Books Culture

Girl, Woman, Other: the multifaceted reality of Black British womanhood

Bernadine Evaristo opens her eighth novel with a dedication that reads:

“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”,

ultimately setting the tone for the whole work. Girl, Woman, Other steers away from any clear-cut view of politics, race and class, illustrating instead a huge variety of identities and experiences.

Following the lives of 12 primarily black womxn, Evaristo’s novel jumps from one decade to another as it explores struggles and joys within its characters’ lives. The author describes how she, “wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature… 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”.

Far from offering a stereotype of black womanhood, Evaristo avoids any attempts to represent the collective black, female experience, revelling instead in a multiplicity of identities. The reader is introduced to non-binary Morgan who navigates social media as an activist-influencer, but also to Winsome, a bride recently arrived from Barbados trying to deal with a  difficult marriage. Yet, whilst each chapter is dedicated to a separate woman, the novel is far from disjunct. Characters emerge out of each other’s stories, plots bleeding into one another as links materialise between the interconnected womxn.

This fluidity is matched in the form of the work. Evaristo christened her novel as an example of “fusion fiction”, because of the way the stories fuse into one another, but also because of the unusual style she adopts. The story is stripped of capitalisation and full stops, punctuation is abandoned in favour of a free-flowing reading experience. The vibrancy of the characters thus matches the novel’s energised, poetic form, whilst the narrative flows between the characters’ minds. The reader slips from Yazz’s subconsciousness to Amma’s, as smoothly as the lines drop from one to another.

The celebration of nuance is reflected above all in Evaristo’s characterisation. Each storyline encourages empathy whilst also skewering characters’ pretentions. Nzinga is described as a “radical feminist separatist lesbian housebuilder” with epic dreadlocks and a “swamp-diva-voodoo-queen” vibe. Later in the chapter, however, we discover that her real name is Cindy, and her radical ways cause more pain for Dominique than any of the promised spiritual healing. Meanwhile, Shirley sees herself as a proud feminist but doesn’t include black women in her feminism. Readers will find themselves beginning a chapter with one view but emerging at the end of it with a new perspective.

Fluidity of sexuality is also flaunted in the novel: not only does Evaristo introduce us to straight, gay, bi and pan characters, but we also spend an entire chapter in the mind of a woman who is clearly homophobic. The novel explores class and class mobility too as some characters are shown to move away from their working-class backgrounds into middle-class wealth.

This refusal to categorise, to generalise a personal experience, pervades the novel, from the title’s inclusion of ‘Other’ to the range of characters that fill its pages. The womxn range from those who have dark skin to those white-passing; from people who engage in conversations around race and gender to those who are not interested in having such conversations. Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning novel deals with racial struggles sensitively and in-depth, but it is a joy that really brings this work to life. Despite displaying the prejudice and racism that these womxn undertake every day, the pride, humour, and love of its characters are what draws you into its pages. In a time where the dialogue around race is finally becoming more open, Evaristo’s creates three-dimensional characters that stay with you long after you have closed its pages. Girl, Woman, Other showcases a Britain that, up until recently, has been too often left out of mainstream fiction. Evaristo reminds us of the importance of hearing these voices and, moreover, the importance of celebrating them