Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. Girl, Woman, Other follows...
Girl, Woman, Other is the eighth novel written by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2019 by Hamish Hamilton. It follows the lives of 12 characters in the United Kingdom over the course of several decades. The book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize.
Bernardine Evaristo, MBE FRSL FRSA, FEA (born 1959), is a British author of eight works of fiction. Her bestselling novel, Girl, Woman, Other, jointly won the Booker Prize in 2019, alongside Margaret Atwood's The Testaments. It was also one of Barack Obama's 19 Favourite Books of 2019. Evaristo's writing also includes short fiction, drama, poetry, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio. Two of her books, The Emperor's Babe (2001) and Hello Mum (2010), have been adapted into BBC Radio 4 dramas. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and the vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature.
Evaristo is a longstanding advocate for the inclusion of writers and artists of colour. She founded the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2012 and The Complete Works poets development scheme (2007–2017). She co-founded Spread the Word writer development agency (1995–present) and, in the 1980s, Britain's first black women's theatre company, Theatre of Black Women. She also organised Britain's first major black theatre conference, Future Histories, for the Black Theatre Forum, in 1995 in the Royal Festival Hall, and Britain's first major conference on black British writing, Tracing Paper, in 1997, at the Museum of London.
Honours, awards, fellowships
2019: Joint winner of the Booker Prize, October 2019
2018: Elected a Fellow, Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance
2017: Elected a Fellow, the English Association
2015: Triangle Publishing Awards: The Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, USA
2015: The Montgomery Fellowship, Dartmouth College, USA
2014: Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize
2010: The Emperor's Babe, The Times (UK) "100 Best Books of the Decade"
2010: Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, USA (finalist)
2010: Poetry Book Society Commendation for Ten, co-edited with Daljit Nagra
2009: International Dublin Literary Award, nominated for Blonde Roots
2009: Blonde Roots, Big Red Read Award, Fiction and overall winner
2009: Awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to Literature
2009: Orange Prize Youth Panel Choice for Blonde Roots
2009: Orange Prize for Fiction, nominated for Blonde Roots
2009: Arthur C. Clarke Award, USA, nominated for Blonde Roots
2006: Elected a Fellow, Royal Society of Arts (est. 1754)
2006: British Council Fellow, Georgetown University, USA
2004: Elected a Fellow, Royal Society of Literature (est. 1820)
2003: NESTA Fellowship Award (National Endowment of Science, Technology & The Arts)
2002: UEA Writing Fellow, University of East Anglia
2000: Arts Council England Writer's Award 2000, for The Emperor’s Babe
1999: EMMA Best Book Award for Lara
The book has no overarching story. Instead, each chapter of the book follows the life of one of the12 characters (mostly black women) as they negotiate the world. Although each character has their own chapter set across a particular time, their lives intertwine in numerous ways – from friends and relatives to chance acquaintances.
Some of the themes explored in the characters lives are feminism, politics, patriarchy, success, relationships and sexuality. Asked about her motivations in writing the work, Evaristo said:
I wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature. I whittled it down to 12 characters – I wanted them to span from a teenager to someone in their 90s, and see their trajectory from birth, though not linear. There are many ways in which otherness can be interpreted in the novel – the women are othered in so many ways and sometimes by each other. I wanted it to be identified as a novel about women as well.
The review aggregator website Book Marks reported that 57% of critics gave the book a "rave" review, while the remaining 43% expressed "positive" impressions.
Emily Rhodes of the Financial Times said that "Evaristo writes sensitively about how we raise children, how we pursue careers, how we grieve and how we love", while Johanna Thomas-Corr of the Sunday Times describes Girl, Woman, Other as "...a triumphantly wide-ranging novel, told in a hybrid of prose and poetry, about the struggles, longings, conflicts and betrayals of 12 (mostly) black women and non-binary character." According to Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing for the New Statesman, Evaristo "continues to expand and enhance our literary canon. If you want to understand modern day Britain, this is the writer to read."
Girl, Woman, Other was joint winner (with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments) of the 2019 Booker Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Gordon Burn Prize. The Booker Judges described the work as "a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood".
The book was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by the Washington Post.
Black women’s stories have long been misread as something they are not. It is hard to write fiction without being asked: is this story about you? And does this singular tale represent the collective black female experience? Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other turns a subtle side-eye to both questions, and makes answering them an impossible task.
Her eighth novel follows 12 characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades and learning how to be. Each character has a chapter; within the chapters their lives overlap, but their experiences, backgrounds and choices could not be more different. There’s Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright, and non-binary Morgan, who uses the internet to navigate their gender identity – but also Shirley, a teacher who feels alien in Amma’s community, and Winsome, a bride who has arrived from Barbados to an unhappy marriage. Many of the characters are close – friends, relatives or lovers – while others simply visit the same theatre on the same night, or argue with each other on Twitter.
Living within a patriarchal society presents challenges that unite many of us. Amma is concerned with what it means to be politically pure, or to “sell out”, while another character, Carole, chases mainstream success in the world of banking. Other questions raised in the novel feel urgent yet timeless: how can a woman incorporate a relationship with a man into her feminist life? Should we show anger towards those who “get it wrong” – even if from a position of ignorance? Whose guidance should I follow? That dispensed by my mother, my university, my partner, my peers, my feminist heroes? Which bonds will last?
Feminists have always grappled with certain problems, such as commercialisation: “the media’s obsession with beautiful women is nothing new, look at Gloria, Germaine and Angela in their youth”. Evaristo weaves these struggles into dialogue without reducing her speakers into mouthpieces for a popular debate. Some of her conversations feel naive (who is the “most” privileged, and is there a sliding scale anyway?), but they are nonetheless conversations that many of us have had. Others are contentious – one character creates a trans-exclusionary festival – but they’re tackled sensitively. We are also shown where political discourse can fail us, such as through emotional manipulation in a lesbian relationship: “only a black woman can ever truly love a black woman”.
Evaristo, whose previous books explore heritage, the African diaspora and modern life, wrote these intergenerational stories over a six-year period. There are echoes here of her 2009 verse novel, Lara, with the prose at times feeling more like poetry, stripped of capitalisation and punctuation: “while dancing / for herself / out of it / out of her head / out of her body / feeling it / freeing it / nobody watching”. The pace is tightly controlled, and women’s bodies and the way they’re presented arise again and again as motifs, with details including a sequinned hijab, bare feet, an apron and a string of pearls all imbued with significance.
Each storyline brings the reader round to a position of empathy. The characters are flawed and complex, for example Bummi, the immigrant parent who would rather her child did anything but bring home a white partner; and later, an affair that perhaps represents the worst way one woman can betray another. When each section ends, we leave with a new perspective.
There is no overarching story, but to be racialised as black brings with it some level of connectedness. As a result, there is something unconditional about the relationships here – the protagonists support each other, and are often forgiving and gentle. From finding family through DNA testing, to wanting to mentor other women of colour, to the possibilities offered by safe spaces – by the novel’s close, Evaristo has illustrated the drive for togetherness.
Girl, Woman, Other is about struggle, but it is also about love, joy and imagination. The book culminates with her protagonists – black women of different generations, faiths, classes, politics and heritages, and a few men too – thrown together at a party for a soap opera-style grand finale. Evaristo’s world is not idealised, but there is something uniquely beautiful about it. The core group holding the party together are a non-traditional family – Amma and Roland are queer parents, while Yazz, their formidable, defiant daughter with the unruly afro, bobs about the room. For many readers, it’s not a familiar world – this is a Britain less often depicted in fiction. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a world that is possible, and worth celebrating.
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