Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
Bernardine Evaristo is not new to making history. She was the first to co-found a Black women’s theater company, Theatre of Black Women (1982 – 1988); the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize (for 2019’s Girl, Woman, Other, a favorite of President Barack Obama) and head a major drama school; and the first person of color to become president of the Royal Society of Literature. Now, after eight novels, comes her memoir called Manifesto (Grove Press), out January 18.
The daughter of a Nigerian welder and a white English schoolteacher, Evaristo was born and raised in south London with seven siblings. Youth theater instilled in her a love for the arts, and she attended what’s now known as Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance, where she serves as president.
The author and activist, a professor of creative writing at Brunel University London, is using her platform to lift up other voices. Her The Complete Works mentorship program and Brunel International African Poetry Prize supports poets of color. She curates the Black Britain: Writing Black series, which republishes books by Black writers that did not get their proper due.
She’s a big believer in affirmations, having written down that she would one day win the Booker; once wanted to be a nun; was awarded an OBE in 2020; has written for a Valentino campaign; once worked in the BBC World Service News Distribution Unit; wrote her first published piece at 13 in a grade school magazine on suffragettes; and has never met anyone with her name.
Likes: Colorful clothing and Angelique Kidjo, artist Amber Roper, celebrity gossip, photographer Zanele Muholi, her Zenith E camera bought at 15, yoga/pilates/cycling, her 9-foot Ikea dining table used as a desk, cheese and onion potato chips (made into a sandwich with tomato), and vodka neat. Dislikes: A conventional office job.
The book that:
…kept me up way too late:
Misery by Stephen King. I like watching thrillers on the screen but generally avoid them as a literary genre, but this one had me hooked. I can’t quite believe that a book could scare me, but it did, which is why I found it hard to sleep.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
Not quite uncontrollably but Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart had me in tears towards the end. Such a bond between mother and son—a book full of love soaked in struggle.
…I recommend over and over again:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s a classic and everyone should read it. Hurston was way ahead of her time. Imagine her in today’s world—she’d be the queen of social media.
…shaped my worldview:
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, which I first read in my twenties in the ’80s. She was the bravest of scribes who wanted to share her knowledge about how to survive the system when the system is not designed to support you.
…I swear I’ll finish one day:
Ulysses by James Joyce. What a mighty tome—probably best studied under academic guidance, but to be read for pleasure? Really? OK, it’s been a couple of decades since I last tried and I’ll give it a go one day soon. I will, I will, I will.
…I read in one sitting, it was that good:
If a book is that good I’ll spin it out for as long as I can, and certainly more than one sitting.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard. I’ve been interested in power for quite a while: who has it, who doesn’t, how to acquire it and how to use it for the greater good.
…made me laugh out loud:
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, about a polygamous family in Nigeria. The pompous husband, the patriarch is completely undermined by his wives, although he hasn’t a clue what’s going on behind his back. What’s not to like?
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Any novel I’ve written. No, seriously, I have to get that in.
…I last bought:
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941 – 1995 edited by Anna Von Planta. Highsmith is a fascinating figure and clearly problematic with some of her views. At one point Highsmith’s editor referred to her as a “horrible human being.” This alone is reason enough to want to get inside her mind.
…has the best title:
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful by Alice Walker, a poetry collection, and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a prose poem novel by Elizabeth Smart. Both titles are long but easily remembered.
…should be on every college syllabus:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett because she is a seductive, atmospheric storyteller exploring the taboo subject of shadeism through light-skinned twin sisters, one of whom passes for white and the other doesn’t. And The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. The story of a woman’s life in Nigeria in the first half of the twentieth century.
…I’ve re-read the most:
Midsummer by Derek Walcott is a poetry book I return to again and again when I want to be inspired.
…everyone should read because:
Fiction by people from outside their community, culture, country. Fiction takes us outside ourselves and inside the lives of people who are not like us. This is a good thing. It fosters empathy and understanding.
…I’d want signed by the author:
Any novel by Charles Dickens. I reckon it will be worth a bit by now. I could sell it on eBay.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
The British Library—wherein all knowledge is contained.
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