The Tragedy of the Black Woman in a White Society
In a move that is unprecedented in its history, the 2019 Man Booker Prize was awarded to two works. The first recipient of the award is Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her second victory at the prestigious literary award. Alongside the veteran dame of the letters is a name that is perhaps unfamiliar to most of the general reading public. Nigerian-born British author, Bernardine Evaristo, brings in a breath of fresh air with her sweeping narrative, Girl, Woman, Other.
Evaristo’s eight novel, Girl, Woman, Other relates the lives and stories of twelve different characters living in contemporary England. Each of these characters share three traits – they are all black, they are all British, and they were all born female. At one point in time, their lives crossed paths in different and interesting ways.
Despite these similarities, their lives were drawn on a canvass with stark dichotomies. They’re from different cultural and social backgrounds, of varying ages, different sexual identities and preferences, mixed ethnic make-up, ancestral origin, and occupation. The similarities and the diverse backgrounds of the characters enhanced the narrative by giving it a different texture and complexion.
“she didn’t tell them she’d taken her father for granted and carried her blinkered, self-righteous perspective of him from childhood through to his death, when in fact he’d done nothing wrong except fail to live up to her feminist expectations of him,” ~ Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Girl, Woman, Other is a magnificent novel of impressive scope. Ambitious and visionary, it is an extensive narrative that covers a plethora of subjects and diverse themes that are relevant to the contemporary women through the voices of twelve distinct and individualistic women. But Girl, Woman, Other is more than just the story of twelve women, it chronicles the fundamental history of the black female British experience.
Evaristo conjured an interesting narrative that is narrated by an astonishing and diverse spectrum of black female voices. Each voice is distinct, and inimitable. As each of these twelve women relate their stories, the readers are transported to a literary labyrinth discussing and highlighting the repercussions and implications of living and surviving in a culture and society that is predominantly white. Despite the odds, they never let the dichotomy stymie their voices nor let it pull them down.
One of the centrifugal points of this sweeping narrative is the height of diversity. Diversity, however, was not depicted purely on the complexion of the skin. The novel goes beyond the stereotypes and takes on the intersections of identity as well. The definitions of sexual preferences and orientations are one of the key points in the novel. Lesbian relationship and homosexuality are two recurring themes. One of the twelve characters also identified herself as non-binary.
The narrative seamlessly flowed, dealing with the complexities of contemporary social and cultural structures, especially in England. The polyphonic choir of women penetrates with heavy subjects pertaining to gender and polygender. The story as well depicted a plethora of subjects that cover politics, social conventions, patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia, and the different forms of sexual abuse. There was a portrayal of domestic violence in a lesbian relationship as well; it is a subject that is rarely encountered in literature.
“being trans wasn’t about playacting an identity on a whim, it’s about becoming your true self in spite of society’s pressures to be otherwise, most people on the trans spectrum felt different from childhood,” ~ Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Despite the various situations that the characters found themselves in, what stood out in the narrative are their ironclad will. They survived the pressures of school and society, abusive relationships, teenage rebellion, and a variety of circumstances. Obscured by the novel’s wide spectrum of themes is the novel’s subtle but universal and profound message about survival and coping in a fast-paced world and society. The novel’s positive message resonated all throughout the narrative.
One of the most moving scenes is found in the novel’s closing pages. One of the characters, whose pale complexions made her unaware of her ancestry, found out her true kinship that is partly African. This is reminiscent of one social study that went viral on social media. A group of individuals were randomly chosen to have their ancestry be traced. The results surprised them – their DNAs were comprised of different races. This is a big exclamation against racism.
What makes Girl, Woman, Other stand out is its unique structure. It is not your typical formulaic narrative that has become prevalent in contemporary literature. With each of the twelve chapters capable of being related as separate stories, Girl, Woman, Other takes the blurred lines between a short story collection and a novel. Each character has a well-developed voice and each chapter is well delineated.
Cognizant that for her novel to stand out, Evaristo stepped out of the comfort zone and used a structure that is part poetic, part prose, one that she referred to as “fusion fiction”. Evaristo effectively finding the proper equilibrium, Girl, Woman, Other has a syntax that distinguishes it from the rest. The novel’s disregard of punctuation conventions, and the novel’s unconventional structure are amongst its better accomplishments.
Apropos this landmark approach, Evaristo was once quoted, “At one point I thought maybe I could have one hundred protagonists. Toni Morrison has a quote: ‘Try to think the unthinkable’. That’s unthinkable. One hundred black women characters? How can I do that? I need a more poetic form. Now there are only twelve main characters.”
“except it felt wrong, even at a young age, something in her realized that her prettiness was supposed to make her compliant, and when she wasn’t, when she rebelled, she was letting down all those invested in her being adorable.” ~ Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other
Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is an inimitable piece of fiction that possesses a universal and profound voice. Its advocacies, coming in the form of twelve interesting characters, was related in a form that seamlessly flowed. Its interesting approach to the broad schools of thoughts on race and identity is simply captivating. The characters and their sincere voices were carefully developed to represent various voices.
With a stimulating story, Evaristo captivated by writing a profoundly moving and beautifully written narrative relevant in today’s milieu. Girl, Woman, Other is an imaginative read that is sensible and full of compassion. Its brilliance is deserving of the encomium that it has received and is receiving. Lastly, this brilliant masterpiece reminds readers of the power of fiction. In creating genuine connections between the story and the reader, works of fiction rouse in the readers a true wish for transformation.
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
I badly wanted to read Girl, Woman, Other ever since it was declared as the co-winner for the 2019 Man Booker Prize. Although I have never heard of Bernardine Evaristo before, nor have I encountered any of her works, I was nonetheless looking forward to this acclaimed literary piece. I was lucky I was able to purchase a copy of the book during the holiday season.
And man did the story hit hard. Whilst I admit that the structure is one-half of what took my breath away, I must commend Evaristo for her brilliance. The characters are interesting. The stories and backstories are interesting. The storytelling and the writing are imaginative, creative and vibrant. It was just the entire package. Evaristo made her story connect with the readers in a very powerful manner.
Author: Bernardine Evaristo
Publisher: Black Cat
Publishing Date: December 2019
Number of Pages: 452
Genre: Contemporary literature, Domestic Fiction
Bernardine Evaristo is the winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and the first black woman to receive the highest literary honor in the English language. Girl, Woman, Other is a magnificent portrayal of the intersections of identity and a moving and hopeful story of a group of black British women. Suffused with empathy and vibrant humor, Girl, Woman, Other is populated with unforgettable characters, from a lesbian playwright to a jaded schoolteacher to a nonbinary social media influencer. Sparklingly witty, centering voices we often see othered, and written in an innovative fast-moving form, this is a polyphonic social novel by a masterful British writer who has finally been lauded at the level she has long deserved.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Bernardine Anne Mobolaji Evaristo was born in 1959 in Eltham, south-east London to a white English mother and a Nigerian migrant father. Raised in Woolwich, she was the fourth of eight children.
Evaristo received her formal education at the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre (now the Tramshed, in Woolwich), Eltham Hill Grammar School for Girls, and the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. In 2013, she received her doctorate in creative writing from the Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Her first published work, Island of Abraham (1994) is a collection of poetry. In 1997, she published her first novel, Lara, an autobiographical novel-in-verse that was later expanded and republished in 2009. Lara won the EMMA Best Novel Award in 1998. Her second novel, The Emperor’s Babe (2001) won an Arts Council Writers Award 2000, a NESTA Fellowship Award in 2003 and was cited by The Times as one of the 100 Best Books of the Decade in 2010.
Her other works include Blonde Roots (2008), Hello Mum (2010), and Mr. Loverman (2014). Her latest work, Girl, Woman, Other was declared co-winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize. Apart from writing, she is also an editor and a contributor for a score of publications. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London, and the vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature. She was also awarded writing fellowships and residencies such as the Montgomery Fellowship at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; for the British Council at Georgetown University; and Barnard College/Columbia University, New York City.
She is currently residing in London.