But her parents were determined to make the marriage work, and for thirty-three years they did. The challenges were constant: an old dilapidated house; racist taunts; feed, clothe and educate ten family members on one income. Evaristo’s mother, Ellen, who didn’t return to class until her youngest was in school, was good with money and with her children: she “had a kind of earthy vibe -mother”, as Evaristo says.
Evaristo’s portrayal of his “militaristic” father – giving long lectures or beating with a spoon and a belt – is more vivid. No longer having the use of two old pianos, he cut them into pieces and burned them in the garden, where he also had his children cut the grass with machetes. Evaristo claims she “didn’t have a proper conversation” with her father as a child and despised him as a teenager. But as she entered adulthood, she began to appreciate the strength and ingenuity that had enabled her to survive in London: he “kept a hammer at the edge of his bed”, defied all insults and, although taciturn at he, and a non-Catholic, was a gregarious member of the local Catholic club. He taught himself plumbing and started his own business; he also became an enthusiastic trade unionist, and eventually an adviser to the Labor Party. Evaristo’s account of learning to love from his father is honest, complicated, and moving without being the least bit sentimental.
Both parents were dedicated to social and racial justice and both were politically active. Unlike his father, Evaristo’s mother, Ellen, was a staunch Catholic. The couple raised their eight children in the Church and negotiated tuition breaks at Catholic schools. Evaristo’s memories of the “theoretically religious” clergy are bitter: she remembers the priests in the confessional “reek of alcohol” and says that they “never reached out to offer interest or assistance to the only black family in their flock. Indeed, what the family believes to be a priest’s first pastoral visit turns out to be a request that the Evaristos sell their house to the parish. A priest, unaware that Ellen is married to a black man, talks about the “darkies”. A “cruel” priest interrupts mass when the large family arrives late. At the age of fifteen, Evaristo left the Church, as his eight siblings and his mother would eventually do.
Yet Evaristo credits his childhood view of Mary with his belief in the “unassailable goodness of women” and the “dramatic and poetic spectacle of church services” for his trajectory as a writer. She doesn’t investigate whether her own quest for racial and gender justice or her seemingly limitless narrative empathy may have been influenced by her early Catholicism — the wounds run too deep. His rejection is total.
This rejection was fueled in part by the Church’s condemnation of its own sexual experimentation. In her twenties, Evaristo lived as a lesbian, until a heartbreaking affair with an older woman led her to rekindle her attraction to men. Although she devotes considerable narrative space to her love life, her tales are not the least bit titillating or superficial: she ties each affair to her growth as an artist and above all to her growing self-confidence. Now long married to a supportive man, she approvingly quotes a friend’s observation that “marriage was freedom.” “I can’t imagine a one-night stand now,” she said, “to expose your naked body to a complete stranger in pursuit of fleeting pleasure?” She still identifies as non-binary and remains intrigued by sexual pleasure as a means of fellowship with other humans. She holds herself to a strict reckoning when remembering her own youthful insensitivity to lovers in need.
Indeed, she keeps her whole life strictly in mind; apart from the memoirs of JM Coetzee, I do not recall another who has been the subject of such scrutiny. While Coetzee is ruthless in her self-judgment, Evaristo is puzzled and as forgiving of herself as she is of others. She began her artistic life as a theater student, in a community theater arts program that would have a huge impact on her role as a black writer determined to mentor and nurture beginning black writers and support those struggling. served by art. In drama school, she was thrilled to finally be in a class with other black women, and with two of the friends she made there, she founded the Theater of Black Women, the first of its kind in England. She was only in her twenties and was already acting, writing plays and administering the company, which meant finding grants and other funding. “Running a black women’s theater company,” she says dryly, “required a certain fieriness and a bloodthirsty spirit.”