One of the cornerstones of Feminist Book Week is to diversify our to-read lists, and what better way to do that than with a mini Feminist Book Week book club?
Two members of the Y community, Arleen Wilcox, a YWCA and CBF Member, and Varsha Krithivasan, a Young Women’s Council Member, both read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and have shared their thoughts below.
Review: Arleen Wilcox, YWCA and CBF Member
They say not to judge a book by its cover but what’s the consensus on judging it by its title?
Girl, Woman, Other. A novel by Bernardine Evaristo. But also some of the most common adjectives that are used on me and roughly half the world’s population. Some of the words that live rent-free in my mind as I navigate my connection to them and whether I should even have one.
Captivated by its title already, I read the blurb to learn more about it and to my surprise discover it’s British. I know it’s odd, but as a migrant and young woman of colour living in Australia, I really struggle to believe I could find a genuine connection to these kinds of stories. So, despite the feeling in my heart, I decided to give Evaristo a go.
After all, making the active decision to seek and engage with the works of women and gender diverse individuals over mainstream male perspectives challenges the many narratives imposed on us. And that is cause for celebration. Feminist Book Week is that gentle reminder that not every truth is learnt from an academic text, and in fact, there are no single truths to be studied. As through fiction, we embark on journeys that can completely shift our worldview, bringing to our attention what we’re often unable to notice in our daily lives.
It’s been a while since I last dipped my toes in fiction and actually, I’m not even sure I’ve read adult fiction at all before. I guess at 25 I still feel attached to young adult fiction, but it’s true that it’s become harder to relate to 15-year-old protagonists that save the world while being part of a handsome love triangle.
Not knowing what to expect, I dived into my first proper adult fiction book. (I’ll be expecting a mortgage and acquired taste for olives to mark this adulthood milestone soon, thank you very much.) Each chapter, almost feeling more like a short story, is narrated by a different character in a beautiful prose style. Making me think twice on exactly how it’s possible to make things sound like they rhyme without actually rhyming them. I’ll leave this sorcery up to the English majors.
Although at first glance it’s not very obvious how it all connects together – because of course it does – the more you read the more you are wrapped in these characters’ lives. Evaristo connects some of the stories with major strokes that shape a lot of the underlying plot of the book, like those of the three main characters, Amma, Yazz and Dominique. However, most of them are only connected by a very astute and discreet piece of string that jumps through places and decades at a time. Quite literally telling a story within a story.
Once I caught up to this, the emotional wave of what was happening between these pages hit me. Was I really reading about generational BIPOC trauma, struggle, laughter, migration, romance, friendship and more in a British book?! I was not only relating to it on a personal level but on a generational one too. I suddenly realised I owed Evaristo a big apology.
The joy of finding this connection eventually turned a bit bittersweet – an art perfected by feminists – because it was only now dawning on me that I, a young feminist of colour had never read voices that sounded like mine or those around me in a novel before. I’ll blame it on my own shortcomings this time, but still the realisation lingered in front of my eyes anyway: Representation matters, even in novels.
What’s more, it didn’t only amplify voices like mine – migrant, racialised, low SES. It pleasantly surprised me by also allowing me to read voices I unfortunately had not considered much before, such as those of older women of colour.
If there was ever a need for an example of intersectionality in fiction, this book would come pretty close to being the textbook definition of it. Not because it spoke of BIPOC characters, but because it spoke of characters that happened to be BIPOC. Every single one was allowed their own rich inner lives, controversial opinions, questionable choices, and even outdated fashion styles. Complex characters with complex lives, not mere tokenism.
Beyond being a truly engaging and innovative novel with some crazy twists (damn, if you know you know), this novel reminded me of something I almost forgot. That when it comes to expanding our understanding of intersectional feminism we can not and should not just resort to academic texts, analytical essays or non-fiction books. After all, lived experience is what best informs practice, and even if this is found through fiction, it’s what helps us question, confront and reflect on the intersecting layers of life and their impact on us and others.
That’s the conflicting beauty of being a feminist. You can take university courses about it, read foundational literature, and learn about the history of the movement around the world; yet no one will ever hold the single encompassing piece of wisdom that answers all of the world’s problems and finally smashes the patriarchy. There is no ‘finish line’ to the journey, and definitely, no gold medal awaiting us for becoming the enlightened all-knowing feminist who can have it all!
The more you live and learn not just through your own experiences but through the eyes of others, the more your feminism will grow with you. In a way, it takes a lot of strength and vulnerability to admit that we will be wrong. A lot. But once you get over this lump of emotion, you begin to realise that there is a reason why the feminist movement is a collective. Drawing from our different experiences and knowledge can and will help us achieve better outcomes for all. No one should be the authority on all things feminism, simply because there should not even be one. This would entirely defeat the purpose.
So in saying all this, what’s in a word? Girl, Woman, Other. An intersectional novel that doesn’t pretend to know the universal BIPOC experience and knows it shouldn’t anyway. More than simple adjectives. More than a single perspective. More than ourselves. And the comforting knowledge that the most important lessons we can draw from intersectional feminism, just like in life itself, will not be presented on academic texts but instead on the lived experience of all of us.
Review: Varsha Krithivasan, Young Women’s Council Member
As an avid reader, every story I come across has a formula created for the perfect woman protagonist.
Mysterious, flawed, progressive and… white.
It is very rare to hear or read about stories that aren’t talking about people of colour or particularly Black women without it being an exotic character trait of immense difference.
The rise of Sally Rooney and Jodi Picoult stories, as great as they are, never encapsulated every woman’s experience of the world.
Girl, Woman, Other is exactly what we needed. A series of interconnected stories of a group of Black women from Britain who are all intertwined yet widely separate finally itched my need of stories that came from intersectional experiences. Bernardine Evaristo challenges the timelessness of feminism, race and love following a diasporic array of 12 characters, mostly Black British woman, through different decades and contexts.
From lesbian social playwrights to non-binary representation, to unhappy marriages or social media activism – the endurance of our patriarchal society and the complexity of what it means to be a feminist is challenged with depth, grace and incredible prose.
Girl, Woman, Other follows a main central protagonist, Amma, who is an unflinching lesbian feminist playwright finding a sense of identity in her 50’s. Her navigation of radical experimental theatre leads her to getting a big break at the National Theatre, connecting the characters in a cathartic ending where they watch her performance, connected by identity and similarly differed by identity. The interactions of her daughter, lover, best friend, teacher create a polyphonic reading of class, culture, age and gender.
Evaristo’s experimentation of the novel through unconventional formatting, a leaning towards poetry, no pure narrative structure and a lack of punctuation are all microcosmic representations of each character’s internal consciousness.
The fragmentation and fluidity of how the book is written may not be for everyone but the novel moves through rhythm and transformation.
It’s a story where the struggle of every character is so easily and well embodied without a sense of idealism or despair.
As Garner states “This novel is a densely populated village where everyone leans on one another in order to scrape by.”
There are no answers, just as modern life has none, and that is what makes it a brilliantly meaningful read.
Want to host your own Feminist Book Club?
Select your feminist book and consider asking members to reflect on:
- What does it mean to be woke?
- How does privilege work in diasporic Black communities?
- How does womanhood and race intersect in people’s lives?
- How do non-traditional family structures enhance our way of life?
- How can we represent the vastness of the human experience?
You might consider reading:
- Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota
- Women and Leadership by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
- Muddy People by Sara El Sayed
- Dissolve by Nikki Gemmell
- The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar
- Any of our recommendations from last year’s Feminist Book Week