The Ake Book Festival is one of Africa’s leading international literary festivals, held this year in Lagos, Nigeria from 24th to 27th October. The festival describes itself as follows:
Now in its seventh year, Ake Festival brings together the biggest and brightest names in the world of books from across Africa and the African diaspora. Showcasing the best contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and thinking from Africa, the festival also plays host to film screenings, theatre performances, poetry readings, art exhibitions and dance performances from Africa’s biggest names. Inspiring people to engage with the power of books to inform, enlighten and inspire, Ake Festival provides a platform for debates that challenge African norms, attitudes and traditions.
I was delighted to be asked to review Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other as part of the blog tour for the Ake Festival. (It also feels fitting to be reviewing this novel during Black History Month and just before I’m due to teach my undergraduates at QMUL about post-war black British history!) Since the invitation, events have somewhat overtaken my plans and I’m sure that Evaristo needs no further praise from me, but nevertheless, I wanted to share some thoughts about this hugely deserving Booker winner.
Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of twelve black* British women*. (*One of the narrators is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and another passes as white and is unaware of her black heritage.) The book is divided into four parts and finishes with a triumphant epilogue in which all of the characters come together, whether in body or in spirit. Each part features three narrators who are interlinked: so for example, in the first section, we hear from Amma, her daughter Yazz, and Amma’s close friend Dominique. Not all the narrators in any given section are so neatly tied together, and often part of the fun is figuring out how they’re connected. The book also has an ambitious scope; most of its pages are devoted to Britain from the 1980s onwards, but its narrators’ stories stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century, refuting any ahistorical assumptions that black British life began with the Windrush generation. As Peter Fryer famously opened his 1984 history, Staying Power: ‘There were Africans in Britain before the British came here’.
The best sections of Girl, Woman, Other are just wonderful, and the impact of the novel as a whole is exhilarating. The book is tied together at its beginning and end by the story of Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright who has Nigerian and Ghanaian parents and who was deeply involved in the black feminist movement of the 1980s; back then, she put on independent pop-up productions at pulled-together venues, but now one of her plays is being put on at the National for the first time, and some of her friends think she’s sold out. It’s a joy to see black second-wave feminism being discussed so seriously and yet so effortlessly in a fictional context through the stories of both Amma and Dominique, and the way in which Evaristo deals with the theoretical conflicts within the movement (‘womanism’, not feminism?; race not gender?; lesbian separatism?) Today, second-wave feminists are so often relegated to tired stereotypes – man-haters who were all elite white heterosexual women – and it was wonderful to see this side of the movement being brought so brilliantly to life.
For me, this novel did occasionally push up against its own limitations: this was most obvious in the voices of the two youngest protagonists, Yazz and Morgan, and in the narrative of Shirley, a conservative secondary school teacher who is apparently based on Evaristo’s mother. While Evaristo is so adept in other chapters at extending her sympathies to characters with contradictory views, I felt that she fell short with these three protagonists in particular. Both Yazz and Morgan slip into woke stereotypes, and Evaristo doesn’t really succeed in fully inhabiting their feelings as well as their thoughts; I wanted to understand their attachments to the ideas that they campaign for as vividly as I felt the emotions of Amma and Dominique. On the other side of the coin, Shirley feels like she’s come from a checklist composed from endless novels about teachers who teach in ‘difficult’ schools, and I think there was a missed opportunity to make her a more nuanced character. Her strategy of selecting certain pupils whom she thinks have the ability to succeed and mentoring them through school – a strategy that another of our narrators, Carol, has benefited from – is problematic in many ways, but I wanted to see Shirley’s side of it. Instead, I was left feeling that no space was left for the reader to sympathise with her, even if we should also want to criticise her assumption that the majority of pupils are hopeless cases.
This isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s still an essential and vital read. As she is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, I wish that Evaristo had been allowed to win it alone. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled that her talent was recognised by the judges, and that sales of this novel have soared even though she had to share the spotlight.