When reading and writing this review, the current #BlackLivesMatter had not yet started. But this time hopefully it will mean real change for people excluded from living real lives in their countries. Authors like Bernardine Evaristo will be celebrated for her writing alone and not for becoming the first black woman to win the celebrated Booker Prize. DIANE DE BEER tells more:
When you find yourself in a world where much of what you write is seen as the general experience of a whole group that people feel you represent, telling stories could become difficult.
When you discover that while sharing the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood, author Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin) her eighth novel is also the first black woman to win this prestigious prize, the burden of finding an audience in a world that still operates according to labels becomes clear – especially in a world where books and reading are not everyone’s priority.
It’s a shame and hopefully in this time of lockdown across the world, many will discover how important and, more than anything, exciting it is to escape into a world that someone else has created for you. And while exhaling, also find that our similarities are as many as our differences and that’s what makes the world such a fascinating place.
As an introduction, her book sleeve states that the author is an Anglo-Nigerian writer of seven other books of fiction and verse fiction that explore aspects of the African diaspora: past, present, real, imagined. Her writing, it further embroiders, also spans short fiction, reviews, essays, drama and writing for BBC Radio. She is furthermore a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, London and vice chair of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made an MBE in 2009.
But probably in the world we live in, not winning the Booker Prize per se, but sharing it with Margaret Atwood has put her on the radar of many in the reading world. And reading this book as well as running through her credentials, it’s about time.
Small wonder she is also listed as a literary activist for inclusion, has founded several successful initiatives, including Spread the Word, a writer development agency; The Complete Works, a mentoring scheme for poets of colour (between 2007 and 2017); and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What is it that they say about women having to work so much harder? And then add to that women of colour…
That’s an exhausting CV, just reading it. But back to the winning novel. It’s densely populated with 12 different women of colour. This time they take central stage – and they are as varied as there are people. Young, old, cheeky, subservient (but not for too long), upstanding, rocking-the-equilibrium even further, wealthy, but most struggling as we would in real life, they fall in and out of love, some with the right folk, others not so much but all of them have dreams and are trying to reach them any way they can.
It all begins at the opening of a theatre production at London’s National Theatre (something Evaristo dabbled in) and their touch point is that in some way all of the featured characters have a link with this particular night.
Their stories are introduced in different chapters and some have crossovers while others not, yet the storytelling rambles on in a way that living a life or many different lives is wont to do. The interest is, of course, in the writing as much as the different tales that unfold, even though these are intriguing and engrossing.
As her CV suggests, Evaristo is no ordinary writer. She uses no full stops and there’s a poetic flow to the writing and the way it has been printed which all make a strong statement in this exhilarating rich story.
More than anything it has to do with the stories being told. Again it is the cover sleeve that suggests that she is presenting a “gloriously new kind of history, for this old country: ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible.” No wonder some boisterous characters powerful only in the world of politics are running scared and looking as hard as they can for laws that will prevent all this diversity.
Instead of embracing the energy and exuberance of multi-cultural worlds, they want to put a stop to it by shutting it down. How utterly sad.
Either way, for those of us – and in this country with all its richness in diversity, you can hardly ignore it – who embrace it, the colourful world that emerges and dominates is wonderfully challenging, constantly changing and usually a hub of creativity as different cultures cross-pollinate and stretch one another.
To give you a sense of what you may be stepping into:
At some point it’s Newcastle in 1905. A 10-year-old in an orphanage is dreaming of an African father she will never meet.
Cornwall 1953 and a young bride recently from Barbados realises that the man she is about to marry might not be the one.
In London 1980, Amma reigns supreme in her squat while setting out to demolish patriarchy with a new kind of feminist theatre.
Oxford 2008 finds Carole rejecting her background (Nigeria originally) to fit in at her new university.
Morgan who used to be Megan is visiting the 90-year-old Hattie in Northumberland in 2017. She is still fighting to retain her independence and missing her man every day.
And so the story goes. But it is about much more than just the lives of these women, even though their stories are what has to tell the story the author is intent on getting out there.
With writers like these being given prominence in whatever way, at some point we will stop paying attention to who is writing what and simply fall in love with the writing, the telling of stories and the easiest way to enrich and broaden what might otherwise be a very small world.