Girl, Woman, Other starts in London, now. Amma Bonsu, a Black British playwright in her fifties, is wandering along the banks of the Thames. It’s the opening night of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre. Amma, who came to feminism in the ’80s, once “spent decades only on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment”.
But then “the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical.” Amma has finally been allowed into a space previously unwelcome to her, and she’s not sure what to do about it. This is a book intensely concerned with the politics of identity and creativity, and how they have shifted over the 20th century.
By the end of the book we’ll have met 11 other characters, “mostly black, mostly women” as the blurb cleverly teases (you could add, “mostly queer”), and journeyed across over a hundred years of Black Britain, uncovering hidden histories and forgotten genealogies. At its best it creates that wonderful feeling of historical vertigo, when you can feel the past pounding beneath the present, stretching downwards for centuries.
There’s Dominique, Amma’s radical friend who’s fled to the US, and Yazz her precocious, extremely millennial daughter. We move onto Carole, a financial analyst; Bummi, her mother who fled tragedy in Nigeria; and LaTisha, Carole’s teenage friend who ended up on a very different path. Carole and LaTisha were taught by Shirley, daughter of Winsome, and frenemy of the older Penelope. Finally we meet Morgan, their grandmother Hattie, and her mother Grace. These “mostly women, mostly black” characters are webbed together in surprising and poignant ways, and part of the pleasure of this book is discovering their connections. There are men too, some of them wonderful and supportive (the true definition of allies), most middling, and some monsters.
These characters are so wonderfully drawn. Each is loveable and annoying in equal measure – and the perspective changes depending on whose eyes you see them through. It would be easy, for instance, to celebrate Shirley for her work with disadvantaged girls. But at home she drives her mother crazy with her uppity attitude (leading to a moment that is both triumphant and horrifying). Each character gets a section to themselves, not really a short story, more a life history. Evaristo is attentive in particular to work, politics, and food (I almost created a recipe book of all the delicious dishes served in this novel); domestic, internal things that often seem to go missing in fiction, or are dismissed as unappealingly feminine.
This is a book grounded in identity politics, that slur cast against progressives by conservatives, and often from within progressive politics as well. Here, Evaristo walks a brilliant line between celebrating and gentle satire. She reveals inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and fault lines, not least in Dominique’s radical feminist dismissal of trans politics, all the while showing how these politics can be wielded to defeat forces of oppression.
I loved the book’s attention to creativity and imagination, other sites of resistance. Amma’s play about the Amazons is based on real West African warriors, not dissimilar to the all-female Dora Milaje in Black Panther. Other characters create superheroes, start book clubs, or have romantic or violent flights of imagination.
Evaristo writes in a kind of prose-verse, using line breaks for emphasis, and without fullstops. The effect is of an ever expanding story, one that continues beyond the pages of the book. Two final chapters that depart from the single-character format provide on one hand a reunion, and on the other a devastating counterpoint to the narrative.
It is rarely fruitful ground to take issue with the subjective decisions of judging panels, but in this case I feel strongly that Evaristo was sold short by the decision of the Booker judges to co-award her with Margaret Atwood.
Girl, Woman, Other is published by Penguin.
Gay rating: 4/5 for multiple black lesbian, queer and trans characters, and general queer energy.