Girl, Woman, Other
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Bernardine Evaristo’s polyphonic novel of modern Britain and womanhood, Girl, Woman, Other, won the 2019 Booker Prize. Evaristo is the first black woman to receive this literary prize for books written in the English language. Employing an experimental, poetic form, the novel follows several generations of mainly black, British women interlinked by family, love, loss, and diaspora to interrogate the intersections of identity. Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth book. The novel’s title could be a reference to writer and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s book on feminism and postcoloniality called Woman, Native, Other.
In Chapter 1 of Girl, Woman, Other, queer theater director Amma Bonsu prepares for the opening of her acclaimed new play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey. As she walks to the National Theatre in London, she reflects on the years of struggle she endured as a young, black actress, the challenges of starting her own theater company, and the surprising joys of motherhood. Her confident and opinionated daughter, Yazz, begins college and meets a group of friends who defy her expectations of the way the world works. Amma’s best friend, Dominique, begins a relationship with an African American woman called Nzinga, whom she follows to the United States. Once in America, Dominique becomes increasingly aware of Nzinga’s controlling behavior. When Dominique finally musters the courage to leave Nzinga, she moves to Los Angeles and establishes a successful women’s arts festival.
Chapter 2 profiles former school friends Carole and LaTisha, and Carole’s Nigerian-born mother, Bummi. With the help of her schoolteacher Shirley King, Carole excels in school and becomes a successful banker. She marries a wealthy, charismatic white British man. LaTisha, whose childhood happiness is overshadowed by the unexpected departure of her father, begins working at a grocery store upon her graduation and gives birth to three children with different fathers. While Carole enters early adulthood, Bummi begins her own cleaning business. She begins a lesbian relationship with her employee Omofe but ends it when she can no longer face the shame of her same-sex romance.
Chapter 3 details the lives of Shirley King, a schoolteacher, her colleague Penelope, and Shirley’s mother, Winsome. While Shirley begins her career bright-eyed and hopeful, she later becomes disillusioned. Shirley begins to mentor one student per year, beginning with Carole. Throughout her life Shirley remains grateful for her marriage to handsome, loyal Lennox. However, as we find out in Winsome’s section, Shirley’s mother and Lennox had a secret affair. Penelope and Shirley begin as enemies, as they butt heads over Shirley’s more modern, racially sensitive approach to education. Penelope has two marriages. In the first, her desire for a career drives a wedge between herself and her husband. In her second, Penelope’s psychotherapist husband analyzes her every move until he eventually leaves her for a young patient.
Chapter 4 unfolds the life stories of Megan/Morgan, Morgan’s great-grandmother, Hattie, and Hattie’s mother, Grace. Lacking support for her queer identity from her liberal parents, Megan turns to drugs and then to the internet for answers. Online, Megan meets a trans woman Bibi, who introduces her to the possibilities of gender non-binary life. With Bibi’s help, Megan changes their pronouns from “she/her” to “they/them” and their name from Megan to Morgan. Bibi and Morgan form a long-lasting romantic relationship. They regularly visit Hattie on her family farm, Greenfields. Hattie grew up on Greenfields, which belonged to her European Rydendale family for over 200 years. After her father died, Hattie’s African American husband found documentation confirming that Hattie’s paternal relatives built their fortune as slave traders and purchased Greenfields with the spoils.
Chapter 5 details the after-party of Amma’s play The Last Amazon of Dahomey, where many characters come together. Girl, Woman, Other’s Epilogue focuses on Penelope’s reunion with her birth mother, Hattie. After the women find each other through a DNA test on Ancestry.com, Hattie confesses to Morgan that she had a child at the age of 14 that her father forced her to give up. After Penelope’s initial shock at discovering she is only 17% British and in fact 13% African, she travels to Greenfields to meet her mother. Upon sight, the two women have an instinctual connection. Penelope renounces her lifetime of prejudice and rushes to embrace her newfound mother.