I've written about my life in small essays and pieces for many years but when I won the Booker Prize I found myself talking a lot about how my career had led me to this major breakthrough. I started to say that I'd been unstoppable and then reflecting on what I meant by that. On a very literal level, it means that I had never given up, which resonated a lot more powerfully once I won the Booker as it became a beacon of hope to all those who need to learn how to become unstoppable. I've also led a varied and interesting life, about which I have a lot to say. A memoir seemed the perfect follow-on book to Girl, Woman, Other.
The subtitle for Manifesto is “On Never Giving Up.” Have you ever felt like giving up? What has kept you going through the tough times?
If I entertained the idea of stopping writing, it didn't last long. I had planted the seed of success a long time ago and I knew that in order to achieve my dreams, I had to keep going. It's also that writing was my passion and my life, not just a job or a career, but how I express myself and exist in the world. To remove it from my life would have felt like a certain kind of suicide. Who would I be if I wasn't a writer? This is what kept me going through the years, and the fact that with each book published I was building on creative foundations.
Your career so far is filled with incredible achievements. Of all of them, which has meant the most to you and why?
Everything I've done forms a collage of my life, but my creative writing take precedence because I am first and foremost a writer and this is my most powerful means of communication and intervention - and also the hardest to do. I've always juggled lots of things such as teaching, judging prizes, setting up arts inclusion projects and reviewing. The awards and honours are the icing on the cake and a wonderful validation.
You’ve talked about wanting to win the Booker, and using various visualisation techniques to help keep you focussed. What else is in your sights? Does it feel as if you could achieve absolutely anything you set your mind to?
Recalibrating my ambitions after my Booker win is an ongoing project because so many opportunities have come to me that were unavailable previously. I've now sold over a million copies of Girl, Woman, Other in the English language alone and finding this out was a pinch-myself-moment. So yes, I have new ambitions but I would never divulge them. Of course it's all about the writing and I aim to continue exploring my creativity through the written word, and to set new challenges for myself - such as Manifesto, my first non-fiction book.
You’re a trailblazer in many areas, and have achieved notable firsts. Do you see yourself as a role model? If so, what do you try to impart to others?
Always happy to be a role model because I know how important it is for younger generations to see what's possible, especially when it comes to women of colour in Britain. The main thing to remember is that the 'firsts' were accumulated over a career where I created the projects and books that needed to exist. That was the driving force behind everything, not winning awards or being celebrated for my activism. Now that I have broken through onto the main stage, this doesn't change and I still speak out and champion marginalised groups. I am an example of someone who balances both art and activism; I show it's possible to do both.
Your work includes long- and short-form poetry, prose novels and short stories. Would you be able to choose just one form of writing, if you had to?
Impossible, really. I've stepped back into writing for theatre recently after an absence of decades, and absolutely love it. I don't write individual poems anymore, because I think in terms of long narratives but my writing is typically an experimental fusing of forms with verse novels, a novel-with-verse, and Girl, Woman, Other, which is a fusion fiction.
Do you prefer teaching, or writing?
I am a writer who teaches, but if I stop writing, then I also won't be able to teach. The two go together.
What do you think you’d have become if you hadn’t decided to focus on your writing?
Impossible to imagine
You said books opened the world to you as a child – where did you most want to go?
The South Pacific. I still do.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
I hate to limit my readership but I hope that all kinds of readers find Manifesto inspiring and interesting.
The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?
I got a lot of work done during lockdown which wouldn't have been possible otherwise - literally hundreds of interviews and events around the world - all from my study, plus writing Manifesto. I'm very happy to be out and about now, though.
Community, the sense of belonging, is essential to most people – do you think the pandemic has strengthened or weakened community ties?
People were forced to retreat into their shells and our contact was primarily virtual, which isn't good for anyone, let alone community relations. Yes, we tried to look out for each other and there was an increased generosity of spirit, especially towards the most needy. I like to think this will continue post-lockdown.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.
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