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Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Black’ British Amazons: Aesthetics and Politics in Girl, Woman, Other (2019)

Les amazones britanniques ‘noires’ de Bernardine Evaristo : ésthétique et politique dans Girl, Woman, Other (2019)
Cédric Courtois

Résumés

Dans Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo met en récit des histoires de femmes britanniques « noires » afin de leur donner plus de visibilité et, possiblement, une voix au sein à la fois de la littérature britannique et de l’histoire britannique. Evaristo raconte les histoires de ces femmes britanniques « noires » qui font face à des stéréotypes qui réduisent leurs corps à un nombre restreint de rôles déterminés par la société qui les ostracise. Néanmoins, ces personnages parviennent à « re‑configurer » le « partage du sensible » en faisant montre d’« obstination », ce qui en fait des sujets politiques. Ces femmes britanniques « noires » « re‑configurent » également l’espace post‑colonial de la Grande-Bretagne, en se déplaçant des marges vers le centre du roman. Nous utilisons les écrits des philosophes Jacques Rancière et Sara Ahmed sur le dissensus, « le partage du sensible », les concepts d’ « obstination » et de colère. Nous analysons la façon dont ces femmes se positionnent de façon dissensuelle, ce qui mène à une mise en valeur de voix longtemps réduites au silence.

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  • 1 In Girl, Woman, Other, a similar relationship between a student—Carole—and a teacher—Shirley King—i (...)
  • 2 In this paper, the term ‘black’ is written in quotation marks, to echo the caution demonstrated by (...)

1In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), which narrativises the diasporic life of people from erstwhile British colonies in Asia and the Caribbean, Irie Jones—just like Zadie Smith herself—is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father. In the chapter entitled ‘The Miseducation of Irie Jones’, set in the 1990s and central in the economy of the novel, Irie and her classmates analyse William Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127 and 130 with their English teacher, Mrs Roody.1 The instances of collage of Shakespearean lines about the Dark Lady interrupt the narration and bring Irie and the reader back to the reality of the classroom, as the lines are read out loud by Irie’s classmates and commented upon by some of them or by Mrs Roody herself. Smith’s choice of this Shakespearean intertext is interesting in a context where Irie firmly believes in ‘her ugliness, in her wrongness . . .’ (Smith 268, original italics). She is also convinced that her ‘impossible Afro hair’ (268) makes her ugly, which both highlights the rejection of her mother’s Jamaican origins and echoes the first line in Sonnet 127, ‘In the old age black was not counted fair’. When Mrs Roody asks Irie if she has ‘anything to say about the sonnets’ (271), she answers that she wonders whether or not ‘the dark lady’ is ‘black’ (271), to which Mrs Roody says: ‘No, dear, she’s dark. She’s not black in the modern sense. There weren’t any . . . well Afro‑Carri‑bee‑yans in England at that time, dear. That’s more a modern phenomenon, as I’m sure you know. But this was the 1600s [. . .] unless she was a slave of some kind’ (271–2, original emphasis). These are problematic statements uttered by a supposedly knowledgeable representative of authority, as Mrs Roody deems that the English bard could not have written about a woman of colour. Through the character of Irie, Smith addresses the (self-)representation of ‘black’ British people, particularly women.2

2Since the 1990s however, more scholarly research about ‘black’ British history has been carried out, and it is now clear that African men and women were already present in England in the early17th-century, which demonstrates that despite being ‘untold’ (see Kaufmann) and/or ‘forgotten’ (see Olusoga), ‘black’ British history stretches back centuries. Evaristo mentions the issue of the representation of ‘black’ British history in a recent interview:

3In the arts we’ve explored very little of black British culture. We have got a long way to go before we really are able to explore the breadth of who we are in this country even if you look at British history and the black presence in British history. I mentioned earlier my book The Emperor’s Babe: black girl growing up in Roman London 2,000 years ago. Nobody has gone back that far with fiction . . . If we look at the many ways in which British history has been explored through the arts, through literature, through the media, then when does the Black British experience start being recorded?’ (Penguin Books UK n.p.)

4The Emperor’s Babe (2001) has hitherto not led to numerous critical studies although it is a landmark novel both politically and aesthetically, as it stages, in blank verse, a Sudanese character named Zuleika, who lives and comes of age in Roman Londinium AD 211. Evaristo’s project in The Emperor’s Babe is made explicit through the choice of an epigraph taken from Oscar Wilde: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’ (n.p.). As a writer, Evaristo aims to (re)write history, or to ‘put presence into absence’ (Sethi, n.p.). She aims to remind the reader of the overlooked ‘black’ British history.

5‘Put[ting] presence into absence’ is also what Bernardine Evaristo set to do in Girl, Woman, Other, her eighth novel to date. It is a polyphonic work that gives voice to twelve primarily ‘black’ British women—one of the characters was born female but considers themselves non‑binary—, aged 19 to 93, in a mix of witty verse and prose that tackles such issues as feminism, racism, and the intersection of identities. There are five chapters, each of them divided into three subparts bearing the name of a female character. In 2019, Evaristo was awarded the Booker Prize for this novel alongside Canadian writer Margaret Atwood for The Testaments. She is the first ‘black’ (British) woman to win the prestigious prize since its creation in 1969. Moreover, according to John Self, ‘Girl, Woman, Other was the sensation of the Booker shortlist and a testament to the power of prizes [as] [i]t was little‑reviewed before it was shortlisted, but immediately afterwards became both a critical and popular favourite’ (n.p.). After the two winners of the prize were announced, Shaun Ley, a (white, male) BBC presenter, in an unacceptable faux pas in his broadcast, mentioned the fact that ‘another author’ won alongside ‘Margaret Atwood’. While he did remember the name of the famous Canadian author, he could not remember Evaristo’s name, making her invisible and belittling her feat in the process (see BBC). After witnessing this erasure of her identity—an erasure felt by many ‘black’ British people when it comes to their place in the British national narrative—Evaristo expressed disappointment on her Twitter account: ‘How quickly and casually they have removed my name from history—the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks’ (see Flood). That day, she shed light on the painful truth of erasure and silencing of non‑normative voices in Britain, an ironical situation as Girl, Woman, Other first and foremost gives visibility and, possibly, a voice to ‘black’ British women.

6R. Victoria Arana’s concerns in ‘Black’ British Aesthetics Today have been central in my approach. Arana explains that ‘discussions of contemporary “black” British writing emphasised the social and demographic features of the writing and very infrequently touched on its quality as writing, its artistic features and objectives, or its aesthetics’ (viii, original emphasis). This article aims to carry on reflecting along the lines developed by Arana and some of the contributors to her book, by referring to both aesthetics and politics. In Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo ‘set out to write in a polyphonic series of voices as a “strategy against invisibility” because “we black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will”’ (Flood, n.p.). These ‘strateg[ies] against invisibility’ will constitute one of the main threads in this paper. According to French philosopher Jacques Rancière in Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, the politics of a society can be read through the prism of the distribution of bodies and faces proposed to the observer’s gaze. ‘Black’ British women embody ‘the part who have no part’, to quote Rancière (1998, 29), whose ideas about aesthetics, politics, and the ‘distribution of the sensible’ will be omnipresent in this paper. I will analyse aesthetics and politics in Girl, Woman, Other and, in order to do so, I will explore the politics behind the (stereotypical) representation of the bodies of ‘black’ British women. I will then explain how Girl, Woman, Other, offers a ‘re‑configuration’ of the sensible by staging ‘willful’ characters. I will demonstrate how (political) dissensus is embraced both thematically and aesthetically. I also propose to delve into how the female characters in the novel position themselves within post-colonial British space; this (spatial) reconfiguration leads to the foregrounding of marginalised, silenced, and unheard, stories.

The Politics of (Stereotypical) Representation of ‘Black’ British Female Bodies

7In the first chapter titled ‘Amma’, the eponymous character, a playwright and stage director, is about to attend the premiere of her own latest play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre in London. Representation—in the sense of a dramatic production or performance—is therefore at the heart of Girl, Woman, Other. This event is a ‘breakthrough career moment’ (6) for Amma. However, before this ‘pinnacle of [Amma’s] career’ (434), the omniscient narrator explains what she and her friend Dominique, two ‘black’ British lesbians, then aspiring actresses, went through in the 1980s because they were ‘black’ British women. This early passage in the novel puts to the fore what Rancière calls ‘the police’:

The police is, essentially, the law, generally implicit, that defines a party’s share or lack of it. But to define this, you first must define the configuration of the perceptible in which one or the other is inscribed. . . . Policing is not so much the ‘disciplining’ of bodies as a rule governing their appearing, a configuration of occupations and the properties of the spaces where these occupations are distributed. (1998, 29, original emphasis)

8A person’s or a group’s share of the sensible order is ‘police[d]’ in the sense that bodies, selves, are restricted to a certain number of possibilities. In Girl, Woman, Other, the narrator explains:

[Amma and Dominique] met in the eighties at an audition for a feature film set in a women’s prison (what else?)

both were disillusioned at being put up for parts such as a slave, servant, prostitute, nanny or crim

and still not getting a job

they railed against their lot in a grotty Soho caff while devouring fried egg and bacon slathered between two slabs of soggy white bread washed down with builder’s tea alongside the sex workers who plied their trade on the streets outside. (6)

  • 3 British actor Lenny Henry, the son of Jamaican parents who emigrated to Britain before he was born, (...)
  • 4 In Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, particularly in the chapter titled ‘Bodies’, Afua Hi (...)

9Both Amma and Dominique vent their frustration—here expressed through the alliteration on [s] and the dental consonants—in front of such problematic treatment they face while trying to find a job. This frustration is particularly palpable in the last paragraph where their rant climaxes so that that all forms of punctuation are missing (there are no quotation marks that traditionally indicate orality in a novel, for instance), thus conveying the impression of an oral flow. Through the description of the difficulties that Amma and Dominique came across in order to find a job as actresses, the reader learns that their job opportunities were, to use a verb inspired by Rancière, ‘configured’—or ‘police[d]—in a way that could be perceived as an ‘implicit law’ ‘disciplining’ black bodies, and reducing them to some very specific roles, or ‘occupations’, that are stereotypically associated with black people in this passage.3 This could also remind the reader of what Frantz Fanon explains in Black Skin, White Masks regarding Europe that has frequently ‘woven [black people] out of a thousand details, anecdotes [and] stories’ (111).4

10Amma’s reaction to this stereotyping process is proof that she refuses to be fetishised, to have white people ‘project[ing] onto [her] blackness’, to quote Afua Hirsch (102). The narrator explains that ‘Amma was shorter [than Dominique], with African hips and thighs / perfect slave girl material one director told her when she walked into an audition for a play about Emancipation’ (7). By referring to Amma’s hips and thighs, the film director’s sexual innuendo cannot be missed. These are stereotypes about the corporeality of individual ‘black’ British women and such a preconceived representation of black womanhood is problematic: the film director’s remark is deeply offensive, essentialising, and dehumanising. Moreover, other preconceived ideas—this time about the construction of Britain—loom large: ‘in turn a casting director told Dominique she was wasting his time when she turned up for a Victorian drama when there weren’t any black people in Britain then’ (6–7). The fact that the casting director believes that no black people were present in Britain in the Victorian era is erroneous, as Dominique argues. Her point is completely valid and, nowadays, well‑documented by historians, among whom Miranda Kaufmann in her book about black Tudors (see Kaufmann). Kaufmann debunks the preconceived idea according to which slavery was the first and only experience black people knew in England. She further argues that people of colour were ‘present at the royal courts of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I, in the households of famous Tudors including Robert Dudley . . ., Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Francis Drake [etc.]’ (Kaufmann 1–2). The casting director’s remark unveils the hegemonic and (white) Eurocentric discourse about the construction of Britain that does not acknowledge the presence of people of colour. This raises the question of who ‘owns’ history, an aspect that French poet Aimé Césaire, among others, addressed when he mentioned the presence of people of colour which can neither be overlooked nor ignored since it can be found in the tiniest details in Western cities, for example (see Wolitz 18).

11In the first passage from Evaristo’s novel quoted in this section, the narrative voice sarcastically addresses the issue of the stereotypical representation of ‘black’ British women. Despite the absence of quotation marks to indicate direct speech, the short comment—‘what else?’ (6)—also corresponds to what Amma and Dominique utter ipsis verbis. This can be considered as an early indicator of Evaristo’s aesthetic engagement, an engagement she calls ‘fusion fiction’, which she says gave her ‘so much freedom’ (Waterstones 2019a), and which she defines thus:

12I call the novel fusion fiction because there are very few full stops. And I found it a very exciting form to experiment with. I think I might have discovered it, I’m not sure. And the absence of full stops meant that it was a very free‑flowing writing experience for me. . . . I hope it is a free‑flowing reading experience for the reader. If I had structured the novel in a very traditional way, with traditional sentences, with traditional paragraphs, I think I would not have been able to write the novel as I did. It would not have the scope that it does, twelve interlinked British women’s stories where you feel you know them deeply, intimately, you know the scope and span of their lives and I think that was made possible by this quite pro‑poetic form that I use without actually being poetry (Penguin Books UK n.p.).

  • 5 In his review article, Roy Sommer mentions the ‘new interest in “black” British writing as literatu (...)

13The ‘free‑flowing impression’, the ‘fusion’ between poetry and prose—namely allowed by the dearth of traditional punctuation—were already a staple of her first novel, Lara (1997), written in verse and, as was already mentioned, in The Emperor’s Babe.5 This decision to resist the ‘traditional’ ‘structure’ of the novel genre corresponds to what Rancière explains when it comes to the interplay between politics and aesthetics or, as he calls it, the ‘politics of aesthetics’ (2009, 59). In Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo aims to deconstruct essentialist conceptions of ‘black’ British womanhood, as she confirms in ‘Shelfie with Bernardine Evaristo’ (Waterstones 2019b), where she sheds light on the different socio‑cultural backgrounds of her twelve characters. She also explains that she initially wanted to write the stories of 1,000 women, or rather, as she explains, ‘womxn because that is trans-inclusive’ (Waterstones 2019a), a project that became impossible to carry out, but which clearly shows that the objective was to emphasise the great variety of ‘black’ British female experiences, and therefore put an end to any form of essentialisation of ‘black’ British womanhood. In the same way as Amma and Dominique will not be categorised in such a vile manner and are willing to transcend corporeal ‘configuration[s]’ and constraints, in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo will not conform to traditional conventions about novel writing. She explains:

14I have a term I came up with called fusion fiction—that’s what it felt like, with the absence of full stops, the long sentences. The form is very free‑flowing and it allowed me to be inside the characters’ heads and go all over the place—the past, the present. For me, there’s always a level of experimentation—I’m not happy writing what we might call traditional novels. There’s a part of me that is always oppositional to convention—not only counter‑cultural and disruptive of people’s expectations of me, but also of form. That goes back to my theatre days, when we would write very experimentally, as we did not want to, as we saw it, imprison our creativity in traditional forms (Sethi n.p.).

15Whether it be Evaristo or her fictional characters Amma and Dominique, the three of them embody ‘willful’ ‘black’ British women whose dissensual behaviour is mainly expressed through their refusal to remain voiceless. By writing ‘black’ British women’s stories, Evaristo could be said to inscribe ‘lines of fracture and disincorporation’ (Rancière 2004, 39) in the way ‘black’ British women have long been represented. Rancière’s ‘disincorporation’ is literal here as Evaristo enables her characters to be freed from the ‘configuration of the perceptible in which [they are] inscribed’ (Rancière 1998, 29).

A ‘Dissensual Re‑configuration’ through ‘Willfulness’

16Girl, Woman, Other is a political novel in the sense given by Rancière:

Art and politics each define a form of dissensus, a dissensual re‑configuration of the common experience of the sensible. If there is such thing as an ‘aesthetics of politics’, it lies in a re‑configuration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation. Correspondingly, if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of art that re-configure the fabric of sensory experience. (2010b, 140)

  • 6 A definition of the ‘partage du sensible’ (‘distribution of the sensible’) can be found in Rancière(...)

17The main ideas here are the ‘re‑configuration’ of the sensible order6 that a literary work can enable, and the way this ‘re‑configuration’ is achieved, i.e.: through ‘processes of subjectivation’ and, to add yet another layer, thanks to Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects, through ‘willful’ ‘processes of subjectivation’. Ahmed takes the definition of ‘willful’ from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will, without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self‑willed or perverse’ (Ahmed 4). According to Fiona McCann, ‘Sara Ahmed’s . . . work on “willful subjects” . . . resonates with Rancière’s work on dissensus’ (70). This is indeed the case, as the latter’s definition of ‘politics’ attests: ‘[t]he essence of politics is dissensus’ (2010a, 38, original emphasis). Moreover,

18the term politics [is reserved] for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration—that of the part who have no part. This break is manifest in a series of actions that reconfigure the space where parties, parts, or lack of parts have been defined. Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise (Rancière 1998, 29–30, original emphasis).

19Both ‘willfulness’ and ‘dissensus’ enter in dialogue since ‘asserting’ one’s will is ‘to behave in a way that expresses your confidence, importance, or power and earns you respect from others’ (Cambridge Dictionary). These two notions contribute to a rupture in the sensible order, which makes them political: ‘The essence of politics, Rancière argues, consists in disturbing this arrangement by supplementing it with a part of those without part’ (2010a, 36). In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed explains that ‘[w]illfulness is used to explain errors of will—unreasonable or perverted will—as fault of character’ (4), that being ‘willful’ is perceived as a ‘failure to comply with those whose authority is given’ (1). With the tale of ‘The Willful Child’, the Grimm Brothers conveyed ‘poisonous pedagogy’ (Ahmed 1), instilling within children the idea according to which being willful is something that should be avoided at all costs. More interesting as regards the main point in this paper is Ahmed’s reference to one of her motivations behind the writing of her book on ‘willfulness’:

It was another figure, related, or perhaps even a relation, a kind of kin, that of the feminist killjoy, who first sparked my interest in this pursuit. Feminist killjoys: those who refuse to laugh at the right points; those who are unwilling to be seated at the table of happiness. . . . Feminist killjoys: willful women, unwilling to get along, unwilling to preserve an idea of happiness. I became interested in how those who get in the way of happiness, and we call these those killjoys, are also and often attributed as willful. (2)

  • 7 Ahmed also refers to ‘female trouble‑making fiction’ (3, my emphasis). The term ‘trouble-maker’ app (...)

20Issues related to gender are therefore central for Ahmed, and it is noteworthy that in Girl, Woman, Other, most characters can be considered as ‘willful subjects’, ‘feminist killjoys’, or trouble‑makers, by some, at some point or another.7

21The non‑binary character called Megan/Morgan, who ‘has self-identified as gender-free for six years now [and] they’ve learnt to be cool with it when people don’t use or understand their preferred pronouns’ (328), explains that as a child, they were perceived as a transgressive figure, a ‘willful child’ even, to go back to the story highlighted by Ahmed. Indeed, growing up and raised as a little girl, their ‘mother was unthinkingly repeating patterns of oppression based on gender’ (307). Megan/Morgan refused to conform to social norms: ‘Megan preferred wearing trousers as a child, which she found more comfortable than dresses [and] liked looking like her brother Mark who was three years older’ (307). However, their mother ‘wanted her to look cuter than she already was / like the cutest of the cutest cutie-pies / she was determined to dress Megan up for the approval of society at large’ (308). Two ‘willful’, rebellious, and therefore political acts were therefore put in place by Megan/Morgan once this occurred. The first one appears in the expression ‘dress protest’ (309) which the narrator uses in order to describe Megan/Morgan’s action in front of their parents’ insistence that they wear a dress. The reader learns that this protest led to Megan/Morgan ‘(victoriously . . . wear[ing] red jeans)’ (309). However, the second act can be considered as the most impressive and political one when it comes to the display of Megan/Morgan’s ‘willfulness’ as a child fiercely opposed to gender norms from a very early age. In the following scene, they have just been sent to their bedroom as a punishment in order to ‘play with [their] Barbies’:

the Barbies with their stick legs and rocket breasts were another problem Megan had to endure

she was supposed to spend hours dressing up or playing house with them, including the darker ones she was supposed to find more relatable

in a fit she’d once tried to commit Barbicide, defaced them with coloured marker pens, chopped off hair, extracted eyes with scissors and de‑limbed a few. (309)

22Beyond the humorous aspect of this scene, the reader cannot but be struck by Megan/Morgan’s resistance and ‘willfulness’ in front of their parents’ imposition of socially-accepted gender frameworks/norms. The political resistance put in place by this young child is motivated by the exaggerated and stereotypical female features represented here by the Barbie dolls for which she seems to feel an intense hatred, which leads her to deconstruct the norms these very dolls embody—by ‘de‑limb[ing]’ them—, and to almost commit a ‘Barbicide’. Although of course the reader cannot but smile when encountering this neologism, the word itself still conveys extreme violence leading to a systematic extermination/eradication of dolls that have been representing an extremely harmful and toxic model for girls for a long time. The parents’ reaction in front of Megan/Morgan’s ‘willfulness’ can be interpreted as an attempt to put an end to what they consider as their child’s abnormal behaviour. According to Ahmed, ‘[e]liminating wilfulness could be understood as a method of negation: a way of stopping a certain kind of subject from coming into existence, one whose insistence on having her or his own way is presented as waywardness, as a perversion of the right path of the will’ (68). She further adds that ‘[w]illfulness is useful as a technique for making those who are assumed as inassimilable . . . responsible for not being assimilated’ (128). What Ahmed calls her ‘archive of willfulness’—to which some of the stories narrated in Girl, Woman, Other, could be added—is a way to demonstrate how marginalised people’s bodies are managed or ‘police[d]’ in society, and Megan/Morgan’s story is an excellent example of that. The narrator clearly shows Megan/Morgan’s marginalisation when mentioning the fact that ‘Megan spent her evenings hanging about on the Quayside with the men and women who accepted her as she was / an outsider, just like them, she snorted, injected, smoked, swallowed whatever came her way’ (313). The Quayside, located between the mysterious sea and firm land, is a liminal space where marginals of all kinds gather together as ‘outsiders’. This in-between locale, where Megan/Morgan likes to go, reflects her own positioning as regards gender in a society that is deeply‑anchored in binarisms.

23By mainly focusing on ‘black’ British women, and a character who was born female and raised ‘accordingly’, following society’s norms, but is now non‑binary, Evaristo foregrounds questions linked to black female corporeality but also female voice and the interruption of silence, what, in the context of the introduction to her book gathering American womanist Audre Lorde’s essays and speeches, Sara Ahmed refers to as ‘speaking out’ (ix). It is not surprising to see that Ahmed shows a particular interest in the figure of Audre Lorde, herself a ‘willful’ womanist activist. In Girl, Woman, Other, Amma’s daughter, Yazz, is also interested in Lorde; so is Evaristo herself who considers that, among other figures, Lorde ‘shaped [her] thinking as a writer and gave [her] the confidence to become a writer’ (Waterstones 2019b). She further explains that Lorde ‘is enjoying a renaissance at the moment’ and that the reason she ‘loves [Sister Outsider] and her entire oeuvre is because she was a very powerful black feminist at a time when [black women] didn’t really have a voice out there in the world. She was also a lesbian and stood by her lesbianism. . . . She was . . . one of the first intersectional feminists . . .’ (Waterstones 2019b). In the introduction to Lorde’s book, Ahmed explains that ‘Lorde always took the risk of naming herself and of asserting her existence in a world that made her existence difficult’ (v). She mentions

the necessity of speaking out: of identifying and naming racism and sexism; of not allowing these forms of violence to be passed over. [Lorde] suggests that it is better to speak out, even if you are afraid of the consequences of speaking out, even if you have to pay a cost for speaking out. Whatever the cost of speaking out, the costs of not speaking out will always be too high: as Lorde reminds us, racism and sexism take lives. I think here of her call for us to make use of our anger, which she says is “loaded with information and energy”. (Lorde ix, original emphasis)

24Amma and Dominique’s actions show that they are ‘willing to put their bodies in the way, or to bend their bodies in the way of the will’ (Ahmed 161). They reconfigure the sensible order and, therefore, they become audible and visible as political/feminist/dissensual subjects:

[Amma] thinks back to when she started out in theatre
when she and her running mate, Dominique, developed a reputation for heckling shows that
offended their political sensibilities

their powerfully trained actors’ voices projected from the back of the stalls before they made a quick getaway
they believed in protest that was public, disruptive and downright annoying to those at the other end of it
she remembers pouring a pint of beer over the head of a director whose play featured semi‑naked black women running around on stage behaving like idiots
before doing a runner into the backstreets of Hammersmith
howling (2)

  • 8 The ‘howling’ referred to echoes what Dominique alludes to later in the novel when she explains tha (...)

25The never‑ending fight against what they perceive as unfair is conveyed through the lack of punctuation, as if their political struggle was indeed endless. It is interesting to emphasise the issue of voice here as it is referred to as a powerfully ‘disruptive’ element. First, this ‘powerfully trained’ voice is used in order to interrupt performances with which they did not feel at ease (‘semi-naked black women running around on stage behaving like idiots’). By interrupting these performances with loud and unfriendly comments (‘heckling’), they both express their dissatisfaction as regards the ‘distribution of the sensible’, but also their pain regarding the way they, as black females, are represented, as conveyed by the verb ‘howl’.8 This passage echoes the Preface written by British journalist and author Reni Eddo‑Lodge in Your Silence Will Not Protect You, where it is explained that ‘[p]olite conversation wouldn’t suffice—to speak truth to power you have to stand on a table and shout’ (Lorde ii). Dominique is also a dissensual figure and once she met her, Amma ‘realized she’d found a kindred spirit in Dominique who would kick arse with her’ (7): they are then considered as ‘trouble‑makers’. In the context of Dominique’s experience, the cost to be paid is made quite explicit by the principal of the drama school she attends: ‘you’re here to become an actor not a politician / you’ll be asked to leave if you keep causing trouble / you have been warned, Dominique’ (9). By expressing ‘dissensus’ and ‘willfulness’, Dominique is political. She explains to Amma: ‘when I was accepted into a very orthodox drama school, I was already politicized and challenged them on everything, Amma’ (8). Later in the text, Dominique is described as an ‘opinionated loudmouth’ (82). Audre Lorde noticed the importance of anger or ‘rage’, which she thought was ‘disruptive’ (Lorde 110). It is indeed also an important aspect and a great tool for Amma and Dominique to be successful in their lives. Several of Lorde’s statements from her keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in June 1981 titled ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’ can be used in order to illustrate what is at stake in Evaristo’s novel, particularly regarding Amma, Dominique, and Amma’s daughter, Yazz. Indeed, while anger is often used as a derogatory element to criticise feminists, Lorde admitted that her ‘response to racism [was] anger’ (107). By expressing anger, these ‘black’ British women do manage to make change happen; this also echoes what Rancière explains about what he calls ‘political activity’:

Spectacular or otherwise, political activity is always a mode of expression that undoes the perceptible divisions of the police order by implementing a basically heterogeneous assumption, that of a part of those who have no part, an assumption that, at the end of the day, itself demonstrates the sheer contingency of the order, the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being. (Rancière 1998, 30)

26Dissensus is also expressed through an important decision Amma and Dominique make at some point in their career:

would get out there
they would create theatre on their own terms
it became the company’s motto
On Our Own Terms
or Not At All. (14)

27The passage from ‘on their own terms’ to ‘On Our Own Terms’ conveys a change in perspective whereby Amma and Dominique would express this willingness not to conform in a more direct manner. The presence of the full stop at the end of this passage is noteworthy as these are very rare in this novel, endowing the device with a special meaning: Amma and Dominique will ‘create theatre in their own terms’, full stop. Within the context of their own theatre company, they set up plays like ‘The Importance of Being Female, FGM: The Musical, Dis-arranged Marriage, Cunning Stunts’, ‘performed in community centres, libraries, fringe theatres, at women’s festivals and conferences’ (15), rewritings of earlier texts but with a clear focus on women’s issues. A ‘break’, a ‘dissensual’ approach to these older works, is therefore put in place. However, initially, they are played in venues that are not mainstream.

‘Black’ British Women: From the Margins to the Centre

‘I’ve become the High Priestess of Career Longevity in the Chapel of Social Change preaching from the Pulpit of Political Invisibility to the Congregation of the Marginalized and Already Converted.’ (Evaristo 2019, 434)

28The quotation used above, taken from the end of Girl, Woman, Other, corresponds to the description given by Amma when it comes to her career, status, and place in the British society. Through this ‘title’, so to speak, she addresses the problem of ‘Political Invisibility’ of marginals, among whom ‘black’ British women. Girl, Woman, Other falls within the realm of ‘politics’ as it shows the presence of people of colour in Britain whose voice has long been silenced or deliberately ignored. Evaristo herself admits she is a ‘political writer’: ‘The interesting thing is that I’m not usually called a political writer. And I am a political writer! There is a political underpinning to Girl, Woman, Other, which is to explore as many black British women as possible in a single novel’ (Gentleman n.p., original emphasis). This exploration is furthered through the poetics and politics of space implemented in Girl, Woman, Other. In order to delve into the treatment of space, elements taken from post-colonial theory will be used, which echoes what R. Victoria Arana and Lauri Ramey explain in their introduction to Black British Writing, where they highlight the project of a ‘[r]e-invention of Britain . . . driven spiritually and practically by the boom in post-colonial critical theory that has infused the academy in recent decades’ (2).

29The case of 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, whose own mother was white and British while her father was ‘Abyssinian’, sheds light on a central, yet often overlooked, aspect, regarding the history of Britain. What is described in this passage can correspond to Rancière’s explanation about ‘dissensus’: ‘[Dissensus] is the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself. Political demonstration makes visible that which had no reason to be seen; it places one world in another . . . (2010a, 38, original italics). In Girl, Woman, Other, the narrator explains:

Grace
came into this world courtesy of a seaman from Abyssinia called Wolde, a young fireman
who stoked coal into the boilers in the holds of merchant ships
the hardest, filthiest, sweatiest job on board
Wolde
who sailed into South Shields in 1895 and left a few days later leaving behind the beginnings of Grace hidden inside her Ma
who’d just turned sixteen (372)

30This passage insists on exchanges of goods (‘merchant ship’) but also human exchanges whose fluidity, at the end of the 19th century (‘1895’), is emphasised through the use of run‑on‑lines, a non‑traditional choice more often used in poetry than in novels. Hybridity—embodied in the character of Grace here—is central in this passage, and it affects both the (British) population and Evaristo’s own aesthetics—Evaristo is herself a mixed-race writer. It is important for Evaristo here to ‘demonstrate’ the African presence in Britain through inter‑racial relationships, making Britain a hybrid country. Mikhaïl Bakhtin also made use of the concept of ‘hybridity’ in his reflections on philology. Evaristo’s text, at the convergence point between poetry and prose, can be considered as a ‘hybrid construction’ that Bakhtin defines, and which has the potential to undermine authoritative discourse by ‘being double‑voiced’ (344). Hybridization is here a subversion of the authoritative and whitewashed history of Britain. Homi Bhabha’s use of the concept of hybridity is also useful here as Evaristo displays a double vision through the stories of Grace’s mother and father. Binarisms are also transcended in the character of Grace. According to Bhabha, hybridity is a ‘sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities’ (112). The colonial discourse therefore loses its univocal claim to truth: ‘Hybridity is a problematic of colonial representation and individuation that reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so that other “denied” knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority—its rules of recognition’ (114).

31The issue of space and the appropriation of it is also central for younger characters who walk: ‘Amma / is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city’ (1) and ‘Carole walks through Liverpool Street station’ (113). Even before Michel de Certeau tackled the political relevance of ‘walking’ in L’invention du quotidien, walking had long been perceived as a subversive act. It shows that one is active in the public space. Rebecca Solnit writes that ‘[i]f walking is a primary cultural act and a crucial way of being in the world, those who have been unable to walk out as far as their feet would take them have been denied nor merely exercise or recreation but a vast portion of their humanity’ (quoted in Solnit, 287). What is at stake for the marginal characters of Amma and Carole—the latter’s mother is a Nigerian cleaning lady—is a politics of walking. Regarding this activity, Will Self explains: ‘The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control’ (n.p.). For these women to be walking on the streets of Britain, and London in particular—as the capital city, it embodies the very heart of the former colonial empire—means to re-configure the British landscape which can be said to be represented aesthetically by the pages of the novel. Indeed, it could be considered that the unusual presentation of the pages of Evaristo’s novel, with an ‘experimental’, out-of-the-ordinary layout, is a mark of her own appropriation of literary space and landscape (and tradition?) as a ‘black’ British female writer since, as Jean-Pierre Richard specifies in Pages paysages, pages can be considered as landscapes. This once again corresponds to what Rancière explains: ‘This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible’ (2009, 48–49). Walking for these ‘black’ British women attests to their political presence, what Sri-Lankan and British novelist Ambalavaner Sivanandan sums up in one sentence: ‘We are here because you were there’ (quoted in Eddo-Lodge 9), to explain to white people the presence of people of colour in Britain.

32The character of Amma could very well represent Evaristo’s avatar since, as the author herself explains, she had a career in theatre when she was younger and she probably faced the same kind of hardships Amma faced as a ‘black’ British woman wanting to work in the theatre industry. Amma and Dominique are interesting characters to start the novel with. Both women are the victims of what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls ‘intersectionality’ in her essay ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’. As black lesbians, the intersections of race, gender, and sexual orientation impact the construction of their identities, probably triggering the development of coping mechanisms in a patriarchal society dominated by whiteness—among which, as we have seen, anger. The choice of these marginal characters—‘Amma spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her’ (2, emphasis added)—is worthwhile. In her introduction to Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Sara Ahmed explains that ‘[s]peaking as a black woman matters in a world that takes the white man as a “mythical norm”, to borrow [Lorde’s] important term. To speak as a subject who has been made into the other, not white, not man, not straight, not human, is to challenge that norm’ (Lorde viii). It can also be argued that it is this marginality that places these women in the realm of dissensus. Amma, Dominique, or even Carole create politics by interrupting the distribution of the sensible, by intervening in the distribution of (public) space. Amma and Dominique might well be the most dissensual characters and, therefore, the most political figures in the gallery of portraits offered in Girl, Woman, Other. Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, the last work in quite an impressive career since the reader learns that ‘she’s written fifteen plays and directed over forty’ (5), also indirectly refers to what has been called, in post-colonial studies, the periphery, as opposed to the centre, which summarises the relationships between the European centre and the peripheral colonies. The passage from periphery to the centre is also indicated when we learn that ‘Amma . . . has waited three decades before being allowed in through the front door’ (406) of the National Theatre.

Amma
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical‑themed footbridge with its deck‑like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
[. . .]
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)

  • 9 The use of the Greek mythology to name these warriors from Benin is yet another problematic element (...)

33The binary structure—centre vs. periphery—is questioned by Evaristo through the image of the river, which puts to the fore fluidity and confluence in the incipit. Evaristo aims to show that the development of such categories—centre vs. periphery—is not natural, that it was discursively produced. Part of the struggle in former colonies was to disrupt this over-simplistic binary structure by showing that the geographical and cultural peripheries were a Eurocentric construct in order for Europe to claim that it was ‘civilised’ and ‘the rest’ needed to be brought ‘civilisation’. A problematic aspect of this discursively constructed binary lies in the deeply-seated belief that there is still a (European/Western) Centre which has to be opposed to the Rest. One of the practices of post-colonial studies is to deconstruct these unnatural concepts. It is the case in Girl, Woman, Other, especially by the (ultimate) marginal ‘Other’, i.e. black lesbians. The ‘Centre’ is here embodied by The National Theatre, in London, the very heart of the former colonial centre which Great Britain used to represent. In this context, it is interesting to note that the play the theatre decides to show in Girl, Woman, Other, is titled The Last Amazon of Dahomey, which directly refers to the Kingdom of Dahomey, located in present-day Benin, and which lasted from about 1600 to 1904. The end of the kingdom was precipitated when King Béhanzin lost against the French. 1904 is indeed officially the date of the annexation of the Kingdom by the French colonial power. The ‘Amazons of Dahomey’ are described by Fleur Macdonald as a ‘fierce all-female army’ that ‘was so ruthless that European colonists called them the Amazons after the merciless warriors of Greek mythology’ (n.p.)9 By choosing a female figure as the main character in her play, Amma—and, probably, Evaristo—shows that ‘the empire writes back’, to quote the title of Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s post-colonial theoretical reference. This play about a female fighter from Benin at The National Theatre clearly indicates that ‘black’ (British) women are brought to the fore, from supporting cast to centre stage. It could also be argued that the empire strikes back as shown in the following passage where Roland describes the props and action on stage, which convey the idea that a sort of reverse colonisation is at stake: ‘nevertheless, as for the wash of images projected onto the stage making it appear to be filled with thousands of dead Benin Amazons stampeding towards the audience brandishing weaponry and uttering war cries / it was terrifyingly realistic and without doubt a coup de théâtre’ (409–410). The ‘Amazon’ is not the only (former) colonial figure to be given centre stage as indicated at the very beginning of the novel through a possible intertextual reference—‘the bend in the river’ (1)—to Indo-Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979).

34In his book titled Langage et pouvoir symbolique, Pierre Bourdieu argues that being able to use your voice is a symbol of power. Yet, what can be said about the voices that are heard in Evaristo’s novel? Can the female ‘black’ British subaltern speak, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak? It seems to be the case but only up to a certain point. What have long been considered as normative voices—those of white, heterosexual males—are almost absent in this novel, to the exception of one such, but secondary, character, and who is quite silent—unless he is silenced? The reader becomes accustomed to the fact that they are reading about ‘black’ British women’s lives. The presence of strong ‘black’ British women with voices that some would consider as loud at the very start of the novel is a purposeful act. Female ‘black’ British voices therefore become the new point of reference for the reader. This destabilises the (Occidental) reader’s expectations, which therefore constitutes both an aesthetic and political act. In a similar way, the reader can be destabilised by what Bernardine Evaristo herself has called ‘fusion fiction’. Yet, (s)he quickly becomes accustomed to this stylistic particularity and to the female ‘black’ British voices which were actually born out of Evaristo’s frustration as a reader and writer. By writing Girl, Woman, Other, but also her earlier books, one could argue that Evaristo’s has become a ‘black’ British voice that matters. The generation that follows Amma and Dominique’s, embodied by Amma’s own daughter, Yazz, and her friend Waris, is equally political: ‘Waris from Wolverhampton . . . is reading Politics and wants to become a Member of Parliament, to re-pre-sent, and will go down the community activism route first, à la Barack “Major Role Model” Obama’ (42). Yazz’s political engagement at University is also important as she aims at decolonising and feminising the university curriculum (47). These women do need to prove that they exist and the point of Girl, Woman, Other, is to show that this is an ongoing struggle.

35Rancière’s words will prove once again useful to conclude: ‘The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible’ (2009, 103). Shortly after she won the Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo gave an interview where she rued the dearth of diversity regarding the voices of fictional characters in Britain even at the beginning of the 21st century. By writing Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo claims, she aimed at ‘giv[ing] voice to the kinds of characters [she]’d like to see in fiction that [she] do[esn’t] see’ (Waterstones 2019b), i.e.: female ‘black’ British characters, whose voices she wants to foreground. In the same way as Smith’s Irie lacks a frame of reference to her black heritage which causes her feeling of inferiority as a mixed‑race teenager, Evaristo feels frustrated when it comes to the representation in British fiction of ‘black’ British women, including herself, the daughter of a Nigerian father, and a British mother. In the same way as Amma does bring ‘diversity in theatre’ (434), Evaristo brings diversity in British literature. Because Britain has given and is still giving little to no space to the presence of ‘black’ women, Evaristo has dedicated much of her oeuvre to writing about ‘black’ British people and their place in British history and literature. In that sense, she uses what Marielle Macé calls the shaping power of literature—‘puissance de façonnement’ (10).

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Bibliographie

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Arana, R. Victoria, ‘Black’ British Aesthetics Today, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

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Notes

1 In Girl, Woman, Other, a similar relationship between a student—Carole—and a teacher—Shirley King—is foregrounded.

2 In this paper, the term ‘black’ is written in quotation marks, to echo the caution demonstrated by R. Victoria Arana in her ‘Preface’ in ‘Black’ British Aesthetics Today. Our preference goes to ‘black’ and not black or Black, although all three of them have been challenged. Arana explains: ‘The word Black as a category for human beings was recently been [sic.] labelled “offensive” by some Britons of African parentage, and it is fast becoming politically incorrect to use it in the United Kingdom. . . . [N]o neutral term that could serve as an omnium gatherum yet exists that would help readers and librarians identify the focus of this book, which is why I use the expression ‘black’ advisedly—surgically even—and within the forceps of quotation marks’ (ix–x).

3 British actor Lenny Henry, the son of Jamaican parents who emigrated to Britain before he was born, explains in a Guardian article that ‘[i]t was lonely being a black actor in the 70s. It’s even lonelier now behind the camera’. Although Amma does not have a career in the TV or cinema industry but in the theatre industry, her achievement is all the more impressive if one takes into account what Henry shows: ‘According to the British Film Institute, only 3% of people who work behind the camera in the film industry are from racial minorities. Also under‑represented are women: over the last decade they made up just 13.6% of working film directors’ (n.p.).

4 In Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, particularly in the chapter titled ‘Bodies’, Afua Hirsch details what she names ‘racial stereotyping’ (93) and recounts that for the sake of sociological research, she went to the ‘Black man’s Fan Club—a monthly swingers’ night for white women who want to have sex with black men, and their white husbands who want to watch’ (91). She mentions the stereotyping of the bodies of ‘black’ men: ‘Stereotypes about the sexual prowess of black people have been a constant feature of history ever since the first European contact with Africa, and have an equally illustrious presence in literature, journalism and art. The Mandingo Warrior, for example, . . . represented the ultimate African alpha male, dark, muscled and bristling with phallic weapons’ (94).

5 In his review article, Roy Sommer mentions the ‘new interest in “black” British writing as literature, shifting the focus from thematic and political issues to questions of aesthetics, genre and literary value. . . . [S]ince the 1990s, black writing has become a significant factor in British culture: the emergence of a host of talented young writers, black literary anthologies, academic conferences, literary scholarships, and prizes, the commercial success of spearhead figures (most prominently, of course, Zadie Smith), the diversification of black literary genres, themes and narrative styles . . ., and, last but not least, a lively transatlantic exchange in the field of black literary studies, have contributed to the making of post‑colonial Britain . . . . [T]he two most important recent developments in the study of black writing in Britain . . . are, first, the shift from thematic and overtly political concerns, with a focus on representation, to poetics and aesthetics, bridging the gap between cultural studies on the one hand, and literary theory on the other. The second trend is the emphasis on the rewriting of black literary history and cultural memory which is closely connected to the emerging canon debate” (238, original emphasis). Kobena Mercer states that it is the ‘relative neglect of the aesthetic dimension that has contributed to the current state of play whereby black artists in Britain may be recognized, acknowledged, and tolerated in the art world, but the work itself often seems to be taken less seriously as an enriching site of aesthetic experience’ (71). Mercer’s chapter, included in R. Victoria Arana’s ‘Black’ British Aesthetics Today (2007), therefore identifies a shortcoming in ‘black’ British studies, a shortcoming to which Arana aims to put an end: ‘[their work embodied] not merely a politics of identity but an aesthetics of identity as well’ (2). Arana puts to the fore several interrelated elements of black British aesthetics: ‘social engagement, representational character, a moral stance, negotiations between tradition and change, and elements of satire’ (4). Some of these elements can indeed be found in Girl, Woman, Other.

6 A definition of the ‘partage du sensible’ (‘distribution of the sensible’) can be found in Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics. For Rancière, the distribution of the sensible is that which ‘reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed’ while ‘politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time’ (2004, 12–13).

7 Ahmed also refers to ‘female trouble‑making fiction’ (3, my emphasis). The term ‘trouble-maker’ appears several times in Evaristo’s novel as we will see. At stake here in Evaristo’s novel, there seems to be the interlocking of two movements of resistance: that against patriarchy, and that against an Orientalist construction of ‘black’ British women. In another book, Ahmed refers to Audre Lorde and writes: ‘[Lorde] tells us she was a trouble‑maker from the beginning, and she remained a trouble‑maker; her writing is alive with a mischievous black feminist spirit’ (vi). Feminism is very central in Girl, Woman, Other, as shown in the title, of course, but also in the references to willful and ‘trouble‑making’ feminists or womanists, such as Audre Lorde or Roxane Gay, whose book Bad Feminist is mentioned by Yazz and her friends (66). Interestingly enough, Gay herself considers that some of her actions indicate she is willful. In her Ted Talk ‘Confessions of a Bad Feminist’, she says: ‘I’m a feminist, but I’m a rather bad one. Oh, so I call myself a bad feminist. Or at least, I wrote an essay, and then I wrote a book called Bad Feminist, and then in interview people started calling me the bad feminist. So, what started as a bit of an inside joke with myself and a willful provocation, has become a thing’.

8 The ‘howling’ referred to echoes what Dominique alludes to later in the novel when she explains that when she integrated ‘a very orthodox drama school’, ‘she demanded to know why the male parts in Shakespeare couldn’t be played by women and don’t even get me started on cross‑racial casting, she shouted at the course director while everyone else, including female students, stayed silent / I realized I was on my own’ (8, my emphasis).

9 The use of the Greek mythology to name these warriors from Benin is yet another problematic element which indicates an approach which is centred on European knowledge.

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Référence électronique

Cédric Courtois, « Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Black’ British Amazons: Aesthetics and Politics in Girl, Woman, Other (2019) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 60 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2021, consulté le 17 mai 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/10651 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.10651

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Cédric Courtois

Cédric Courtois is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lille specialising in Nigerian literature, which was the focus of his PhD dissertation, entitled ‘Itineraries of a Genre. Variations on the Bildungsroman in Contemporary Nigerian Fiction’ (2019). He has published various articles and book chapters on the rewritings of the Bildungsroman genre in contemporary Nigerian fiction, mobility studies, refugee literature, and LGBTQ studies. His research interests include postcolonial literatures, decoloniality, transnationalism, transculturalism, gender studies, ecopoetics, ecofeminism, gender studies, and the ethics and aesthetics of violence in African literatures written in English.

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