Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a report by Louisa Bogaerts and Laura Laenen, translated to English by Uschi Cop
On April 20, we held our first Hyster-x book club 'Naming Ourselves' in the library of RoSa vzw. From that library, new to many of us, many of us first borrowed more reading material. Then we dived into Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.
Before we unfold her novel and turn it upside down, let's give the British writer and academic, Bernadine Evaristo, a worthy introduction. Her writing debut was in 1997, but she had to wait until 2019 for her international career to take off. In that year she became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize for Fiction with this novel.
A fighter for the inclusion of writers and artists of color, her novel is a counter-reaction to the absence of stories about Black British women in the British literary landscape. She sees it as a sign of her time that her novel is so widely read, and as an intersectional feminist collective, we applaud this increased presence of marginalized voices in literature.
This book follows twelve very different characters of color whose stories are or become intertwined. It registers all of this diversity beautifully, without punctuation or capital letters, in a style reminiscent of slam poetry.
A shared feeling was, "how nice it is to get inside twelve people's heads". We talked about gender, racism, black feminism, intergenerational differences and multiple identities. We talked about visible versus invisible similarities and what it can mean to discover the latter unexpectedly.
We also read to each other:
They married and moved to Peckham
I was their last child and first girl, Amma explained, blowing
smoke into the already thickening fug of the room
my three older brothers became lawyers and a doctor, their obedience
to the expectations of our father meant I wasn’t pressurized
to follow suit
his only concern for me is marriage and children
he thinks my acting career is a hoppy until I have both
Dad’s a socialist who wants a revolution to improve the lot of all
I tell Mum she married a patriarch
look at it this way, Amma, she says, your father was born male in
Ghana in the 1920s whereas you were born female in London in the 1960s
and your point is?
you really can’t expect him to ‘get you’, as you put it
I let her know she’s an apologist for the patriarchy and complicit
in system that oppresses all women
she says human beings are complex
I tell her not to patronize me
If you read this silently, read it aloud again! Or better yet, ask another voice to do so for you.
The fact that the book offers diverse perspectives and is not coercive about what it means to be a woman was appreciated by many. Amma from the excerpt above is unapologetic feminist, other characters are so by no means whatsoever. However, there was debate about the extent to which a novel should be educational. “Couldn't it be more diverse in terms of the characters' sexual identities?” was suggested, and “Is that necessary in a literary work? Aren't we just checking boxes again?"
Some were somewhat disappointed in the end of the book. The last chapter, which featured an afterparty were all of the characters ran into each other, was not necessary, some thought. Nevertheless, we had our own little afterparty and went for a drink after the book club.
In short, the stories of so many different characters brought us closer together. The aim of this reading club, which Laura Laenen organizes, is therefore to start a coalition. A place where we explore and connect our multiple identities. We want to explore diversity within diversity so that we can broaden and/or reject our own categorical thinking. The quote “Stories bring us together, untold stories bring us apart” (Elif Shafak) resonated. Putting a book like this aside after reading to start reading another immediately would have been a shame. We went home with books from the RoSa library, but even better, with shared stories.