Kara Babcock's Reviews > Girl, Woman, Other

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2020-read, from-library, postcolonial, transgender, feminism

Every once in a while, I stop and just think about how everyone else around me is totally engrossed in their own life. I don’t mean in an egotistical sense. I mean … just as I am wrapped up in living my life, with my own beliefs and struggles, my moments to myself and my moments given to others … everyone else goes through all this too! Except they aren’t me, or I’m not them, and therefore I don’t know what it’s like … sorry, am I getting too deep? Anyway, Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel that basically seeks to remind us of theory of mind. Bernardine Evaristo tells 12 interlocking stories that expose us not just to the lives but to the minds of 12 Black people. In so doing, she reminds us that when we look at someone, when we judge them, when we wonder why they think or behave the way we do, maybe we should stop and consider where they come from—not just in place but in time and society as well.

I’m not even going to attempt to summarize each of the 12 stories, because I am lazy. Let’s just say that Evaristo’s characters are drawn from a diversity of backgrounds, yet they also share experiences by dint of how society perceives them. Almost all of them are women (one is non-binary), all of them are Black (although that is complicated and erased for one), all of them are British yet are either immigrants or have tangible connections to immigrant parents or grandparents. Evaristo’s characters span generations, classes, careers, sexualities, and attitudes. They are artists and parents, cleaners and mathematicians, teachers and farm wives.

Girl, Woman, Other’s writing is closer to poetry than prose. The paragraphs are more like verses, with capitalization and line-breaks creative rather than conventional. Description dominates over dialogue, which is conveyed at a distance. In this way, Evaristo seeks to provide a sum-over-stream-of-consciousness of histories: her characters grow from girls to women in a matter of pages, learn hard lessons, move through the world and make decisions that set their lives on certain paths. This is beautiful yet also frustrating, this style—I don’t like it, but I also understand its use here, and I don’t mean to say it’s bad. I just don’t make a habit of reading novels like this, and I won’t pretend that it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

I appreciate the myriad ways Evaristo interrogates the intersections of sex, sexuality, and race. Her characters are often queer—some of them openly so, some of them only experimentally or quietly. Trigger warnings for this book abound: rape and sexual violence, racism, abuse, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. Part of Evaristo’s theme is this idea that even though these characters explain Blackness and femaleness in very different ways, they are some level united by these identities by dint of living in white supremacist Britain. Meanwhile, these characters are complex and fallible. In a way, these aren’t really even interconnecting stories. They are character sketches, like we’re getting a glimpse into Evaristo’s notebook, plans for a novel not yet writen.

I take issue with how Evaristo tells the story of Morgan, the non-binary (“gender-free” in Morgan’s own words). Evaristo begins by using Morgan’s deadname and the pronouns she/her, only switching up after Morgan chooses a new name and switches to they/them. I can understand why Evaristo does this, but as a trans person, I don’t like it. I want people to apply my name and pronouns retroactively—now that I am Kara, I’m Kara in 1989 when I was born, Kara in 2007 when I graduated high school, Kara last year before I came out as trans. It felt weird and compromising to be asked to look at Morgan in a way incongruent with their identity, even if the idea is supposed to be that this is the past. And here’s the thing: in a movie, or perhaps even a more conventional novel, there might be call for such convention—but this is not a conventional novel; this is a perfect opportunity for Evaristo to further her experimental form.

Updated: Iliana, a reviewer on the non-binary spectrum, has graciously given me permission to amplify their criticisms of Morgan’s portrayal!

(As an aside, Morgan, Shirley, Penelope’s stories probably resonated most with me, since I’m trans and also a teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in England, but I know what it’s like to teach there!)

Indeed, as I considered Evaristo’s portrayal of Morgan, I started to understand the limitations of Girl, Woman, Other. It deserves its praise for the diversity of its sketches, for the complexity of these characters. Yet it also runs into the problem that plagues every author: you cannot possibly represent, with perfect fidelity, the experiences of people whose lives you haven’t shared. I’m pretty sure Evaristo understands this, that this is in fact part of the point of the book—but I wonder if this might go over some people’s heads. Girl, Woman, Other’s greatest strength is, out of necessity and probably by design, also its greatest weakness. In telling 12 stories, it sacrifices its ability to dive deeply into one. Each of these characters could have, do deserve, their own 450-page novel to portray them as fully and deeply as they deserve.

That’s what I thought about as I read this book. In a way, I really appreciate that I pushed through its unconventional prose—it’s always nice when a novel gets me thinking about the structures and strictures of literature, about what is possible within the boundaries of the conventions we set, or within the liminal spaces between conventions. Thus, the highest praise I can give Girl, Woman, Other is that it is the best type of experimental novel, in my opinion: it is an experiment born out of empathy, rather than the author’s ego; and it is intrinsically aware of its own limitations.

And more broadly, of course, I suspect that this book is a response to the dearth of Black female characters in so-called “mainstream” literature. It’s somewhat ironic (but certainly laudable) that this book won such accolades as the Booker Prize. Mainstream British (and Canadian) literature often ignores the voices of women and Black people, unless they embody Blackness and femaleness in specific ways, in ways that invalidate the autonomy and dignity of their bodies. Evaristo in this book pushes back against such ideas. This is a book filled with Black joy as well as Black pain. Hopefully its success paves the way for more Black women’s voices to tell the stories they want to tell rather than the ones that our literary gatekeepers deem theirs to tell.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

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Reading Progress

March 8, 2020 – Shelved
March 8, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
October 30, 2020 – Started Reading
November 1, 2020 –
page 453
100.0%
November 1, 2020 – Finished Reading
November 6, 2020 – Shelved as: 2020-read
November 6, 2020 – Shelved as: from-library
November 6, 2020 – Shelved as: postcolonial
November 6, 2020 – Shelved as: transgender
November 6, 2020 – Shelved as: feminism

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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Cecily I can't wait to read your thoughts on this! (No pressure, though. Well, maybe a bit...)


Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "I can't wait to read your thoughts on this! (No pressure, though. Well, maybe a bit...)"

Friday!


message 3: by Jonathan (last edited Nov 06, 2020 10:32PM) (new) - added it

Jonathan Peto I've read a few verse novels aimed at the YA audience. I often felt the poetry limited the author's reach, that the poetry allowed for images and stream-of-consciousness but shortchanged other elements of characterization and narrative. It suits some stories and characters, but I'm surprised it worked well for all 12 here. Do you think it suited some better than others?


Cecily Wonderful review and lots to think about.

I was so wrapped up in living the characters' lives I didn't notice the exploration of the theory of mind. Or maybe my immersion means I did? Either way, I loved it, and was fortunate not to share your frustration with the writing style.

I understand your point about deadnaming Morgan, and I don't remember the precise way the story unfolds, but was it written that way because we don't initially know that Morgan is trans?


Kara Babcock Jonathan wrote: "I've read a few verse novels aimed at the YA audience. I often felt the poetry limited the author's reach, that the poetry allowed for images and stream-of-consciousness but shortchanged other elem..."

Well, this isn’t quite as invested in being verse as, say, Ellen Hopkins’ Crank. It’s just that the prose obeys conventions similar to poetry, in terms of sentence/line construction, capitalization, etc.—it is still recognizably prose.

It really comes down to limitations on perspective though, yeah, I agree with you there. Despite this being limited third person, it feels closer to being first person. The other characters present in each chapter (even characters who then get their own chapter later) don’t quite feel like real people, because the chapter’s voice only ever considers that chapter’s protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. This is what I was alluding to when I mentioned theory of mind—by showing us one character’s point of view, and then switching to her mother, or her ex-lover, or whatever, we are reminded that even though someone might be acting illogical or in undesirable ways according to our perception of the world, in their mind they are doing what makes sense.

The writing style means a dearth of dialogue for sure. That’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid these types of experimental, literary novels. I like novels that are more straightforward narratives, whereas these are interconnected stream-of-consciousness vignettes.


Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "I understand your point about deadnaming Morgan, and I don't remember the precise way the story unfolds, but was it written that way because we don't initially know that Morgan is trans?"

That is probably why Evaristo did it, yeah, and I can understand such a justification … what this provoked in me was less so about Evaristo’s portrayal in particular and more about it as just another example of how trans stories are, at the moment, still very mired in a cis-centric view of language and storytelling. This is similar to my issues with For Today I Am A Boy (but Evaristo’s story is in no way as bad or harmful as that!): for a long time, cis authors largely erased trans people from their storytelling; now, there is a colonization of trans stories, by which I mean cis authors are setting the standards for the language and tropes we use to talk about trans experiences, coming out, etc.

This very idea that we need to use deadnames and the wrong pronouns at the beginning of the story for narrative accuracy is a cis-centric idea of trans experience. It’s a form of semantic collapse: the name/pronouns become mere functional signifiers, symbols used to communicate a person’s exterior self to the world. Whereas for most trans people (and I would guess for most cis people as well, but it’s just seldom as necessary to realize it), these signifiers are not just functional; they are deeply embedded in our negotiation of our true identities. Using one name/pronouns at first and then switching to the new name/pronouns only after the trans person comes out to themselves implies that transition is about becoming someone new, whereas in fact, it is a continuity and a retrocontinuity of self—hence my remark that I am Kara retroactively. Dividing up the trans person’s life into that before/after creates a dichotomy that is very othering.

Ideally, of course, I would like trans authors to be given the support to find new ways of telling trans stories. (And if they choose to use a person's deadname and old pronouns first, then change, that is also valid, because I recognize that some trans people’s experiences and beliefs are going to be different from mine—but that is up to trans people to decide, not cis people to decide for us.) I do think cis authors need to be very careful about how they portray trans people’s experiences in their stories, lest they do what Kim Fu did. For what it’s worth, I think Evaristo’s portrayal of Morgan overall was sensitive and well done; I think she almost certainly must have consulted with trans friends and acquaintances, and that shows. This is an example of how a cis author can, with care, get it right—but ultimately, in some ways she is—deliberately or unintentionally—replicating cis-centric patterns of storytelling. And that is what I would like to challenge authors, cis or trans, to experiment with and change. It’s not that I think there is one right way to do it and Evaristo got it wrong so much as I wish, given how experimental and subversive this novel is in other ways, Evaristo had taken a chance and tried to do something different.

Thank you for your question, because as you can tell, I clearly had more thoughts I wasn’t able to articulate at first in my review. I appreciate the opportunity to think more deeply about this and talk about these ideas!


Cecily It is a tricky issue in a work of fiction that covers a long time period. I absolutely get that most trans people find deadnaming painful and erasing, and if the author is cis-gender, that's all the worse. But I'm not sure how one would tell a story that included a trans character if you didn't want to make that obvious from the start.

It feeds to the broader debate about to what extent authors can legitimately write outside their own experience. I don't think there's a simple answer: in sci-fi and fantasy, for example, there has to be an element of writing outside one's own experience, and a white author writing a main character who's black is clearly contentious, but a white author who never includes any characters of colour is not good either. And there are many fuzzier cases. Evaristo isn't trans, but she is at least LGBTQ+, I think (bi). And her book has reached a wider audience than an unknown trans author might, which is both good and bad. Very tricky. And interesting.


Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "But I'm not sure how one would tell a story that included a trans character if you didn't want to make that obvious from the start."

Well, in general, I am fundamentally opposed to “revealing” that a character is trans to the reader as a type of plot twist.

In this particular case, though, that isn’t what’s happening. The chapter is called “Megan/Morgan,” the cover copy says, “Morgan, who used to be Megan,” and the chapter opens very quickly with establishing that Morgan struggled from an early age with gender expression. So it is obvious to the reader from the start. Yet the chapter could easily have been written such that Morgan’s name and pronouns are congruent with their present identity.

But more broadly, what I’m saying is that I would like us to move beyond this approach to telling transition and trans stories. I would like to see authors be much more experimental and take more risks with their narrative structure for such stories. Evaristo is so experimental here, yet she doesn’t do this. And that was my disappointment.

Indeed, what Evaristo is doing here for Black women is what we must enable trans authors to do for trans people. Girl, Woman, Other challenges the dominant ways in which Black women are portrayed in literature as a result of stereotypes and misunderstanding by white, often male writers. Evaristo is using her lived experience to subvert those stories in a way that educates and builds empathy. The more Black women we hear from like this, the better the portrayal of Black women will be across literature, even when written by white and male authors.

So to me, it isn’t a question of legitimacy. But it is about shifting the nature of representation. This can only happen by enabling more trans authors to write diverse and experimental narratives of what it is to be trans, to transition, etc. If this happens, then cis authors too will finally have a blueprint for the authentic inclusion of trans people. But it starts with questioning all pre-conceptions about the narrative structure of trans stories, and instead giving trans people the freedom to push the boundaries of literary convention, just as Evaristo does here for Black women.


Cecily I absolutely agree we need more authors from all sorts of minority backgrounds writing about their own experience, but if you're suggesting that only trans authors should include trans characters and only people of colour should include black characters, then I don't agree. That way, we get segregation, whereas literature should open our minds to other lives. I wouldn't write from the pov of such a character, but if I were writing a broad novel, I would want a realistic mix of characters, and that would include people different from me on a number of axes.

Also, while we wait for more trans authors to emerge, isn't it better that thoughtful allies include trans characters (even if they don't get it quite right) than that trans characters are invisible? Or does that make it harder for trans authors to get published? Either way, you're making a case for writing your own book! 😉

I see it's a long time since you read Eugenides' Middlesex, and it's six years since I read it a second time. I do wonder how I'd interpret it now. I know Cal isn't trans in the more usual sense and that the use of the term "hermaphrodite" is problematic, and there are many other types of transition in the story, but given all I've learned in the last few years, I expect I might have slightly more misgivings than I did.


message 10: by Kara (last edited Nov 08, 2020 06:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "I absolutely agree we need more authors from all sorts of minority backgrounds writing about their own experience, but if you're suggesting that only trans authors should include trans characters and only people of colour should include black characters, then I don't agree."

No, I’m not suggesting that. I pretty much agree 100% with your position in your first paragraph! I think what I’ve been trying to say, though, is that progress will not come just from changes in terms of who is writing the stories. The problem is systemic to literature itself. What makes Girl, Woman, Other so truly rich as a literary experience is that it challenges the dominant portrayals of Black women in our literature. I’m saying I want to see that for trans people.

Cecily wrote: "Also, while we wait for more trans authors to emerge, isn't it better that thoughtful allies include trans characters (even if they don't get it quite right) than that trans characters are invisible?"

Can cis authors write good portrayals of trans characters? Absolutely. I liked Morgan here. Similarly, I heaped praise upon Derek Künsken’s The House of Styx for his portrayal of a trans character. It was great because Pascale’s transition was not the central plot of the story but rather one story amidst others, and it wasn’t the only defining trait of her character. Nevertheless, this portrayal still has its issues, of course—at its heart, it is still following a somewhat conventional narrative for a trans person coming out and transitioning. And while these narratives can be valuable, we really need to move beyond the idea that this is all trans people are.

We cannot wait for more trans authors to emerge, though. Trans authors are already here. But they are overlooked, or when they are published, they don’t receive the same support as other authors because their stories are seen to lack mass appeal. Or their stories are only selected for publication if they the narrow, cis-centric ideas of what transition stories should be like—there might be more trans authors, but the gatekeepers in publishing remain largely cis. And the answer isn’t solely just to push the problem one level up and say we should diversify the gatekeepers, because that ignores the more systemic problem, just as including more women in leadership positions of corporations is a good move but doesn’t fix the underlying problems with capitalism as a whole.

Alicia Elliott writes about a similar issue with literal colonialism within literature when it comes to Indigenous peoples in her essay “On Seeing and Being Seen”:

I once entered a short-story contest with a piece about a complicated relationship between two Indigenous women and lost to a story written by a white American man that not only appropriated but outright misrepresented Indigenous ceremonies. His story featured stereotypical drunken, dysfunctional Indians, one of whom offered his white girlfriend—the story’s protagonist, naturally—to his brother during potlatch. The brother accepted, and the two went off and had sex in the woods, the rest of the Natives vomiting and partying around them….

… Was this, a story written by a white man in another country, more “Indian” than my own writing as an Indigenous woman? Did this racist portrayal and cultural appropriation of Indigenous people matter if the story was otherwise “good”?

That is the crucial problem with the push for “diversity” in publishing…. “Diversity” is not about letting those who aren’t white make whatever art matters to them and their communities…..

No, “diversity,” as Tania Canas so succinctly puts it in her essay “Diversity is a White Word,” is about making sense of difference “through the white lens … by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.” It’s the literary equivalent of “ethnic” restaurants: they please white people because they provide them with “exotic” new flavours, but if they don’t appease white people’s sensitive taste buds they’re not worth a damn.


This is what I mean by the colonization of trans storytelling. Even when trans voices get heard, if the story they tell is not the recognizable story filled with tropes cis audiences have come to expect from cis authors, the story gets panned. Meanwhile, cis authors appeal to these tropes and receive awards and praise. Eugenides and Middlesex are a great example of this, as you point out. Middlesex is not a widely-celebrated story because its portrayal of an intersex person is good; it is widely-celebrated because it appeals to non-intersex people’s ideas of what a story about an intersex person’s struggle should be like. For every Eugenides, there are intersex and trans authors whose stories about intersex or trans characters have been turned down because their characters’ stories and struggles are just like non-intersex or cis people—and by and large, that hasn’t been good enough for cis audiences. That needs to change.

Hence, seats at the table are not enough. Just as “not being racist” in our society is not enough—one needs to be actively anti-racist and work to dismantle systemic white supremacy. Including more trans authors is not enough if the landscape of literature is still itself colonized in a cis-centric way. We must actively decolonize literature, reshape it, and this can only be done by admitting far more radical and experimental types of stories. For what it’s worth, I think Girl, Woman, Other was a fantastic example of decolonizing literature for Black women. I like its portrayal of a trans character; I just think it doesn’t go far enough, and for a book that was so experimental, I had hoped it could maybe experiment more along that axis. The fact that Evaristo doesn’t is fine, but it made me think about how important it is that we invite and appreciate that experimentation (especially from trans authors) the way we have invited and appreciated the subversive experimentation of Girl, Woman, Other.

(P.S. I am really enjoying and appreciating this thoughtful discussion and the opportunity to hear your thoughts and work through my own thoughts—which I clearly have more of than even I anticipated!)


Cecily Thank you for such a detailed, insightful, and referenced reply - and I'm glad you're enjoying our discussion, both in terms of informing me, and of exploring your own ideas further. The classes you teach must be brilliant.

Alicia Elliott's short story contest entry is both shocking and not shocking - like an unfunny version of the old joke where someone famous enters a lookalike contest for themselves and comes second.

Kara wrote: "... Pascale’s transition was not the central plot of the story but rather one story amidst others, and it wasn’t the only defining trait of her character...."

That sounds key. And it makes me think of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its portrayal of someone on the autistic spectrum (I know that label is never used in the book itself): it's almost entirely about Christopher's difference, and it's what neurotypical people "expect" of such a character, but like Rain Man long before it, it perhaps constrains our understanding, or worse, makes us think we understand more than we do.

Middlesex is a little different, imo, because although the headline is all about Cal's evolving understanding of identity, there are so many other types of transition in the book. With Curious Incident and Rain Man, it's all about one person's autism.

We certainly need to hear from more authors of colour, trans authors, authors with disabilities etc, but some differences make that unlikely to achieve. Temple Grandin is inspirational and insightful, but how many people with more severe (I don't like that word) autism would want or be able to write fiction unaided, and if aided, at what point is their experience coming via someone neurotypical?


message 12: by Kara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "We certainly need to hear from more authors of colour, trans authors, authors with disabilities etc, but some differences make that unlikely to achieve. Temple Grandin is inspirational and insightful, but how many people with more severe (I don't like that word) autism would want or be able to write fiction unaided, and if aided, at what point is their experience coming via someone neurotypical?

Mmm, I think that’s a little different from the point I’m exploring, even though disabled people suffer from similar type of literary colonialism. Nor is it something I’m really qualified to discuss. All I can really say to that is that it behoves us to remember that novels, and indeed literature as we might conventionally think of it from a Eurocentric perspective, are far from the only ways in which to tell stories.


Cecily Kara wrote: "... novels, and indeed literature as we might conventionally think of it from a Eurocentric perspective, are far from the only ways in which to tell stories."

I know there are aural traditions, but I'm not sure how I'd access them - especially as I really can't focus on audio-only unless I'm face-to-face in real life. What other ways are there?


message 14: by TMR (new) - rated it 2 stars

TMR Glad you liked it, I could not.


message 15: by Kara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kara Babcock Cecily wrote: "What other ways are there?"

Literally the entirety of art—oral traditions, sure. Poetry. Plays. Dances. Painting. Sculpture. Music. Movies. Video games. Virtual reality.

If there is one constant to human experience, it is our profound facility for using new technologies to create and tell stories.

And it’s ok if you don’t want to partake in all such forms. I’m not a big art person, myself. Heck, I don’t really like reading anything more than novels and maybe a movie here or there. :P But I recognize that this is a limitation I place on myself, that there is a plethora of other storytelling techniques out there. That’s something to celebrate, and every so often I poke outside my comfort zone and dip my toes into them.


message 16: by Kara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kara Babcock TMR wrote: "Glad you liked it, I could not."

Normally I am right there with you regarding books that break those basic rules of punctuation and style! I reject them out of hand. This is on the extreme end of what I can stomach in terms of being an “experimental” literary-fiction novel. At the end it was like, "Ok, ordinary prose now, plz."


message 17: by Cecily (last edited Nov 09, 2020 06:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Kara wrote: "Literally the entirety of art—oral traditions, sure. Poetry. Plays. Dances. Painting. Sculpture. Music. Movies. Video games. Virtual reality...."

Well yes, OK, of course! 🤦‍♀️ But some don't have an obvious narrative (instrumental music, some dances, a lot of modern art), others are more of a moment than narrative (some paintings and sculpture), and others are too new and technological for me to think of them in terms of traditional (whatever that means) storytelling from other cultures and other groups. And I have enjoyed all of those forms to some extent, but except for movies, theatre, and opera, I don't really think of them as storytelling. I guess I should.


Cecily Still off-topic (do tell me to stop, if you want), though it's back to gender, I just saw a journalist on Twitter say:
"If the biggest role a woman has in a plot is getting murdered, that show should not be being made. I’m including real life documentaries in that."
I suppose it's a similar principle as the Bechdel test. I think they're both good principles, but I'm wary of absolutes, especially in documentaries. If you're making a film, about fighting in the trenches of WW1, it will necessarily be short of women, and if you have a major thread of the home front, it's a different sort of film. Similarly, a documentary about a serial killer (and it's not a genre I'm comfortable with) will possible have the woman/women's role as primarily victim - especially if little is known about them.

Similarly, with people of colour, trans people, and other minorities: yes we need to hear their stories and have them in stories - much much more than we do - but that doesn't mean they fit in every story (not that you were suggesting that).

OK, I'll shut up now!


message 19: by Kara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kara Babcock Yeah, the thing about the Bechdel test is that it was never meant to be applied as a type of quality control to individual films. It is totally fine for individual films to fail the Bechdel test. What Bechdel was pointing out when she wrote the comic that first explained it is that, if you keep applying it over and over, the majority of films fail the test. And that is problematic. The Bechdel test, and other similar ideas, like the ageless test (the Geena Davis Institute has done wonderful work researching representation in media along multiple axes), are meant to indicate problematic trends so that we can push back against them.


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