Bernardine Evaristo: On the road with the ghost of Mary Seacole

Bernardine Evaristo's latest novel takes the reader on a wild ride round European history in search of neglected black influences. Kevin Le Gendre hitches a lift
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The Independent Culture

But Bernardine Evaristo, whose latest novel Soul Tourists is based on several trips that she made with friends by car across Europe in the late 1980s, begs to differ. "I didn't actually write anything while I was travelling and I didn't take any photographs," she insists, enjoying the paradox. Pragmatism underpins her thinking. "If you start to write about travelling while doing it you're removing yourself from the experience. Your objective eye is coming into play rather than just absorbing what's going on around you."

It is precisely this sense of absorbed experience, along with soaring imagination and stylistic verve - prose, poetry and film script-style dialogue all cohere in the mix - that makes Soul Tourists a worthy heir to the no less daring novels-in-verse that were The Emperor's Babe (2001) and Lara (1997).

Much more than a picaresque road movie in print, Soul Tourists is also the story of a pivotal emotional and cultural awakening for straight-laced office worker Stanley. Along with free-spirited barmaid-cum-cabaret singer Jessie, he jumps in a Lada called Matilda and embarks on adventure and misadventure in France, Spain, Turkey and eventually Kuwait. A Londoner of Jamaican parentage, Stanley has a special gift: he can see ghosts. And in the course of the madcap tour, he meets the spirits of Hannibal, Pushkin, Mary Seacole and several other engrossing figures of continental history who are all of African descent. Stanley, and by extension the reader, discovers the richness of black Europe.

Evaristo became interested in history and languages at a young age and she's happy to speculate that her passion for the past may be related to the fact that her Nigerian father, who met her English mother in London in the 1950s, didn't pass on a great deal of his culture to her. "There was a vacuum," she notes with equanimity. "He didn't teach us Yoruba and told us very little about personal family history. It was a mystery."

So in her late teens, Evaristo seriously got her researcher's groove on, diving headlong into tomes such as Ivan Van Sertima's The African Presence in Early Europe and Peter Fryer's Staying Power, arguably the definitive guide to black British history. This groundwork has enabled Evaristo to give her characters - from the eponymous heroine of Lara, a child of post-Empire migration, to The Emperor's Babe's Zuleika, a symbol of Roman black Britain, to Soul Tourists' Stanley, a man who's inherited his Caribbean father's sense of displacement - a degree of ownership of a white world.

The reasons for this are simultaneously personal and political. "There's been a complete absence of information and access to black aspects of British history and that's something that gets me worked up," Evaristo says firmly. "It's an important part of our culture and when I say 'our culture' I mean all of us; black, white, green, whatever. When I wrote The Emperor's Babe I really wanted to say: 'Look, there was a black presence in Britain nearly 2,000 years ago and what does that say about your arguments about black people coming to Britain to take your jobs in the 1950s?' The fact is we have much deeper roots in this culture than most people would think.

"With Soul Tourists I wanted to look at European history because it's also had an African presence over hundreds and thousands of years. There's so much denial about somebody like Pushkin," she continues. "I was in Russia a few years ago with a whole load of writers, some of whom were Russian and there were statues of Pushkin everywhere. Anyway, I was going 'Oh, you know his great grandfather was Ethiopian' and people laughed at me. They just thought that it was ridiculous, the very idea of it! And these were Russians! It makes me very angry because it's important for all of us."

Evaristo's work fits neatly into a larger context of artists widening perceptions of the black Diaspora. Recently in Paris, the African-American saxophonist David Murray presented an ambitious project based on Pushkin's poetry, while in London several years ago the Guyanese flautist/poet Keith Waithe performed an intriguing piece on the life of Hannibal. These were both multi-media works in which music, text and image coalesced, and the idea of working across forms is also a central tenet of Evaristo's artistic world. It's significant that she was an actress before she became a writer. Graduating from the Rose Bruford College of Speech And Drama in 1982, she initially wrote for the stage and her first play Moving Through was performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in the same year. After co-founding the Theatre of Black Women she toured extensively in England and Europe.

Those experiences resonate in her novels. When Evaristo recently read from Soul Tourists at the South Bank Centre it was evident how convincingly her characters lent themselves to performance. Numerous are the writers who bring the dynamics of theatre and poetry into prose, but perhaps what gives an added appeal to Evaristo's work is the coherence with which she negotiates a number of supposedly conflicting registers in the process. Inspired by everybody from Toni Morrison and Tennyson to Ben Okri and Patrick Chamoiseau to French and Saunders, she has a bold, challenging metaphorical voice, yet there is also an engagingly populist edge in her language. High and lowbrow effectively co-exist.

"Well, that's what I am," says Evaristo spontaneously, before pausing for reflection. "Isn't that what most of us are? I read Hello magazine, I also read the TLS. I watch Big Brother, then I'll go for years without watching television at all. My mother was a Catholic and my father a communist, she was a school teacher, he was a welder, so there's always been this duality in me and I guess that's why my writing is like that."

Her voice descends to a conspiratorial whisper. "I have a friend in a top Ivy League university, she's really erudite, she's a professor. Well, I discovered that she reads the National Enquirer religiously every week. I was so shocked! But I think that's the society we're in. We're a mix."

'Soul Tourists' by Bernardine Evaristo is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.99 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897