My Inner Anthology: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
In this feature we're thinking about which bits of literature – whether that be in the form of poems, novels, essays, or plays – we would like to carry around inside ourselves for future reference. This week Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin, recommends Girl, Other, Woman by Bernardine Evaristo. Check out the rest of our readings for Black History Month and download our calendar here.
“Let us wonder at how X was just a rare letter until algebra came along and made it something special that can be unravelled to reveal inner value.”
What am I looking for when I dedicate my time to a book, and particularly when I consider what I’d like to include in my inner anthology? It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few months. Instinctively, I’m drawn to stories I can connect with on a personal level; something that I can find a trace, or much more, of myself within. It sounds a little bit narcissistic when I put it like that! But I do believe that finding ourselves, or perhaps discovering more about ourselves that we might not already even be that much aware of, is at the heart of the reading experience. Sometimes it’s not all that obvious until years after first turning the pages, which is where the idea of the inner anthology comes in so useful; a bit like a map that you can’t read properly until you’ve tried out a few different paths and got a bit lost along the way.
I consider myself to be a feminist, and do find myself gravitating naturally towards books written by women. This year there was one particular novel that came into my horizon as one at the top of my to-read list: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It was the title that caught my attention immediately, though I knew the book had received great critical acclaim, co-winning the Booker Prize 2019 and included in Barack Obama’s annual reading list for the same year. What does it mean to be a girl, a woman, an other in this world? I can start from my own experience, but I know there is so much else; so many other stories to contribute to this rather knotty and perhaps unanswerable question, with innumerable factors to consider. No two experiences can ever be precisely the same, but there is a unifying aspect here.
In Girl, Woman, Other, we meet twelve characters and dive straight into their lives in the here and now; the reader steps into their shoes for a number of pages. They take us with them, journeying through their pasts to emerge at their present. Some rides are faster than others, taking us to other countries and eras of time. All roads lead to the same destination as the stories of the very different girls, women, other collide and intertwine in a physical space – the premiere of a play by one of the characters, which takes us further back through time to the 18th and 19th century Amazons, women warriors, strong female descendents who faced countless challenge.
I loved getting to know each of the characters, finding much to admire and celebrate in all of them. Some I could identify with more readily than others, but all of them were real, had depth and heart, and it was through discovering worlds I knew the basics of – that is, being a woman – but which contained experiences and perspectives vastly different from my own that I got the most from. Reading to find out more about ourselves is important, but reading to find out more about others – people who we might encounter only briefly in our own lives as we live them – feels not just important but necessary, especially in a climate that can often seem as though it is doing the utmost to isolate and categorise, keeping us in our own little bubbles. When talking about Girl, Woman, Other with a friend and fellow reader recently, they made the observation that these are stories that wouldn’t commonly be told in ‘popular’ literature. Discovery and understanding are just two of the reasons to dive headlong into this book, but by no means the only.
“Ageing is nothing to be ashamed of
Especially when the entire race is in it together
Although sometimes it seems that she alone among her friends wants to celebrate getting older
Because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely”
What I love most is that the whole colourful fabric of life is contained within these snapshots of several distinct lives. There is love and heartache, joy and pain, struggle and triumph. The will to keep going when things get tough, to celebrate when there is an upturn. The words and voices jump from the page vibrantly, saying ‘I am here and this is who I am’; some are louder and prouder than others, but there is no shame to be had in being quieter too, and there is a difference between keeping things secret and unknown to others, as several of the stories highlight. As readers we join these characters for a brief time but leave feeling considerably richer for having met them, wishing them well on their ongoing journeys and perhaps finding things we can take away for our own.
One review of Girl, Woman, Other puts the reason for its inclusion in my inner anthology better, and far more succinctly than I ever could: “It is, quite simply, why we read.”