Amidst the current resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, triggered by the tragic death of George Floyd, social media has been flooded with posts sharing links to websites, podcasts and books, encouraging people to educate themselves and spread awareness. I felt Bernardine Evaristo’s novel, ‘Girl, Woman, Other,’ is particularly poignant during this time. Her novel, which recounts the experiences of 12 black British women, won the 2019 Booker Prize alongside second time winner, Margaret Attwood. This made Evaristo the first black woman to win the award since its start in 1969. The decision to split the winners went against the rules, however, the judges felt unable to choose between them. Evaristo’s success was particularly significant as she was a much less highly acclaimed author than Attwood, highlighting her true talent. However, her success was discredited by a BBC broadcaster, who referred to the success of Margaret Attwood and “another author.” Evaristo responded in a tweet saying, “how quickly and casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it.” Despite the BBC later claiming this was an innocent omission, it clearly draws upon the absence of black British writers within literature, who seem to be easily forgotten.
In fact, there is a general lack of writers of ethnic minorities within British literature, resulting in a need for new voices. Generally, publishers do not intentionally refuse to publish novels written by minorities, however, subconsciously, their race plays a large part in their absence. Assumptions are often made as to the type of novel they will write and often publishers struggle with marketing. The problem with this omission from the literary world, however, has profound effects on individuals. Although literature is often used as a form of escapism, it also offers a commentary and representation of society as we see it. However, the domination of white middle class writers results in a single story being published, often focusing on white middle class characters, who many can identify with. This is damaging as it only offers a narrow perspective, leaving ethnic minorities unable to see themselves within these works, rendering them feeling like the ‘other’ within society. Evaristo highlights the absence of African literature and history within Britain meant her Nigerian father was left lacking in a sense of self. Growing up during the 1960s/70s there was a clear absence of black British writing, which only began to change during the 1990s. This forced her to search further afield, until she found she related most to African-American writers, underlining the difficulties for Evaristo to identify with British literature, which offered limited perspectives.
Despite the growth in black British literature, this label creates problems in itself. Some writers find it pushes them into a corner, restricting their imagination, whilst causing people to assume their story is about them. As well as this, there is often the assumption that a singular story represents the entire collective black British female experience, which is far from the truth. Evaristo, however, embraces this label, believing she should be defined by her experiences, which are based on her gender and race, whilst pointing to her differences within society. She believes we have a duty to share what mainstream history fails to represent and discover our roots, which have a profound effect on our identity. Her aim for the novel was to feature a broad range of black British female characters, exploring race, gender identity, sexuality, and immigration, highlighting the diversity within this label and the contrasting experiences they encounter.
Each character dominates a chapter, offering the reader a new perspective by the end of it. Evaristo successfully makes stark contrasts between each character, using a distinct style and tone, which made me feel as if I knew the characters personally, to explore their varied experiences. The fact these characters lives are intertwined, however, shows their overarching desire for support and community, as despite their differences, they are bound together by their shared struggle. Although I was unable to identify with the characters experiences myself, Evaristo’s style produced a deep level of empathy and compassion in me for each story, and I found myself becoming more and more emotionally involved as each chapter progressed. Evaristo purposely did not sugar coat any of the stories, aiming to create realistic, complex and flawed characters, encouraging the reader to form their own moral judgements. This made for a refreshing and eye-opening read, which cleverly exposed the prejudices and challenges facing black British women, whilst commenting on the uncomfortable truths of British society.
It seems fitting that Evaristo’s forward-thinking and unconventional novel, which subverts expectations of herself as a writer, uses a similarly unconventional form, which she defines as “fusion fiction.” The use of lowercase writing, absence of full stops and long sentences created a level of experimentation and fluidity, enabling her to gain access inside the psyche of each character and switch between the past and the present, which she seeks to redefine. Initially, it took me a while to get used to this writing style, which I had never encountered before, however, as I progressed it made for a seamless transition from story to story.
Overall, this was a very captivating read, which stuck with me long after I had finished it. I could not recommend it enough as well as encourage others to research further into Evaristo’s own experiences. I found her novel granted me new perspectives, encouraging me to question the nature of our society. Evaristo’s ability to present a revision of the single story which seems to dominate our shelves is incredibly important for progress. In literary terms, it allows minorities to identify themselves within novels, instead of being marginalised, whilst opening up others to lives other than their own. This is vital on a larger scale for altering society’s mindset and behaviours, and we should be encouraging new writers to use their voices.