12 Little Spells: Bernardine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other.” -Thulani Angoma-Mzini
Bernardine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning book Girl, Woman, Other has a ‘thang’. The cliché would be to say it has an ‘x factor’, a uniqueness, a ‘thing’ even. But in keeping with the book’s fashionable theme and original format, ‘thang’ works best.
Esperanza Spalding has a song from her 2018 album 12 Little Spells called ‘Thang’. It’s about how each of us has something that makes us fully ourselves and how we should seek it in order to truly be individual. In the first verse she sings:
You best believe you came in with a real thang
Your own gait and way of walkin’ in this simulated world
A kind of grease in the fulcrum of your inner space,
That’s your thang,
You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine
In the bridge of the song Spalding asks, ‘aren’t you tired of walkin’ around afraid you might spill it?’ The 12 individuals in Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other exhibit the fatigue Spalding refers to in that line. They’re tired of containing their ‘thang’ to try and fit into a world ambitious only for the monochrome – black or white; male or female; and the all-encompassing ‘other’. Varied as they are in age and experience and philosophy, they strive for a common goal – to be identifiable as individuals.
Evaristo refers to her book as a novel about women, as opposed to a feminist text. Which is fair. It is, first and foremost, a collection of twelve stories depicting slice-of-life living in different time periods in the UK. However each character’s story contributes to the lexicon of identity under the signifier ‘woman’. Through an examination of how different protagonists assert their feminism through the years, the reader is given a lesson in the waves of the feminist movement. The book works through the period markers of each wave and drills down on the problematics that form the inflection points. It is a self-assured piece of literature that cleverly masks its lessons in entertaining and verse-like prose.
The book’s main performance happens around the stage of the British National Theatre. Serial coffee drinker Amma is opening her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, in the mainstream theatre, seemingly marking her official departure from her comfort zone of counterculture. Half of the book’s characters come to watch the play. In it, Amma facilitates the immigration to Britain of the African warrior the Dahomey Amazons. The National Theatre has hired its first female artistic director. As a result they are now open to the depiction of a warrior named Newi who is a fighter and a lover in the historic 17th century all female army of the Kingdom of Dahomey (or what is now known as the Republic of Benin). Amma had come up with the historical play ten years prior. She’s a veteran relative to the National Theatre’s new-found progressiveness. Her modus operandi until this point has been sticking it to the man as part of fighting the radical feminist fight along intersectional battle lines. But with age and the appeal of class progression she adopts an “if you can’t beat them’ attitude. Her friend Stanley calls her out on it:
admit it, Ams, you’ve dropped your principles for ambition and you’re now establishment with a capital E, he said, you’re a turncoat
she stood up, gathered up her African print patchwork bag and left the premises (p 33)
The above quote exhibits the format of the book – there are no capitals to start sentences or full stops to end them. Evaristo calls it ‘fusion fiction’ – a free-flowing narrative style infused with prose poetry and allowing a multidirectional flow into and out of the different characters. It mirrors the fluidity she portrays in the identities adopted by the characters and the relatively short distances between characters with starkly different ideologies. Lesbian Amma, for example, is friends with Shirley, a schoolteacher who’s a bit of a homophobe but who’s also struggled with the racism of second wave feminism in her own career.
Shirley attends the play merely as an act of loyalty to Amma and while she would love nothing more than to boast at the teachers’ lounge about her successful theatre friend, ‘…she can hardly do that when [the play is] about lesbians’ (p 421) And although they hardly keep in touch, their friendship marks time steadily through the years. Ironically, Shirley’s husband Lennox is revealed as a liberal man. He makes fun of Shirley’s closeminded hang ups, all while he cooks delicious meals for supper (that specific kitchen domestication seemingly being the true marker of a liberal man). Lennox does prove to be a little too liberal as he explores a taboo relationship with an older relation in an exhilarating twist in the story.
Feminisms for every age
The older generations in Evaristo’s work battle with the tussle between freedom and the precepts of morality and what ‘ought’ to be done. Bummi, Carole’s mother and a Nigerian mathematician turned British domestic worker (Carole is Shirley’s protégé at the school where she teaches), opens up to a romantic affair with her work colleague Sister Omofe after the death of Carole’s father. Evaristo introduces, to Bummi even it seems, the beauty hidden behind the strictures of ‘propriety’
Bummi followed her into the room as if in a trance, just as she could not help but allow Omofe to explore her relaxed and warm bath body
they both had generous folds of flesh and luxurious breasts
Omofe felt like home to Bummi and her expert activities culminated in the most intense pleasure
as their activities progressed, she also found pleasure in reciprocating, as her mouth travelled wherever it wanted to go until Omofe cried out (p 179 – 180)
But when Omofe’s sons return from Nigeria forcing a venue change for the two women’s amorous congress to Bummi’s house, Bummi opts out of her truth and hides behind the walls of ‘propriety’, choosing to settle with Kofi – a pleasant and innocuous man.
In the younger generations Evaristo explores what is currently coming out as the fourth wave of feminism centred on the internet, social media and call-out culture. Amma’s daughter Yazz is part of a crew of young women who redefine their subscriptions to traditions. The crew’s name speaks to the hashtag concoction that is their feminism. The ‘Unfuckwithables’ have members Yazz, Nenet and Waris. Nenet represents the age of feminists that believe in individual choice, with principles that may sometimes appear at odds with feminist theory. She initially resists an arranged marriage to a boy she’s never met but later changes her mind, convinced by the threat of being cast out by her rich parents and ‘…having to actually find a job after uni and earn her own money…’ (p 54) And while Yazz laments the worry of the young that they are ‘stuffed’ after university with crazy rental prices, student loans, BREXIT and all the other problems caused by the older generation, Nenet’s choice seems to be less about navigating tough adulthood. In one scene where the crew is visiting Nenet at her ambassador father’s home, Yazz describes Nenet’s behaviour with a tone of disapproval:
Nenet…was clad in a tight top, short skirt, high heels, and looped over her shoulder was a Chanel bag with a gold chain
her body language changed whenever a group of young men approached to admiringly check her over…
this was her milieu…she always insisted she was Mediterranean, much to Yazz’s amusement and Waris’s annoyance when she tried to convince them she wasn’t black or even African… (p 70)
Waris’ feminism comprises an adjustment of her fidelity to her Islamic religion by ‘…saying yes to the hijab and sex outside marriage, no to booze and pork’ (p 55). Yazz herself straddles a multi layered philosophy that involves her sleeping with booty call Steve who has a girlfriend back home in Chicago, while she waits for ‘…someone suitable [to] come along (if he ever will) who can offer proper commitment with a view to a monogamous relationship in the long term (her mother she is not)’ (p 53).
It’s all beautifully complicated. The majority of the characters recognise as black. The addition of this race element makes these explorations even more exciting, as a group that has been seen for the longest time as monolithic is represented with the nuances of being truly human. In an interview with The Guardian’s Anita Sethi, Evaristo makes it clear that this was her intention:
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
Otherness comes out as openness in the book. It’s that “thang”. As Spalding puts it, the release of resistance to what’s natural – what’s innate – generates a life force that starts to collect in that openness.
Evaristo’s dozen invoke that life force in a book that’s well thought out and poetically written.