s plenty in her life for a filmmaker to get their teeth into. Shafak's Booker Prize shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World has also just been named Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Having won the fiction category she went on to trump the three other category winners to claim top spot. A chuffed Shafak reacted with an epic wish: “May 2020 be the year of storytelling!”