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Book Review

Diaspora women of colour grounding their reinvented identities

Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize 2019 to no surprise. It is very much a story of our times. Finally, we are getting to appreciate the underdog and wallflower narratives of not just women but women of colour - Bernadine herself being Anglo-Nigerian.

Though simply told, there are a handful of characters to follow; the novel narrates the stories of twelve women of colour and those of the people in their lives: lovers, spouses, neighbours, friends, siblings, colleagues.

The twelve women, who also identify as British, bring contemplation on identity between the multiple generations they represent.

Away from their native soil, the holders of the remnants of their roots wish to preserve their ancestry - lives hard earned in slavery, tough labour conditions, racism, complicated and even unknown bloodlines.

The book, however, poetically contains zero full stops from start to end, allowing you to read it at your own pace and take the breaks that feel natural to take.

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Meanwhile, those taking the baton are not having it easy blending their inherited identity with that of the land they were born into; both subtly and overtly blocked out of opportunity but told to work hard, make no trouble and remember where they come from. Among the twelve women, Carole’s mother has to make peace with the loss she feels for their culture, “Bummi was so proud when [Carole] got into the university for rich people … she could not have predicted it would lead to Carole rejecting her true culture.”

The debate on feminism and LBGTQ - these days extended to LGBTTQQIAAP - is pronounced in Bernadine’s stories. Feminism is one of the most contentious theories of our time. As hard as it is to define it, it is even harder to do so when coming from women of colour whose feministic struggles and sexual identities are as diverse as they themselves are. This contemplation comes early in the book in Amma’s and Yazz’s stories, before going further into the stories of the other ten women whose fates collide and diverge, both building and breaking each other. Yazz tell’s her mother, “Mumsy, your women’s politics will become redundant, and by the way, I’m humanitarian, which is on a much higher plane than feminism
Do you even know what that is?” Her mother Amma - who holds the twelve stories together - is a black lesbian and playwright. She finds success after much toil in her fifties, having expected her teen daughter to follow her path as a feminist of her kind.

We also get to meet characters such as Nzinga: a possessive, passionate and violent feminist, who tells her lover Dominique, “You can’t live a womanist life and have male voices in your head …” whilst herself, ‘like a male chauvinist’ took full possession of any decision Dominique makes.

These stories of love, tough love, abandonment, inheritance, deception, loss, discovery and legacy ultimately leave the comprehension of feminism open ended in our time of transgender, non-binary … just people with pasts and futures? While the youngest of the descendants get it, the older generation, such as Hattie in her 90s, cannot identify with the loss of gender in one’s life. Despite this, she is among the only few who has accepted her non-gendered great-niece, Megan/Morgan as she is.

The stories, though not illusionary about happily ever afters, do offer enlightenment and reconciliation. In search of her roots, Penelope “feel’s like she’s going to the ends of the earth, while simultaneously returning to her beginnings.” Elsewhere, the elite Professor Ronald, Yazz’s father by artificial insemination, chooses to keep his blackness and gayness “not as intellectual or activist preoccupations but rather as footnotes” where they will remain … All being well, he stays craving his daughter’s recognition and praise for his black man achievements.

Like Amma, Bernadine co-founded the Theater of Black Women in the early 1980s. Among her other awards, this brings Bernadine’s eight work of fiction to literary success as we wait to see what’s next in line.

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