Every once in a while, I stop and just think about how everyone else around me is totally engrossed in their own life. I don’t mean in an egotistical sense. I mean … just as I am wrapped up in living my life, with my own beliefs and struggles, my moments to myself and my moments given to others … everyone else goes through all this too! Except they aren’t me, or I’m not them, and therefore I don’t know what it’s like … sorry, am I getting too deep? Anyway, Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel that basically seeks to remind us of theory of mind. Bernardine Evaristo tells 12 interlocking stories that expose us not just to the lives but to the minds of 12 Black people. In so doing, she reminds us that when we look at someone, when we judge them, when we wonder why they think or behave the way we do, maybe we should stop and consider where they come from—not just in place but in time and society as well.
I’m not even going to attempt to summarize each of the 12 stories, because I am lazy. Let’s just say that Evaristo’s characters are drawn from a diversity of backgrounds, yet they also share experiences by dint of how society perceives them. Almost all of them are women (one is non-binary), all of them are Black (although that is complicated and erased for one), all of them are British yet are either immigrants or have tangible connections to immigrant parents or grandparents. Evaristo’s characters span generations, classes, careers, sexualities, and attitudes. They are artists and parents, cleaners and mathematicians, teachers and farm wives.
Girl, Woman, Other’s writing is closer to poetry than prose. The paragraphs are more like verses, with capitalization and line-breaks creative rather than conventional. Description dominates over dialogue, which is conveyed at a distance. In this way, Evaristo seeks to provide a sum-over-stream-of-consciousness of histories: her characters grow from girls to women in a matter of pages, learn hard lessons, move through the world and make decisions that set their lives on certain paths. This is beautiful yet also frustrating, this style—I don’t like it, but I also understand its use here, and I don’t mean to say it’s bad. I just don’t make a habit of reading novels like this, and I won’t pretend that it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.
I appreciate the myriad ways Evaristo interrogates the intersections of sex, sexuality, and race. Her characters are often queer—some of them openly so, some of them only experimentally or quietly. Trigger warnings for this book abound: rape and sexual violence, racism, abuse, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. Part of Evaristo’s theme is this idea that even though these characters explain Blackness and femaleness in very different ways, they are some level united by these identities by dint of living in white supremacist Britain. Meanwhile, these characters are complex and fallible. In a way, these aren’t really even interconnecting stories. They are character sketches, like we’re getting a glimpse into Evaristo’s notebook, plans for a novel not yet writen.
I take issue with how Evaristo tells the story of Morgan, the non-binary (“gender-free” in Morgan’s own words). Evaristo begins by using Morgan’s deadname and the pronouns she/her, only switching up after Morgan chooses a new name and switches to they/them. I can understand why Evaristo does this, but as a trans person, I don’t like it. I want people to apply my name and pronouns retroactively—now that I am Kara, I’m Kara in 1989 when I was born, Kara in 2007 when I graduated high school, Kara last year before I came out as trans. It felt weird and compromising to be asked to look at Morgan in a way incongruent with their identity, even if the idea is supposed to be that this is the past. And here’s the thing: in a movie, or perhaps even a more conventional novel, there might be call for such convention—but this is not a conventional novel; this is a perfect opportunity for Evaristo to further her experimental form.
Updated: Iliana, a reviewer on the non-binary spectrum, has graciously given me permission to amplify their criticisms of Morgan’s portrayal!
(As an aside, Morgan, Shirley, Penelope’s stories probably resonated most with me, since I’m trans and also a teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in England, but I know what it’s like to teach there!)
Indeed, as I considered Evaristo’s portrayal of Morgan, I started to understand the limitations of Girl, Woman, Other. It deserves its praise for the diversity of its sketches, for the complexity of these characters. Yet it also runs into the problem that plagues every author: you cannot possibly represent, with perfect fidelity, the experiences of people whose lives you haven’t shared. I’m pretty sure Evaristo understands this, that this is in fact part of the point of the book—but I wonder if this might go over some people’s heads. Girl, Woman, Other’s greatest strength is, out of necessity and probably by design, also its greatest weakness. In telling 12 stories, it sacrifices its ability to dive deeply into one. Each of these characters could have, do deserve, their own 450-page novel to portray them as fully and deeply as they deserve.
That’s what I thought about as I read this book. In a way, I really appreciate that I pushed through its unconventional prose—it’s always nice when a novel gets me thinking about the structures and strictures of literature, about what is possible within the boundaries of the conventions we set, or within the liminal spaces between conventions. Thus, the highest praise I can give Girl, Woman, Other is that it is the best type of experimental novel, in my opinion: it is an experiment born out of empathy, rather than the author’s ego; and it is intrinsically aware of its own limitations.
And more broadly, of course, I suspect that this book is a response to the dearth of Black female characters in so-called “mainstream” literature. It’s somewhat ironic (but certainly laudable) that this book won such accolades as the Booker Prize. Mainstream British (and Canadian) literature often ignores the voices of women and Black people, unless they embody Blackness and femaleness in specific ways, in ways that invalidate the autonomy and dignity of their bodies. Evaristo in this book pushes back against such ideas. This is a book filled with Black joy as well as Black pain. Hopefully its success paves the way for more Black women’s voices to tell the stories they want to tell rather than the ones that our literary gatekeepers deem theirs to tell.