What is it like to be a woman in Britain? I know my experience; it generally centres around people asking; ‘when are you going to have children?’ (just rude) or looking at you suspiciously when you order a cola at the bar instead of a cider.
There’s no short answer to what it is like to be a woman in Britain, we all have different takes, different experiences, different backgrounds, different ideals, different hopes and dreams. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo showed me some of those differences.
It’s twelve stories, twelve characters, spanning decades, taking us across the UK and putting mainly black women at the forefront. It celebrates women, their struggles, triumphs and their complex messiness, it’s glorious.
There’s no main character, there isn’t really a plot and it isn’t told in a chronological order. The women are all loosely connected, each is trying to find where they fit or are struggling with their identity is various ways.
We meet Amma, a middle-aged black lesbian who’s about to see her play open at the national, she’s reflecting on her life and where it’s taken her, she’s worried she’s selling out after years on the outskirts.
“Amma then spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her until the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it” Bernardine Evaristo
I think we probably all to get this crossroads at some point in life, proud and excited to taste a bit of success but wondering what we’ve had to compromise on to get it.
The other characters all span out from Amma, her daughter Yazz is 19 and finding her voice, developing her thinking and sees her mum’s feminism as incredibly outdated, her university friends give us a glimpse into different cultures and reminds us of those close bonds we build at university – usually the first time we’re out in the world alone.
Amma’s best friend Dominique’s story, highlights same sex domestic abuse. She falls for an older woman “a teetotal, vegan, non-smoking, radical feminist separatist lesbian housebuilder” to be precise. Dominique is described as a strong woman who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to speak out. When she meets this woman, she’s looking for something different, an escape so to speak. It sees her move to a women’s commune in America and we see how easily she’s manipulated and isolated. I loved this story, it’s rare we see domestic abuse and coercive control explored in a same sex relationship – despite us all knowing that it goes on.
There’s something to take away from every story, I loved the older characters and how (in some cases) they’d come to Britain in hope of a better life and faced racism and prejudice, finding the degrees they had were deemed useless. The hopes they had for their children and the kindness they experienced too.
None of the characters are perfect, they’re all flawed (Winsome commits the worst act of betrayal in her story and I’m still pretty stunned at that revelation). It’s the character’s flaws that make this book so engaging, no one is perfect everyone makes mistakes (some bigger than others) it’s a realistic take on what it is to be a woman.
Race, culture and identity is the driver of this book, there are themes we can all relate to, after all everyone is working out who they are. The stories that may seem alien to you will teach you something and give you a different perspective on the world.
This book does deal with racism in Britain and white privilege, it’s something I’m more aware of and learning more about, I admit I have been pretty ignorant to the experiences of black people in the UK. People still have a tendency to think that racism isn’t a problem here, especially away from the cities, but it is a problem, it’s ingrained in our systems and institutions. When reading the stories of the older women in this book, I kept thinking nothing has really changed in all this time, I’d guess that someone coming to the UK today would still arrive and be told their education is useless. The black woman still has to work harder to prove she’s a professional. The amount of people that counter ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘White Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter’ shows that people still do not get it, and many have no intention of trying to get it. I’d suggest they read this book.
Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Man Booker in 2019 (albeit jointly with Margaret Atwood). It’s more than deserved, this book celebrates culture and champions women in all their messy glory!!!!!!!
“For the sisters & the sistas & the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn & our brethren & our bredrin & our brothers & our bruvs & our men & our mandem & the LGBTQI+ members of the human family.” Bernardine Evaristo
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm