although the mother of his only child, writer and director, and dear, dear friend, could have made her name where it mattered a long time ago, if she’d taken his advice and directed a few multi-culti Shakespeares, Greek tragedies and other classics, instead of writing plays about black women which will never have popular appeal, simply because the majority of the majority sees the majority of Les Négresses as separate to themselves, an embodiment of Otherness
Girl, Women, Other, the latest novel by Bernardine Evaristo, tells the story of twelve characters, mostly black British women, but of a wide variety of ages (19 to 94), socio-demographic groups, parts of the United Kingdom, racial and ethnic identities, and sexualities. As the author explains (here):
I wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature. I whittled it down to 12 characters — I wanted them to span from a teenager to someone in their 90s, and see their trajectory from birth, though not linear. 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. I wanted it to be identified as a novel about women as well.
The novel closes, in Chapter 5, at “the crowded after-party of The Last Amazon of Dahomey at the National Theatre, written and directed by none other than Amma Bonsu the legendary black dyke theatre director,” where many of the characters converge, but we are introduced to their stories in the the previous four chapters.
The novel has been carefully constructed. Each of the four chapters first gives us the story of one of four key figures, then that of two key associated characters:
- Amma (and then her daughter Yazz, a University of East Anglia student of English literature, and Dominique; Amma’s best friend and former theater group partner);
- Carole, an Oxford graduate, working in the City, who attends the party as a sponsor; her mother Bummi; and Carole’s former classmate LaTisha;
- Shirley, a schoolteacher and Amma’s oldest friend; Winsome, her mother; and Penelope, a teaching colleague;
- Megan/Morgan, a social-media trans-activist; their matriarchal great-grandmother Hattie, a 93 year-old mixed-race UKIP-voting Brexiteer Northumberland farmer; and Hattie’s (now deceased) mother Grace (who married into the family farm).
Morgan was invited to review the play, which they duly do seconds after it closes:
Just seen #TheLastAmazonofDahomey @NationalTheatre. OMG, warrior women kicking ass on stage! Pure African Amazon blackness. Feeeeerce! Heart-breaking & ball-breaking! All hail #AmmaBonsu #allblackhistorymatters Book now or cry later, peepalls!!! @RogueNation
it’s been liked 14,006 times and retweeted 7,447 times and the numbers keep ratcheting up
The novel begins:
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
This instantly and evocatively places the reader on the south side of the Thames, walking past Hungerford Bridge, and approaching the National Theatre. But it also introduces us to Evaristo’s effective prose-poetry style of writing, a form she has dubbed in interviews “fusion fiction” (here):
There was something about the flowing way in which I was able to write the story that meant I could go all over the place. It’s almost like prose poetry. There aren’t any paragraphs. As you’re reading it, the sentences flow into each other.
The fluid way in which I shaped, lineated and punctuated the prose on the page enabled me to oscillate between the past and the present inside their heads, outside their heads, and eventually from one character’s story into another character’s story.
Carole’s success in reaching Oxford from the local state school, in a highly underprivileged area, is neatly contrasted with that of LaTisha, her former friend and classmate, now actually working her way through the lower management ranks of her supermarket, but, while a decade earlier working on the tills, pregnant by three different men, after one night stands, by the age of 20. While one of them, the supermarket security guard, has, like the others, nothing to do with his child, he does at least provide for the baby in one creative way:
at least Dwight manned up for a few seconds made sure their shifts overlapped so she could get as many things as she needed for the baby without detection
The dominant character in the Shirley section is actually her more senior colleague Penelope, the one avowedly white character in the novel and (to her regret in middle-age as he feels dating would otherwise have been easier) “sadly, there wasn’t a sapphic bone in her body.”
Megan is perhaps the character who best characterizes the mixture of identities that defines ‘black’:
Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being
most people assumed she was mixed-race, it was easier to let them think it
Morgan (no longer Megan) has self-identified as gender-free for six years now:
@transwarrior was initially used to chart their journey from tomboy to non-binary, these days they use it more widely for general trans issues, gender, feminism, politics
This could all sound very po-faced but it is actually at times very funny, with Evaristo beautifully treading a line between acceptance and affection for her characters, but prepared to highlight their faults and cliched behavior, for example in this set-piece on a squat where Amma spend her formative years:
the Marxists demanded they set up a Central Committee of the Workers’ Republic of Freedomia, which was a bit rich, Amma thought, seeing as most of them had taken ‘a principled stand against the running dogs of capitalism’ as an excuse to not work
the hippies suggested they form a commune and share everything, but they were so chilled and laid back, everybody talked over them
the environmentalists wanted to ban aerosols, plastic bags and deodorant, which turned everyone against them, even the punks who weren’t exactly known for smelling minty
the vegetarians demanded a non-meat policy, the vegans wanted it extended to non-dairy, the macrobiotics suggested everyone eat steamed white cabbage for breakfast
the Rastas wanted cannabis legalized, and a reserved plot on the land out back for their Nyabinghi gatherings
the Hari Krishnas wanted everyone to join them that very afternoon banging drums down Oxford Street
the punks wanted permission to play shouty music and were duly shouted down
the gay guys wanted anti-homophobic legislation enshrined into the building’s constitution, to which everyone replied, what constitution?
the radical feminists wanted women-only quarters, self-governed by a co-op
the lesbian radical feminists wanted their own quarters away from the non-lesbian radical feminists, also self-governed by a co-op
the black radical lesbian feminists wanted the same except with the condition that no whiteys of any gender were allowed inside
the anarchists walked out because any form of governance was a betrayal of everything they believed in
Amma preferred running solo, and mixing with others who didn’t try to impose their will on anyone else
in the end a straightforward rotating management committee was formed with various rules against drug-dealing, sexual harassment and voting Tory
Part of the novel’s fun is spotting the many connection between the characters (e.g., Shirley was Carole’s mentor as a teacher, although they haven’t seen each other since Carole left school), some unsuspected by themselves, most notably a revelation in the last chapter which suggests that there was an unnecessary ‘mostly’ in the above.