Evaristo is the first woman of African heritage to win the Booker in its 50-year history, and only the fourth ever to be a finalist. "Fifty years, 300 books — only four black women have been shortlisted," she said Tuesday. "Hopefully this will mark a new direction."
Speaking to The Associated Press hours after being handed the prize alongside Atwood at a glitzy ceremony, Evaristo exuded excitement and delight, even on two hours' sleep. "I'm very, very excited and euphoric," she said. "It's such a major prize, and it felt so unattainable."
Born in London to a Nigerian father and white British mother, Evaristo has published seven previous novels — two of them in verse — exploring aspects of black life in Britain, from Roman times to the present day. Inventive and readable, they have won her critical acclaim, though not mega-sales.
"Those who know the work think I'm kind of more mainstream than I am," she said. Evaristo, 60, says she knew winning the Booker could transform her career, and act as a beacon to other female writers of color. But until her name appeared on the 13-book longlist earlier this year, she never thought it would happen.
"It was such an establishment prize," she said. "And even though there were some quirky choices, it just felt that the kinds of things I write, from my perspective, would not be the kinds of things that Booker judges would consider to be literature to cherish."
The Booker, whose past winners include Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Atwood — a winner once before, in 2000 — almost always brings the victor a huge boost in publicity and sales. Winning in 2009 for "Wolf Hall" helped make British author Hilary Mantel a household name. Victory last year transformed the life of financially struggling Northern Ireland writer Anna Burns, whose novel "Milkman" has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Evaristo knows the audience is about to grow exponentially for "Girl, Woman, Other," which is due to be published in the U.S. by Grove Atlantic in December. The book weaves together the voices of 12 characters with widely varying ages, experiences and sexualities, including a twentysomething banker, a teenage single mother, a radical playwright, a nonagenarian farmer.
"The book kind of mapped itself as I wrote it," Evaristo said. "I thought, 'I'm just going to put as many black British women as possible into a novel.' Because we're not really out there in British fiction."
Splitting the prize between two writers caused a mini literary uproar, with jurors defying Booker rules that say there can only be one winner. Atwood and Evaristo, who hugged onstage at Monday night's ceremony, both say they are not disappointed to have to share the award and its 50,000 pound ($63,000) purse.
"Somehow my pleasure in it should be dampened by the fact that I have to share it? No, not at all," Evaristo said. "Because I know what a treasured prize it is — and I've still got it."