Review: Girl, Woman, Other
Bernardine Evaristo successfully captures the voice of twelve characters in her new ‘fusion fiction’ novel
“There is sometimes a very narrow definition of what it means to be a black, British woman. (This book) is not saying this is who we are. It is saying this is how some of us might be. We can be everything and anything.”
Perhaps a less experienced writer would struggle to make such an ambitious structure of writing coherent, a book that weaves together the stories of twelve very different characters from the African diaspora. However, Bernardine Evaristo, writer of seven previous books, Vice Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, founder of several activist initiatives and Professor of creative writing at Brunel University is far from inexperienced. The seamless patchwork of unique voices presented in what she calls ‘fusion fiction’ is an impressive piece of work, regardless, and showcases not just her talent as a writer, but also an abundance of empathy. ‘Fusion fiction’ is where there are no distinct paragraphs or speech marks and yet the reader can easily distinguish which character’s voice they are being presented with. Despite being written in third person, it gives the reader the chance to fully immerse themselves in the characters and get a thorough understanding of their motives and aspirations. Without a clear distinction between speech and narrative, it breaks down the barriers between a character’s internal dialogue and their presentation of self to the rest of the world. This allows us to view everything with a unique, absorbing perspective.
“My work is character driven”, says Evaristo. “I like really strong characters. I don’t write characters (that) are victims and defeated by their circumstances... Some writers are more interested in how the plot works. With me, I like to steep myself in the characters.”
In a time when the plot of this country’s future is so uncertain, it seems increasingly important that, as readers and writers, we bring strong characters to the forefront. The people currently leading our world appear as inflated, farcical characters who fail to be representative of anyone we actually know. The unrealistic drama of a Reality TV culture seems to have culminated in politicians who are larger and more ridiculous than life – cartoonish puppets at the forefront of something that is actually very dark, but takes place behind a facade of silliness. As an antidote to this we need to surround ourselves with representative voices, whether fictional or not. All of the characters from ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ are so vivid that they must be rooted in truth. Evaristo has claimed that some of them are loosely based on people that she knows, (lesbian playwright Amma is inspired by Evaristo’s own radical activism during her youth) but what’s important here isn’t the truth behind the specific individuals, but the truth in the vast range of personalities and opinions. It serves as a pertinent microcosm of the real world.
When it comes to human issues, I dislike statistics. They can easily be manipulated to support a particular bias. Facts can be entirely invented and published online as truth. This is why stories are so important. They allow people to share their personal histories, their trauma, their struggle and their triumph. In short, their truth, in a way that is allowed to be objective and yet teaches us so much more than a mere statistic, because it shows us the human effect of policies and political situations.
Girl, Woman, Other does this in a way that isn’t boring or biased. The book’s eclectic characters are fleshed out, flawed, sometimes brutal, always independent.
“I wanted to explore a variety of who we are in this country,” says Evaristo. “There aren’t many female black writers in this country. A radio presenter kept insisting that I was writing (all the characters) about myself. It’s like you don’t have an imagination if you’re a black woman. She was projecting her limited knowledge of who we are onto me.”
This reminded me of the Audre Lord essay, ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex’:
It is for this reason that this book is so important during a time when Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson are still allowed space in the public eye, and it’s why it’s important that the characters all disagree and present conflicting opinions. “I have my politics and then through these characters points emerge” says Evaristo. “I don’t build my characters around these points.”
Feminism and diversity are both currently hot topics. Whilst on the one hand this is fantastic, on the other, the more cynical side of me questions where capitalism has latched onto these ‘trends’ and attempted to profit from them, without spreading proper deep understanding. This is one example where a black character is seen as a 2 Dimensional addition to be ticked off to secure diversity, without understanding that a person can’t ever be a check box of their background, because everyone’s background is infinitely different. Writers, like Bernadine Evaristo, who present flawed, complex and challenging characters, could be the antidote to this by presenting stories that leave us feeling we have not only met a host of new people, but seen their innermost thoughts and secrets, showcasing a raw vulnerability that inevitably invokes us to feel tenderness and empathy for each person, regardless of their mistakes. I can only hope that today’s disappointing politics gives birth to more fiction like this to hold onto – both an anchor and a message in a bottle during turbulent times.
Kaya Purchase is a freelance writer, bibliophile and activist who loves nothing more than a good coffee shop on a rainy day. Her work has been featured in Aurelia magazine, Be Kind magazine, and Oh Comely. She's currently writing a play. Her instagram is: @kayaebony