Don't Call Me the New Zadie Smith; Diana Evans's Debut Novel, about Growing Up Mixed Race in North London, Has Been Shortlisted for the Orange New Writers' Prize, Drawing Inevitable Comparisons. but She Has Her Own Unique Story to Tell - about the Twin Sister She Loved and Lost
Byline: EMINE SANER
IT WAS always inevitable that Diana Evans would, at some point, be described as the "new Zadie Smith". Smith, of course, won several first novel awards for White Teeth, and now Diana Evans has been shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers for her debut novel, 26a.
Their first books are, admittedly, similar - a story of interracial marriage and a set of twins, set against the backdrop of north-west London in the 1980s - but surely the comparison has more to do with them both being young, attractive black women than anything else. Does she find that particularly irritating?
Diana Evans thinks for a while and says, in her softly spoken way, "I always knew it would happen. There aren't many young black female writers so there is a tendency to lump us together. I knew that people would pick up on the fact that our books are set in the same part of London but that's where I grew up, so why shouldn't I set it there? Does it offend me? Not really, I just think it's quite lazy.
Whenever someone is new, they are always called the 'new' version of someone else."
She found out she had been shortlisted for the new prize, a spin-off of the Orange Prize for female writers, three weeks ago, but it was only announced yesterday. "I had to keep it quiet for a while, which was very hard," she says. "It's very exciting and it did come as a bit of a shock."
However well-meaning the prize is, some wonder why women writers should have a special award (the same was said about last week's Decibel prize for black and Asian writers) but it will do wonders for Diana Evans's book sales. She is the only British author shortlisted - the other two are Americans Nell Freudenberger and Meg Rosoff. "I'm pleased to be representing Britain," she says. "Yes, it is a women's prize, but it has nothing to do with me being black."
Diana's debut novel, 26a, which was only published a month ago to good reviews (The Times critic said it was "full of energy and charm" while The Independent said it had "great heart and humour"), is based on her own very personal experience as a twin. In her book, twins Georgia and Bessi live in Neasden with their sisters, white British father and Nigerian mother who hates the cold and puts cayenne pepper on everything. It was much the same for Diana and her twin, Paula.
In the book, a traumatic event, and the burden of keeping it a secret, eventually becomes too much for Georgia. In Diana's life, her twin, Paula, was always shadowed by a depression that, in the end, became so unbearable that she committed suicide seven years ago. Already a small, neat person - even her corkscrew curls seem delicately and deliberately arranged in place - Diana seems to shrink into herself even more when I ask about Paula.
Was it cathartic to write about her death?
"No," she says. "It was really hard. It was a bit like living in a time warp. The second half of the book is quite dark and I was living in this dark space. But I felt I had to do something to mark what had happened. We were very close and when you lose someone like that, it's difficult to say goodbye without doing something big."
Paula was 26 when she died. She had suffered depression throughout her adult life and had been particularly withdrawn in the weeks leading up to her death. When she visited Diana, a few weeks before she died, she told her twin she felt suicidal. "I thought it was an expression of how depressed she felt rather than something that was building into an actual intention - the greatest misjudgment I could have made."
The effect of Paula's death on her family
was devastating, but was it somehow worse for Diana? If being a twin makes everything twice as funny, twice as silly, twice as happy, does it also make it twice as hard to lose them? "I'm supposed to be the closest person in the world to her and I should have seen how far gone she was," she says. …