Twelve stories, many more voices
of womxn who identify as black, as lesbian, as Nigerian,
as trans, as non-binary,
as American, as poor,
as African, as successful,
This is what you will find in the pages of Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo’s latest novel with which she won the Booker Prize in December 2019
and as far as I’m concerned, she is the only winner.
A tour de force. Bernardine Evaristo realized a tour de force. Girl, Woman, Other is hotly contemporary yet covering the stories of several generations of women
ambitiously creative but never pompous
breaking down paragraphs and sentences into poetic rhythm yet
letting the reader down
deliciously funny but never disrespectful
of minorities’ fights.
I am no Evaristo so I won’t persist in this pale imitation her talent, but I do hope this intro gives you a taste of the hybrid writing. Fluctuating, free, Bernardine Evaristo’s prose flies easily on the page, mutates into poetry and resists definition, jut like her characters do. Form and message in beautiful unison.
The composition of the novel represents its eclecticism as well as its coherence. Seemingly disrupted and fragmented, the stories have a life of their own and in the complex world that Evaristo has invented, more convincing than that of The Travelers in my opinion, which relies on the same device, the rhizomatic roots of the characters progressively appear to the reader, which make the joy and wonder of this novel.
The rhizome that underlies the structure of the novel, that links more or less all the characters together, is what carries the ethical project of the novel. With these common, hidden roots and connections, Evaristo takes us to a place of empathy. She invites us to suspend, not disbelief as classic literature would have us do, but judgment. With each new chapter, each new voice, we are brought to uncover the reasons of the characters’ acts or words. And even when some of them are truly shocking (like a mother sleeping with her son-in-law, to name just one example), if we listen very closely to the voice, we can understand the logic behind what seems criminal: “it was better she satisfy him than he left her daughter”…
In the polyphony of her novel, Evaristo literally embodies otherness: she shapes and gives voices to silenced women, to invisible womxn, to voluptuous lesbians. Just as Yazz, the woke millennial who “innocently open[ed] the drawer under [her father’s] bed and [came] across a leather gad mask type thing with a leather dick attached where she presumed a nose should be, along with associated whips, gels, handcuffs and other unexplainable objects / unfortunately, once seen, never unseen and it was a lesson for her at a young age that you never know people until you’ve been through their drawers”… Just as Yazz, we open the drawers of invisible or oppressed womxn and get to know them
And once you do, “once seen, never unseen”, you can’t judge anymore, you are just left with the sheer uniqueness of each character and the unfathomable complexity of each life.
There is no such thing as otherness, there’s only the social construction of it, which cuts ourselves from our humanity. Otherness needs deconstructing, reconstructing, reevaluating. Otherness needs connecting and reconnecting, it needs to be reshaped to make sense in an increasingly complex world where roots expand beyond visible knowledge. Instead of despair, Evaristo leaves us with a message of hope as one of her most unlikable characters suddenly realizes: “Why did she ever think that colour mattered?”
Finally, Evaristo’s novel is remarkable in its modernity. She addresses so many issues that are stake for whomever is the least involved in social debates. Feminism has its fair share of the author’s reflection and Evaristo masterfully explores its different acceptions, its different embodiments, its different fights throughout generations. She tactfully demonstrates the evolution of feminism from Amma, the lesbian Black playwright, to her daughter who is even more intersectional and modern than Amma ever thought possible. Her characters indeed are at the intersectionality of many fights and it doesn’t seem that Evaristo forgot one. She introduced a non-binary character and described that character using the plural pronoun “they”, but doesn’t fail to voice the disagreement of their grandmother: “just be who you want to be and let’s agree not to talk about it / the funny thing is, nothing’s changed about Morgan since she became a gender granary non-binding whatsit, other than changing her name from Megan to Morgan, which is fine, Hattie can live with that / at least she didn’t name herself Reginald or William / Hattie absolutely won’t pander to calling her they instead of she, as requested / Morgan looks the same (like a boy), acts the same (boyish) and to all intents and purposes is the same (Megan)”. These few lines give the novel its realism, because of how nuanced Evaristo is about complex matters. The fact that this book won the Booker Prize tells a lot about the spreading of awareness on those issues — I hope.
And as we turn the pages, we cannot to fail to notice how impressive her command of language is. Evaristo is not a millennial but you could swear that Jazz is a live person, that you are reading through her Facebook messages. And nor is Morgan, yet they articulate with such precision the trials of non-binarism that these pages of fiction, charged with so many nuances on the topic, make you feel as if you, too, were a follower of Morgan’s hugely popular Twitter account. By accounting for such contemporary and complex issues that no mainstream media deal with, Evaristo proves herself to be a great and acute observer of society, as well as a master storyteller. She takes in you in her world and gently presses upon you her agenda, which is one of kindness, compassion and humour.