August 2020 Open Book Group – Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Thank you to Trish for moderating Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, at OBG-Zoom’s inaugural and successful meeting.

Girl, Women, Other follows the stories of 12 black women. Among them are Amma, a lesbian, socialist, playwright, Morgan who identifies as non-binary, ambitious Carole negotiating the corporate banking world, Shirley a teacher who wants to change the world through education, and Winsome who has arrived from Barbados to unhappy marriage searching for a new life and opportunities for her daughter. They range in age from 19-year-old Yazz, Amma daughter, whose style is described as “part 90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien” to, 90 something, Hattie. The resolution of Hattie’s painful secret provides a feel-good ending to the novel.  All the characters are interconnected as mother and daughter, school friends or work colleagues.

Each is given a chapter where we learn their struggles against a patriarchal society in which black women are even more marginalised than white women. Evaristo seeks to give black women a voice that is often missing from mainstream literature. Through their stories, many of society’s issues confronting women are explored from sexuality in all its forms to domestic violence (lesbian), rape, single mothers with multiple children to different fathers, unwanted pregnancies, painful adoptions and sexist workplace structures. And that is before we get onto feminism then, Amma, and now, Yazz.

Evaristo’s writing is very fluid. Punctuation and capital letters are generally ignored. The placement of words on the page is often poetic. The vernacular is right up to date; have your urban dictionary to hand.

Thanks to Jan, we settled down in front of our devices and zoomed into an OBG discussion as if we had never been away. We were unanimous in praise for her writing. It was loose, wonderfully descriptive and extremely readable. Her descriptions of each woman came through loud and clear, with both great humour and sadness. Their ideas tumbled off the pages. She often vividly portrayed what the protagonists were wearing and eating to place them in context.

In Our Mad and Furious (OBG July 2020) black, male, author Guy Guneratne gave voice to the experience of contemporary male, black, youth. It would be illuminating to do a “compare and contrast” exercise on the two books. A project if we are ever in lockdown again!

We noted that there are schools of thought which claim that only members of a minority group can truly write about that minority groups experience. Ergo, only black women can write about the black women experience, only women can write about women etc. We disagreed with this premise, but maybe that is because our level of privilege in society means we find this view confronting.  Relative levels of privilege are yet another idea her character debate.

A published author in our group commented that it can be a challenge to introduce a black person into a story. She noted that you never have to write a “white” woman is entering the room as the reader automatically presumes that to be the case. It is clumsy to write a “black” woman is entering the room, so you need to make other literary clues to make it obvious. Food for thought.

We wondered how autobiographical Amma was. Like Amma, Nigerian-Anglo born Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. Amma had established the Bush Women Theatre Company in her despair that black woman could only audition, and usually fail, for roles as “slave, servant, prostitute, nanny or crim” Had Evaristo had the same motivation? Members with corporate and teaching backgrounds felt Carole, Shirley and Penelope’s experiences were well observed, particularly the changes in teaching from the 1960s to 2000s. Genealogists in the group enjoyed her employment of Ancestry DNA. Interesting, a member with a long theatrical background did not engage with Amma’s histrionics.

Many commented that Megan/Morgan, who identified as non-binary, had expanded our knowledge of the trans world. Morgan described how they had chosen the non-binary pronouns they wished to be described by. Reading Morgan’s story, with non-binary pronouns, did require a shift in our thinking about identity.

Except for Roland, Yazz’s father and Amma’s gay sperm donor, the men in the book are shadowy figures. They were either good, bad, or just plain hopeless. This makes the book one-sided and sometimes their view would have been interesting to hear.

The main criticism, of several in the group, was that there were too many characters and too many issues. Often just when you had formed a powerful attachment to one character the novel moves into the stories of other women. A member observed it was as if Evaristo had a large laundry list of wimmin’s issues. She then needed multiple characters to squeeze them all into. We thought a second book giving more depth to a select few from Girl, Woman, Other, as well as some third-party observations (maybe male view? If they dared.), would be a great follow up. Note to self, must email Evaristo with this suggestion.

Girl, Woman, Other certainly succeeds in drawing our attention black women’s life experiences and ideas. The colour divide did not alienate us from feeling empathy and relating to many of them. It is a novel for all women and men as her dedication  “For the sisters & the sistas & the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn & our brethren & our bredrin & our brothers & our bruvs & our men & our mandem & the LGBTQI+ members of the human family.” anticipates.


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