DIANA EVANS reading with NICK LAIRD , HELEN OYEYEMI andnZADIE SMITH Friday (October 21), 8 pm, at the STudio Theatre, and interviewed with DIONNE BRAND Saturday (October 22), 3 pm, at the Studio Theatre.
Don't tell Diana Evans she's the new Zadie Smith. She bristles at the suggestion as she sits on the NOW Lounge couch talking about her debut novel, 26a.
Not that she doesn't appreciate the fact that black female writers are the biggest thing in the UK right now.
"I have a huge respect for what writers like like Zadie Smith (Booker short-listed for On Beauty) and Monica Ali (Brick Lane) have accomplished. They took black writing in the UK to a new level. It was time for black writers to be writing about experiences that were universal."
Evans's novel is the story of identical twin sisters. The themes may be universal, but the idea comes directly out of the author's own life. She, too, is a twin whose sister suffered from severe depression.
"It was very important for me to separate myself from the material," she says quietly, almost shyly, about the process. "I didn't want it to be a memoir or a confessional. But I did know I could hide behind the veil of fiction."
There are fantasy episodes in the book - moments when memories seep into present situations, or long-dead characters make surprise appearances. Even Evans agrees her use of the fantastical veers at times into magic realism.
"I don't really quibble with the use of that term. I wanted to push the borders of reality the way you would during childhood, when you're always wanting to explore the possibilities for magic."
Evans started out as a music journalist, which comes through in the novel. All the girls connect to music in a passionate way; the twins' older sister Bel gets her first job working for a recording company, and the younger Kemi is obsessed with Michael Jackson.
But Evans made the switch to fiction happily.
"It's a different way of writing," she says of music journalism, "but it's limiting in its language and doesn't allow the same kind of creativity."
The novel captured the Orange Prize for first fiction, a victory that took Evans completely by surprise and plunged her into a world of glamour that was entirely new to her
"I was so shocked. I was sure I wasn't going to win. And it was such a plush event, with all these silver ornaments and everything. I actually bought a dress for over £100.
"I never do that."
26a by Diana Evans (Bond Street/Doubleday), 229 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
This is turning into the year of the twins. A story about twin 20-something women is the best in Charlotte Gill's Ladykiller collection. Lori Lansens's wonderful The Girls describes the lives of conjoined twins. And now Diana Evans has captured the UK's Orange Prize for new writers with 26a, her story of identical twins.
Georgia and Bessi live in a loft a floor above their distracted mother and alcoholic father, where they create a separate world for themselves. They have two other sisters, but their twinness gives them a profound connection.
Yet they're different, too, and as real life penetrates their universe,
those disparities come through. Bessi has aspirations, plans and a desire to discover the world. Georgia is less social and somehow sad.
Evans writes about place with grit and precision. Georgia's later life as a student, alone in the impossibly small apartment until she meets a sweet musician, evokes a loudly diverse London. A sequence tracing the girls' early experiences in Nigeria - including one that may have set the course for Georgia's desolation - has real power.
Evans gives a poetic flair to moments of near magic realism, especially those experienced from the perspective of the twins' mother, homesick for Nigeria.
She can be funny, too, as when the twins plan their flapjack empire. But in the end, the melancholy trumps the humour in this emotionally involving first novel.