Editor’s note: Bernardine Evaristo was scheduled to discuss “Girl, Woman, Other” on March 23 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center but the event was canceled due to coronavirus. Regardless, Evaristo’s book deserves your attention and interest.
“There are rules, and the rules say there must be one winner,” Peter Florence, chair of the judges for the 2019 Booker Prizes, explained as he announced the two winners of last year’s top honor for fiction in a prerecorded video released during the prestigious award ceremony last October. The prize — and 50,000 pounds in prize money (about $60,000) — was split between Bernardine Evaristo for her novel, “Girl, Woman, Other,” and Margaret Atwood, for “The Testaments,” her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“I think our understanding was that this year of all years, there is a context that both these books are heard loudly and gloriously around the world,” Florence explained.
The New York Times editorial board’s decision earlier this year to endorse two Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination race was made with similar reasoning — and met with similar controversy.
Analogous, though not identical, these two circumstances of indecision on the part of majorly influential cultural institutions were met with skepticism and accusations that the organizations had neglected the singular role that requires them to take a stance, rather than “balancing the ticket” in an attempt to appease two camps. Some argued Evaristo’s historic win — she is the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize for Fiction — was undermined by splitting a prize with Atwood. (The iconic author won in 2000 for “The Blind Assassin.”)
The notion that two different visions of governance, or two different novels, would share equal endorsement in a time of cultural uncertainty seems to run counter to the prevailing logic of our moment.
But this is what Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other” is all about.
Evaristo’s novel is a smorgasbord of discourses, a panorama of Britain’s Black diaspora written in rhythmic prose. “Girl, Woman, Other” tracks 12 characters through different stages of their lives, mostly Black women, but Evaristo captures the profound diversity of their histories, politics, relationships and outcomes.
Amma, whose story anchors the novel, is the daughter of a “half-caste” mother and Ghanaian refugee father. She’s a second-wave feminist and a lesbian playwright whose newest work, “The Last Amazon of Dahomey” is the novel’s beginning and end point, and the contrast between viewpoints becomes stark when the perspective jumps to her daughter, Yazz, and beyond.
Yazz is a college student who studies journalism and speaks in the truisms and clichés of the internet, often bringing nuance to her mother’s perspectives. Facing seismic, generational issues like climate change, her perspective is grounded in global issues — much to Amma’s dismay, Yazz is a humanitarian rather than a feminist. She and her friends stage the minidebates about feminism that frame the book, warning against strict heuristics of identity that result in playing a game of “privilege Olympics.”
There is no single, privileged perspective in “Girl, Woman, Other,” although the contrasts between some — from an Oxford-educated executive to a teacher, actors, a nonbinary social-media influencer — reveal their own biases. Most arguments end in stalemate, unsettled clashes between two perspectives, both bearing wisdom.
“It’s really fashionable to be a feminist these days” says Dominque, an actor and a former member of a separatist feminist colony; Amma wonders why that could possibly be a bad thing. “It’s the commodification of it that bugs me … Feminism needs tectonic plates to shift, not a trendy make-over.” Amma still thinks it’s cynical.
Evaristo is a keeper of stories, confronting readers with a complex, intricate narrative, one that can be interpreted both as a 12-car collision and as a choir. As the lives of these fundamentally unique characters collide, a harmony emerges. They are ambitious. They find warmth and meaning in the families they’ve created for themselves. As women, they are constantly forced to “adjust to the collision between reality and expectation,” and as Black women, they are always negotiating their own liberation.
In a novel so deeply connected to history and so deeply expressive of its uncertainty, “Girl, Woman, Other” presents a cosmology of Blackness that has made literary history.