I’ve finished Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning portrait of black womanhood in contemporary Britain, and what do I think? I think it’s highly readable, engaging, pluralistic and refreshingly free of the kind of shaming that cripples the liberal white reader with guilt. I find novels like Beloved so hard to read not because they are not good – Beloved was stunning – but because I feel so horribly guilty. Even though I wasn’t there and (probably – I hope) wouldn’t have done it if I was, I feel guilty by association. But Girl, Woman, Other is correct – but the best kind of correct; not politically correct but sincerely open, not just to the brave new world of identity but to the old-fashioned, the unreconstructed, the anti-feminist.
There aren’t really any main characters as such; the novel moves from one scene to another, one narrator to another with characters who at first seem disconnected but who all join up in the end like dots to make a picture. Nor does she seem to say that this is a definitive picture, merely a snapshot, a view from one writer at one time. There are lesbians and non-binary people, successful theatre directors and cleaners; but the most impressive thing is that unlike most writers, Evaristo does not assume that diversity excludes the conventional.
Nevertheless, wonderful and inclusive as the book is, it leads me to examine once again my own attitudes to race. I’ve just read this article which made a big stir in 2014 when first published on Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog – and I ask myself, am I guilty of the things she describes? Do I think that unless the n-word has been uttered or some racially-aggravated assault taken place, that there is no racism? I usually try to look at these things in terms of sexism; to translate it into men treating me in a certain way and think, how would I feel about that? To be honest I recognise a lot of what she describes (they don’t want to hear you but don’t get angry or you’ll be stereotyped; they shut down when you talk about your experience) but maybe it’s not the same. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot of unconscious prejudice inside me – and whilst I’m not necessarily responsible for how it came there I am responsible for it still being there.
Aside from that, in spite of Boris Johnson’s optimistic ramblings I am staying locked down until the middle of June at the very earliest. But then I’m fortunate in being able to work from home.