‘A Muslim man blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same and he’s called a madman’: A review of Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl Woman Other’ – Olukorede S. Yishau
It will take the average reader several pages into the novel to get into the world Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker-winning novel has created!
In ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, English grammar rules are suspended as we get to meet each of these women in different sections of the book. There are no capitalisations, unless it is a noun, no standard paragraphs.
The prose, feels like poetry, stripped of capitalisation and punctuation: “While dancing / for herself / out of it / out of her head / out of her body / feeling it / freeing it / nobody watching”.
Amma is the brain behind a theatre production. The book opens with a life performance of The Last Amazon of Dahomey’at a theatre in London. Somewhere in the crowd watching the production are Yazz, Amma’s daughter, Dominique, her friend and others. And from the theatre we dissolve into these twelve characters, which also include Carole, Bummi, LaTisha, Shirley, Winsome, Penelope, Megan, Hattie and Grace. We also return to the theatre to see the characters meet and we see the relationships between them and what they think of one another. We see envy. We see love. We see jealousy. We see deceit. And we see pride and prejudice.
The bulk of the characters are friends, relatives or lovers. Others meet at the theatre on the night The Last Amazon of Dahomey is playing. The characters are flawed and complex, and in search of love and joy.
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ follows these characters who are black and British. Their ages range from 19 to 90+. Each of these characters has agency, which makes them lead different lives that will leave some mortals cringing. The Britain they unveil to us is not one that we can claim to know very well.
The characters have all kinds of secrets. One had a child at 14 and never told anyone about it until a DNA test unexpectedly brought the child to her doorsteps; another is sleeping with her son-in-law; and another is a flirt of no mean standing.
Their stories read like short stories, which are somewhat connected. We get to know them from their own introspection, their own thoughts and reflections. We also get to see them from another prism as their lives intersect. At this stage, we get to test the truth in the saying that there are two sides to every story.
The women have different concerns. Amma, a lesbian and playwright, lives in a patriarchal society and confronts headlong the question of what it means to be politically pure, or to be a “sell out”.
Carole is concerned about success in the banking world. For non-binary Morgan, who used to be Meghan, gender identity is his challenge. Shirley, a teacher and Amma’s friend, finds the company of lesbians uncomfortable. Bummi, the immigrant parent, rebels against her child bringing home a white partner…,
Racism of the rabid sort gets a major slice of the issues tackled by this book. Imagine a child being pinched to see if he or she will be bruised or scratched with a compass to see if she would bleed and what colour is the blood; imagine a child being asked if her blackness could be scrubbed off and is then held down and scratched with scrubbing brush. Just imagine.
Imagine a woman being denied employment in a store just because she is coloured; so frustrated about this, Grace thinks of burning down the store at night— with the manager inside screaming for help.
A grocer even throws Grace’s change on the counter with so much force that made it scatter on the floor. Even a maid refuses to take instructions from her – all because of her skin colour. Grace’s story is really heart-breaking: her struggle, her stillbirths, her challenge with ‘mental’ health and her refusal to believe Harriet will live.
Though the women in this book try to defy patriarchy, it still rears its ugly head. We see a father who is only happy when there comes a grandson to take over his huge farm despite having a daughter!
Of particular importance is the Nigeria that features in this novel. We see Niger Delta. We see Makoko. We see Lagos. Though set in old Lagos, old Makoko and old Niger Delta, nothing much has changed. Unlike the Britain in the book, which changed over the years, the Niger Delta, which Bummi fled, largely, remains the same, where injustice and environmental pollution are still the order of the day. The messages in the book are clear in quotes, such as these: “A Muslim man carries out a mass shooting or blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same thing and he’s called a madman,” and “You never know people until you have been through their drawers and computer history.”
Evaristo also touches on the changing landscape for teachers in the UK. In those days, teachers were all in all and were both feared and respected by students. Butin the UK schools of today, students are lords unto themselves: They use drugs, bear arms, and teachers and their colleagues are afraid of being attacked. Morals have been consigned to the dustbin. Almost every other day, kids perpetrate violence that will make adults cringe.
The settings of the novel cut across many nations. Nigeria has a generous mention. America features prominently. The Benin Republic, The Gambia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and others are given good treatments. It also cuts across generations in such a way that there is something for everyone. Brexit (and the confusion around it) also features prominently.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In The Name of Our Father’