Girl, woman, other: The amazing Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other, was my pick for the Women's Prize for Fiction, (sadly it lost out to Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell).

It's the twenty-fifth anniversary of this award.The prize, worth £30,000, is awarded to a any female author who has written a novel in English and been published in the United Kingdom in the previous year.

Girl, Woman, Other

Originally the Orange Prize for Fiction, then the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, the award was established to pay homage to women writers, who were often overlooked; backlash against the Booker Prize of 1991, when none of the shortlisted titles were written by women.

(Ironically, in 2019, the Booker Prize was won by Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood - although there has been a fair amount of discussion about the fact that the first Black Woman to win that prestigious award should have to share it at all).

I would assert that women are now dominating the international stage in many genres, if this years' award rounds are anything to go by. Go girls!

Girl, Woman, Other is Bernadine Evaristo's eighth book and celebrates heterogeneity (diversity), says the author.

Most of the characters bearing witness in this book are Black, or of mixed race.The Spinoff review found it interesting. I found these experiences of black people in Britain dismaying. Many of the first generation stories are of people highly qualified in their country of origin, reduced to cleaning toilets or driving taxis, like Bummi and Augustine.

Lennox, for example, must learn, as a young man, to live life controlling his temper; a constant target for police and searches:

'he was a good student...but soon understood he was seen as a bad person outside it

an enemy of the nation on account of his skin colour

to be stopped and frisked by the cops, which began when he was twelve

...all black men had to learn to handle it, all black men had to learn to be tough

and when the police killed someone, they were allowed to investigate themselves, and exonerated the accused' p.230-1

His wife, Shirley, a teacher, feels, when she sees black faces on the front page of the paper;

'like she's being personally attacked by the media

that women clutch their bags nervously when they pass her in the street or she sits next to them on the bus...' p.224

and is subjected to racist treatment from fellow teachers;

...'Roy Stevenson, (Physics) who let the door slam in her face three times for her to be sure it really was intentional.' p.225

While Carole, a highly educated banker these days, 

'can't help remembering all the little hurts, the business associates who complement her on being so articulate...thinking about the customs officers who pull her over when she's jet-setting the world looking as brief-cased and be-suited as all the other business people sailing through customs - un-harrassed' p.118

I connected with these stories in a number of ways: I loved the way the book drifted from daughter to parent, teacher, to partner. I was shocked at treatment of immigrants in England, intrigued by the history of an England that I remember, with its punks and anarcho-creative squats, yet saddened at how it had changed since my family left for New Zealand in 1976.

Shirley's story illustrates this transition - at the beginning of her teaching career she is full of hope and a desire to change the world; only to settle for making a difference in the lives of one or two students, helping them to achieve their potential while the rest pack guns, knives, babies, in a once working-class school that had been taken over by gangs.

Often I responded to these stories as a woman, to women. (We don't encounter a male narrator until the last quarter of the book). The other major theme of Girl, Woman, Other, is of sexuality, feminism and sexual identity. Of particular interest was the relationship between Dominique (Sojurner) and Nzinga. Even in an emancipated, feminist, woman/woman relationship there is the possibility of one person dominating, controlling the other...

Dipping into the lives of the twelve characters over time was a little confusing, but the stories come full circle by their connections - a  mother's story is mirrored by her daughter, grandmother, friend.

The characters are from many nations - Nigeria, the Caribbean, Ethiopia (Abyssinia), the West Indies, America, Malawi, Guyana, Barbados and Kenya, to name a few.

Apparently Evaristo set her sights on listing the experience of a thousand women; whittling the content down to one hundred, then the final twelve, many of them connected by threads to the play Amma is putting on in the West End; about Amazon Warriors: 'The Last Amazon of Dahomey.'

The play is a reaction to Amma's early experience of theatre; something Evaristo has had experience of. Amma has railed all her life at the portrayal and boxing of Black actors into the roles of slave, prostitute, nanny or criminal. The book itself reflects the title of the play: Girl, Woman, Other, is indeed a tale of the revenge of the Amazons of Dahomey; the play that brings many of the characters together, their many lives a triumph over adversity.

The pivotal characters of Amma and Dominique look back at the riot grrrls they once were in their early days in fringe theatre ('or is it gurls now? Yazz will know') to 'afro-gynocentrism caused a femquake tonight'

The stories in this thought-provoking, yet entertaining book range right back to the early establishment of Black immigrants in England (the result of slavery's ill-gotten gains): the really moving testament of Grace and Joseph Rydendale, Hattie's parents. Here too, is a strong element of feminism: Hattie is raised to run the farm.  

Feminism too, comes full circle at the play; from Amazon ancestors, through forbears who obeying their husbands, to Yazz, who says to Amma;

'I reckon we're all going to be non-binary in the future, neither male or female, which are gendered performances anyway, which means your women's politics, Mumsy, will become redundant, and by the way, I'm humanitarian, which is on a much higher plane than feminism' p.39

Hattie's own husband was Slim, who resolved to remain in Britain after the Second Word War, noting,

'he hadn't been called 'boy' once and when he rode his bicycle thereabouts, he wasn't worried folks were gonna don white hoods, burn crosses and lynch him...' p.363

Decades later new immigrants Clovis and Winnie find that, outside London, the countryfolk are afraid that 'colour' will rub off on their sheets, Roland (Yazz's gay father notes this in the present-day: 

...'there's a reason why black people...ended up in the metropoles, it's because you didn't want us anywhere near your verdant fields and rosy-cheeked damsels.' p.412

The revenge of the Amazons is complete when one of the few characters who identify as white, through the wonders of Ancestry DNA testing, finds her first child again and someone gets their privileged white woman attitude shaken to the ground. 

Evaristo's prose is poetic. Her characters and their stories are highly accessible, their experiences will shake your preconceived notions, make you laugh and cry. Her characters' thoughts and reactions

peter

out

at the finish of a narrative

with no punctuation, as if Evaristo is openly musing on the topic. It's very effective.

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