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At the Intersection(s) of Aesthetics and Politics: Bernardine Evaristo’s « Girl, Woman, Other » (2019)

Par Annalena Geisler : Étudiante en Master - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/05/2022
Even before winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2019, Bernardine Evaristo had been an integral part of the British literary landscape, not only because of her experimental style, but also due to her activism and wish to cut down discrimination in the literary institution. In ((Girl, Woman, Other)), the British writer with Nigerian and Irish roots, attempts to give a voice to Black British women, who have long been invisible and voiceless in the public sphere.

Cet article a été rédigé dans le cadre d'un stage à l'ENS de Lyon.

Introduction

In 2019, Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Booker Prize for her seventh novel Girl, Woman, Other in what turned out to be a historic win as she was the first Black ((In this article we have chosen to use the capitalised version of the term Black since Bernardine Evaristo herself uses this form when she refers to the novel and to herself in her writings. There is also a case to be made for the use of “black” although all three variants (black, “black” and Black) have been criticised. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see Courtois.)) woman to receive the prize since its creation in 1969. Evaristo has been active in the literary sphere for over 40 years and her career trajectory has taken her from founding the first theatre company for Black women in the 1980s and writing poetry in the 1990s (Island of Abraham, 1994), to concentrating on novels (Lara, 1996; The Emperor’s Babe, 2001; Blonde Roots, 2009) and more recently on non-fictional works. This steadily growing corpus is characterised by some recurring concerns: Evaristo strives to tell stories pertaining to the African diaspora, to give visibility to marginalised people, and to experiment with literary forms and traditions.

Girl, Woman, Other can be seen as the continuation or even the climax of Evaristo’s literary journey for several reasons. The polyphonic novel tells the stories of twelve primarily Black British women ((While the novel is mostly described as featuring twelve women, it actually includes one character who transitions from being identified as a woman to identifying themselves as a non-binary person.)) whose lives are interconnected. Although they might be said to share the experience of being othered by a predominantly white (and patriarchal) society, as is hinted at in the title, they differ in many regards (sexual orientation, age, occupation). As Evaristo has stated in an interview, her objective was to give a voice to these women who usually remain voiceless in literature, but also in society more generally (Sethi, 2019). The intention to redress Black women’s representation is not the sole political undercurrent of the novel, since Evaristo could be said to challenge formal literary traditions with her writing style that she herself calls “fusion fiction” (de Léon, 2019). This experimental writing akin to free verse has a distinctive use of punctuation (a regular use of commas and question/exclamation marks but no quotation marks and few full stops) and favours an almost poetic lay-out of the page. One potential effect of the fusion of aesthetics and politics in the novel is the destabilisation of the dominance of master narratives, which is a recurring theme in postcolonial, but also in postmodernist and gender theories of the last decades.

1. The celebration of womanhood

In an interview Evaristo explained that she originally contemplated writing about as many as 1,000 women in Girl, Woman, Other as she wanted to celebrate (Black) womanhood in all its diversity (Waterstones). Even with “only” twelve main characters (and a great number of secondary characters) the novel offers a pluralism of experiences and perspectives. What is more, the equal length of the chapters, the simple juxtaposition of them, and the fact that none of the characters’ perspectives is given narratorial authority, implicitly puts the women on an equal footing. Thus, the novel contests singular master narratives that reflect whose voices have more power in society and tend to overlook the point of view of minorities. This pluralism comes with a great diversity among these individuals and consequently, the novel also eschews the possible essentialisation of what it means to be a Black British woman, which is a potential pitfall in novels concentrating on one character such as Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie (2019) or Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water (2021).

Girl, Woman, Other is divided into twelve chapters, each of them named after the character it  focalises on. Almost all chapters and many paragraphs start off with the characters’ names, most of them further emphasised through a line break as in “Amma/” (1), which makes them stand out visually on the page. This repeated foregrounding of the characters’ names focuses the reader’s attention on the individuality of each woman. Moreover, it is symbolic of how Evaristo attempts to subvert their anonymity and invisibility in inscribing their presence into absence as their names are surrounded by empty space on the page. The rich descriptions of the women’s clothes and physical appearance in the novel could be interpreted as a further attempt to restore their visibility in the public space. For instance, the way Amma looks and dresses is described in a paragraph which spans over an entire page and presents the evolution of her style from past to present in colourful adjectives. The paragraph also details her choices of outfit depending on the season in what resembles a lavish list of clothes enriched by (compound) adjectives as in “sod-you style”, “Che Guevara beret”, “bright asymmetric shirts” (3). This celebration of the women’s clothes and physical appearance could be interpreted as a way to “turn [their bodies] into a site of resistance to racism that would mute and make invisible the Black experience” (Walezak, 2021, 17).

In its attempt to tell the stories of the lives of marginalised women and create a wide range of characters that includes elderly women and non-binary persons, Girl, Woman, Other may be read as a celebration of womanhood in all its forms. This attempt to privilege a diverse and pluralistic female perspective could be said to follow up on Hélène Cixous’s directive that “[w]oman must write herself […] [and w]oman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement” (Cixous, 1976, 875).

2. Giving a voice to marginalised people

Girl, Woman, Other is not unique in its wish to give a voice to marginalised people as it inscribes itself within a corpus of contemporary novels by British authors such as Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips, Hanif Kureishi or Buchi Emecheta whose writings also address the misrepresentation of minorities. All these works could be said to be practicing the politics of literature according to Jacques Rancière as they take part in a reflection about the “partition of the sensible, of the visible and the sayable” among the individuals of a society (Rancière, 2010). This means that in attempting to represent individuals who remain invisible or silenced in the public sphere, literature can help reshape the “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière, 2004).

In line with this theory and with novels like NW (2012) by Zadie Smith or A Distant Shore (2014) by Caryl Phillips, Girl, Woman, Other gives the reader access to the thoughts and stories of individuals whose voices are not heard and not listened to (for whatever reasons). The chapter which focalises on Winsome, a retired woman of the Windrush generation, epitomises the objective of giving a voice to somebody who usually remains silent and is silenced. The reader only accesses her life story, which is marked by the hardships of immigration, through the internal focalisation on her thoughts and then thanks to the intervention of her granddaughter who asks her questions about her youth. While the novel remains realistic in its approach in that it does not imagine a utopian society in which Winsome would have a powerful voice, it is precisely this realistic representation which recalibrates the partition of the public space.

What makes Girl, Woman, Other so distinctive however is the ways in which Bernardine Evaristo makes use of the various functions of the polymorphous concept of voice. She draws on an ironic narrative voice, develops a particular style of dialogue and inner monologue, and addresses the theme of raising one’s voice in different media such as journalism or social media such as Twitter. One example of how the aesthetics and the politics of voice mingle in the novel is the story of LaTisha who, as a teenager, undergoes a violent experience of rape when her date neither asks for her consent nor respects her protest. The reader witnesses how LaTisha at first articulates her dissent quite assertively in her mind before summoning the courage to speak up. The fact that her voice goes unheard is not only explicitly stated, “get off me, please, Trey,/ she said/ out to deaf ears” (211-212), but the form also renders her lack of power, as the lines giving access to her “inner voice” through an internal focalisation take up ever less space on the page. The idea that even her inner voice is being silenced is also visible in the lines “so she gave up/ couldn’t stop him/ had led him on” (211) in which the subject disappears.

3. Fluidity as a technique to decentre narratives

As discussed above, the writing style in Girl, Woman, Other which resembles free verse and makes possible smooth transitions from one line, one thought or one character to the other makes for a fluid reading experience. Concurrently, this free-flowing writing style could be said to mirror the novel’s resistance to different forms of categories and binaries as “it is used to upset conventional modes of thought” (Bucknell, 2019). While borrowing elements from different literary traditions, the novel resists a clear identification with large categories such as prose or poetry and generic ones such as the romance or the Bildungsroman. Contrary to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) which appropriates the European genre of the Bildungsroman, Girl, Woman, Other, through its unique structure, style and plot, deliberately situates itself outside of traditional literary conventions (Evaristo, 2021). This fluidity in terms of definition can be interpreted as a decolonial effort since it destabilises and challenges the rigid conventions of the (literary) centre. The theme of fluidity is however not restricted to the formal features of the novel and it can equally be found in a more concrete manner in the stories of the characters.

The non-binary character Morgan embodies the reluctance to conform to static labels: they indeed exit the framework of the female/male gender binary in identifying as gender-free. Besides, Morgan also refuses the fragmentation of their identity as “part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English”, as they themselves prefer to think that they are “just a complete human being” (311). This seems to suggest that in order to feel like a complete human being, Morgan needs to liberate themselves from a precise delineation and break down of their identity into all its subparts through different forms of labels. Binaries are also questioned through Penelope’s story, who, as the only white and rather racist character, is at one point asked to reconsider her static vision of what it means to be white or Black. Having been adopted as a child, Penelope, now aged 80, decides to do an ancestry DNA test and is aghast at the results showing that her DNA is about 13% African and “only” 17% British, as she clearly expected to be “purely” British. Her story raises many questions as to whether one’s identity is determined by genes, by cultural and social conditions or by internal/external identification with a community. The importance of these either/or binaries is however torn down when Penelope encounters her Black mother, Hattie, for the first time and despite their different skin colour, stops being scared of their differences and is overjoyed by the prospect of finally being reunited with her mother.

In Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo narrates the (untold) stories of Black British women in an attempt to rectify the representation of marginalised people in literature and to question literary and societal norms. The political dimensions of the novel are inseparable from its aesthetic creativity and originality as is the case with Evaristo’s former writings such as the experimental neo-slave narrative Blonde Roots (2009). In her recent non-fictional publication Manifesto: On Never Giving Up (2021), Evaristo reflects on her own life, gives insight into her process of writing, and shares advice on how to become a creative writer. With this return to telling her own story (her first novel Lara was a semi-autobiographical exploration of her ancestral roots), Evaristo could be said to come full circle in her writing.  

Commented excerpt: Whose voice rings true?

In this passage, Yazz, a 19-year-old student who reads English at university and dreams of becoming a journalist one day, confronts her father, one of the few male secondary characters in the novel, about his new status as Professor of Modern Life at the University of London.

Dad
the author of the New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling
trilogy: How We Lived Then (2000), How We Live Now (2008), and
How We Will Live in the Future (2014)
Dr Roland Quartery, the country’s first Professor of Modern Life
at the University of London
really? all of it, Dad? she asked him when he told her proudly
on the phone about his latest professorial number
isn’t that, like, a bit of a tall order? don’t you have to be an expert
on everything in a world that encompasses over seven billion people
and like about two hundred countries and thousands of languages
and cultures
isn’t that more like God’s purview? tell me, are you God now,
Dad? I mean officially?
he mumbled stuff about the Internet of Things and Pokémon, ter-
rorism and global politics, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones and
then threw in  quotes he attributed to Derrida and Heidegger for
good measure, which he always does when he can’t handle a tricky
situation
what about bell hooks? she shot back, quickly scrolling down the
reading list for her ‘Gender, Race and Class’ module on her phone
what about Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Aimé Césaire,
Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Julia Kristeva,
Audre Lorde, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Gloria Steinem, V. Y.
Mudimbe, Cornel West and the rest ?
 
Dad didn’t reply
he wasn’t expecting this, the student outwitting the master (grass-
hopper rocks!)
I mean, how on earth can you be a Professor of Modern Life when
your terms of reference are all male, and actually all-white (even
when you’re not, she refrained from adding)
when he eventually spoke, his voice was choked, his car had
arrived (not cab), he had to dash off

Evaristo, Bernardine. Girl, Woman, Other (pp.46-47). Penguin Books, 2019.

This passage is marked by several tensions that bring out binaries such as an old and a new generation, male and female, Black and white, the centre and the margins. Although Yazz’s father Roland is himself Black, he seems to have adopted a white (male) European discourse and he comes to stand in for this centre of power. Accordingly, he is not afraid to disseminate a seemingly universal narrative on life in what could also be interpreted as excessive mansplaining. The scope of his supposed knowledge knows few limits as is visible in the use of the first-person pronoun “we” in the titles of his novels which purports to encompass all of humanity. In the same way the temporal adverbial segments “then”, “now”, “in the future” signal that his wisdom stretches over past, present, and future. Through his self-proclaimed expertise on all matters of space and time, his references to Derrida and Heidegger, and the explicit mention of his tenure at the University of London (the capital at the centre of the former British empire), he firmly establishes himself at the heart of a singular European intellectual discourse.

Throughout these lines however, it is Yazz who dominates the conversation, which is shown not only in the space she takes up on the page, but also in the fact that she is the one to repeatedly call out to her father (“Dad”). More importantly, as suggested by the line “what about bell hooks? she shot back”, Yazz fiercely strikes one blow after the other at her father (and his discourse) with her direct, accusatory questions. This conversation, which resembles a legal litigation, questions and almost negates (as implied by the negation in “isn’t that more like God’s purview?”) the narrative that Roland stands in for. The irony conveyed in the italics and the accusation of hubris through the comparison to God add a derisive dimension to this symbolic exchange in which Yazz represents progressivism and Roland the outdated past. As signalled by the beginning of a new paragraph and the block that the list of names visually forms on the page, Yazz buries her father with references to critical race and gender theoreticians so much so that he remains speechless (“Dad did not reply”). As Yazz further denounces his partiality, Roland’s voice sounds “choked” when he speaks again and he then exits the conversation in what looks like a retreat. Hence it is Yazz’s defiant voice that sounds louder in this passage which encapsulates how Girl, Woman, Other, through the privileging of marginalised perspectives but also through the resistance to aesthetic conventions, engages in a decolonial effort to destabilise the centre.

Notes

Bibliography

BUCKNELL, Clare. 2019. « Fusion Fiction », London Review of Books, volume 41, n° 20, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n20/clare-bucknell/fusion-fiction.

CIXOUS, Hélène. 1976. « The Laugh of the Medusa », Sign, volume 1, n° 4, pp. 875-893, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173239?origin=JSTOR-pdf.

COURTOIS, Cédric. 2021. « Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Black’ British Amazons: Aesthetics and Politics in Girl, Woman, Other (2019) », Études britanniques contemporaines, n° 60, https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.10651.

DE LÉON, Concépcion. « Booker Prize Winner ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ Is Coming to America », The New York Times, 1 November 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/books/bernardine-evaristo-girl-woman-other-booker-prize.html?searchResultPosition=1. Accessed 10 May 2022.

EVARISTO, Bernardine. « Author Statement », Bernardine Evaristo, https://bevaristo.com/statement/. Accessed 05 May 2022.

---. 2009. Blonde Roots. Penguin Books.

---. 2019. Girl, Woman, Other. Penguin Books.

---. 1994. Island of Abraham. Peepal Tree Pres.

---. 1997. Lara. 1st ed., Angela Royal Publication.

---. 2022. Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Hamish Hamilton.

---. 2022. The Emperor’s Babe: A Novel. Penguin Books.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran, Continuum.

---. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Bloomsbury.

SETHI, Anita. « Bernardine Evaristo: ‘I Want to Put Presence into Absence’ »,  The Guardian, 27 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/27/bernardine-evaristo-girl-woman-other-interview.

WALEZAK, Emilie. 2021. Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing. Bloomsbury.

Waterstones, 2019.  « Bernardine Evaristo: The Waterstones Interview—Booker Prize 2019 Winner », https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLgGsKJeXsQ. Accessed 02 May 2022.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Annalena Geisler, "At the Intersection(s) of Aesthetics and Politics: Bernardine Evaristo’s « Girl, Woman, Other » (2019) ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2022. Consulté le 07/07/2022. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/bernardine-evaristo-girl-woman-other-2019