Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is one of the best books yet to have been written about the curious experience of being Black while British. It somehow succeeds in being both memoir and history, specific and general. It is evocative while also being rigorous. It’s pungent and composed, all at the same time. “Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness,” she argues, “and the pain that has inflicted on blackness. For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion” [p. 214].
For Hirsch, the question of identity is too important to ignore, to get wrong (she has, of course, much sense to speak on Brexit): it concerns “the relationship between … the individual and the group,” and in this way cuts across every boundary and every question [p. 21]. When it is increasingly fashionable on both left and right to decry “identity politics”, Hirsch makes the vital case for it. It isn’t at all a surprise that she has in recent weeks been at the forefront of the defence of Naga Munchetty.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is an attempt to depict in fictional form many of the feints, slights and nuances of identity about which Hirsch has written and campaigned. Less a novel than an inter-linked set of short stories (indeed, the book has been written over a period of many years – which longue durée may have led to the novel’s lack of momentum, of building argument), it features twelve chapters that focus each in turn on a single individual – almost all black, many immigrants but all in dialogue with Britishness – and closes out on a final chapter which brings them all together at the première of a black-authored play at the National Theatre.
In this way, it’s a curiously Radio 4-friendly version of British blackness: it opens with the writer of that new drama, with whom any regular listener of Woman’s Hour will feel readily comfortable (“she wants people to bring their curiosity to her plays, doesn’t give a damn what they wear, has her own sod-you style … which has evolved from the clichéd denim dungarees” [p. 3]); if the novel then slowly moves away from this archetype to other, less familiar ones, then somehow the narrative arcs remain familiar: the successful City banker tormented by memories of being raped at thirteen, shut down and shuttered; the frustrated suburban school-teacher in her John Lewis twin-set, her faith in the transformative power of education worn down over the years; the struggling super-market manager full of life and vitality even as the shelf-stacking denies her humanity. You won’t feel alienated by Girl, Woman, Other is my point.
Nor is this – necessarily – a bad thing. Evaristo is aiming for accessibility so that she can attract readers who usually avoid the “black fiction” section. This is a trick pulled off by the TV series Orange Is The New Black, which used Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman as a Trojan horse for a set of more diverse, less familiar stories. Also in this book, for example, is the tale of Winsome, the Jamaican grandmother who has a passionate affair with her son-in-law; of the transgender Megan/Morgan, “part-Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian and part English” [p. 311]; of Dominique, who travels to America only to be consumed by her partner’s coercive control (“Nzinga created an atmosphere glutinous with tension” [p. 99]). These are interesting – even educational – stories, and ones which might otherwise go under-read.
The real problem is that they are here perhaps under-written. For a novel that shifts perspective so much, the narrative voice shifts rarely. Evaristo adopts a broken-backed sort of prose-poem style, which isn’t entirely consistent by can be occasionally effective:
the next week when she went to the meeting
Elaine was canoodling with another woman
and blanked her completely
she never went again [p. 13]
It is at other times – in fact, perhaps even when effective – a bit sophomoric:
she told them until she was bored of repeating herself
in [p. 238]
The purpose of this novel is primarily to compare and contrast the varied experiences of the women it depicts, with a view to building a more complete picture of what justice might mean. If we are all feminists, what can that mean when “millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world” [p. 438]? If gender equality is the goal, what is the appropriate response of or to a transgender person who is “cool with it when people don’t use or understand their preferred pronouns” [p. 328], and how rich can intersectionality be when there is only “one [person] Yazz can’t tell to check her privilege” [p. 66]? Evaristo successfully builds a cast of fully alive characters who help us investigate these questions, and she doesn’t shy away from wryly dismissing the excesses of even the most well-meaning seeker of truth. In a tower block loosely modelled on squatter communes like Frestonia:
the Marxists demanded they set up a Central Committee of the Workers’ Republic of Freedomia, which was a bit rich, Amma thought, seeing as most of them had taken “a p[rincipled stand against the running dogs of capitalism as an excuse not to work
the hippies suggested they form a commune and share everything, but they were so chilled and laid back, everybody talked over them
the environmentalists wanted to ban aerosols, plastic bags and deodorant, which turned every against them, even the punks who weren’t known for smelling minty [p. 17]
The problem is that Evaristo’s radical intent is undermined by this sort of soft-centredness, a fear of the follow-through. Even the novel’s style – no full stops, but copious paragraph breaks, no speech marks but plenty of dialogues – gestures towards danger before stepping back from it. Mostly, Evaristo contents herself with putting her message in the mouths of her characters rather than the fabric of the novel itself – “I was born in the nineteen-twenties,” an elderly woman scolds a younger, more radical one, “you’re expecting too much of me” [p. 352] – and so Girl, Woman, Other sort of passes by in its monotone way, neither pushing us nor itself. The novel has a didactic element while at the same time pulling its preaching punches; its characters advocate for progress, but the novel that encloses them seems stuck in neutral.
Perhaps the most moving of the chapters is the one devoted to Bummi, the Nigerian mother of a girl who does so well at school that she makes it an ancient university – where, in line with the Oxbridge tendency to make of its every student a copy of its most stereotyped, she adopts a cut-glass accent and a taste for cuisine other than the Lagosian. A successful small business woman, Bummi is intensely proud – rather than awkwardly ashamed – of the distance she and her family have come. “My point is that you are Nigerian,” she scolds her child, “no matter how high and mighty you think you are […] no matter how English-English you yourself pretend to be” [p. 158]. Her sense of loss is palpable, and the chapter’s willingness fully to embrace the story’s over-riding sentimentality – and in so doing striking a balance that, elsewhere on the Booker shortlist, Shafak fails to achieve – powers that success. Girl, Woman, Other would have benefited from such commitment elsewhere, too.
In Bummi’s insistence on the persistence of her daughter’s Nigerian heritage, we return to Hirsch’s vision of identity as difficult and knotty. Evaristo has herself reviewed Brit(ish), in the TLS: in her words, it “teases out … the contradictions inherent in a racially stratified society,” and both she and Hirsch are to be commended for their efforts in holding up a mirror to this strange old country, at a time when it sorely needs to see itself more clearly. One of the best things about this year’s shortlist is that, in its diversity, it queries and complicates the response of the white, male critic; my reading, then, is far from authoritative. For what it’s worth, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I read Girl, Woman, Other that the angle at which it was held to its subject was slightly off; if not quite flattering to the viewer, Evaristo’s novel is never quite as honest as it might have been.