It has been well documented, at this point, that the Booker Prize 2019 result took us all by surprise. Between them, Bernardine Evaristo (‘Girl, Woman, Other’) and Margaret Atwood (‘The Testaments’) took home equal halves of the money, but not necessarily equal halves of the spotlight…
It has been well documented, at this point, that the Booker Prize 2019 result took us all by surprise. Between them, Bernardine Evaristo (‘Girl, Woman, Other’) and Margaret Atwood (‘The Testaments’) took home equal halves of the money, but not necessarily equal halves of the spotlight.
Well, this decision sort of took us by surprise. As soon as the shortlist was released and I saw ‘The Testaments’ amongst the titles, I felt a cynical sense of doom settle like a pit in my stomach; a vile seed that I hope doesn’t flower, but I know it will. Atwood is Atwood, and as much as I enjoy her work, she is the woman who wrote the book that popular (aka: White) feminism likes to lap up as the most progressive piece on women’s oppression in our contemporary society, even though it was published in the 80s. Even though ‘The Testaments’ is one of her weakest novels to date, there was no way she was going unrewarded.
Sure enough, said pit was regurgitated soon after, when the joint success of the writers was announced. It was bitter and complicated; I was pleased that we finally had a black woman win a Booker Prize, but angry that it had to be shared, that it feels like a weak attempt at having progressive publishing cake and eating it too, rather than a genuine deconstruction of the ‘inevitably problematic task’ (1) of distilling a shortlist of diverse reads down to one. Unless this ushers in a new era of dismantling the prestige of literary prizes altogether (press X to Doubt), then this decision feels insincere. I am not concerned with the fact that they broke their rules; I’m concerned that it comes across as a rule-breaking for the sake of placating and demonstrates a lack of nerve to put the spotlight on underrated talent and on black artists. Even although the judging panel is not solely white men, judging does not exist in a vacuum. It is worth noting that the last time this rule was broken was in 1992, where the prize was split between Barry Unsworth, a white man, and Michael Ondaatje, a black man.
However, I’m glad that ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ has received attention and has seen a boost in sales and audience (2). I’m glad that these events at least promote conversation about literature, publishing, and the ways in which an environment that supposedly offers an outlet for under-represented voices to be heard is still fallible to potential prejudices. I’m even glad that Margaret Atwood has donated her prize money to support the education of Indigenous students in Canada (3) and it’s something that she’s now an official friend of The Queen (4). Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that we have so much farther to go before this decision feels less like a subdued split, and more like a genuine passion for recognising intersectionality; like ‘sharing’ is not synonymous with ‘diluted’.
I encourage you to go and learn some more about Evaristo; she’s founded a poetry mentoring programme (5) and an entire theatre company (6) –we should at least turn our spotlights onto her work wholeheartedly if the Booker will not. I think the media storm surrounding this event can create another instance where a black person’s art is incapable of being separated from a white person’s; constantly compared in arbitrary ways rather than celebrated as a distinct, individual piece. Therefore, a conscious un-doing is required, a celebration of triumph is mandatory. Bernardine Evaristo’s work proves that she is an incredible woman who is getting the support she deserves and has worked hard for (7). She inspires young black writers to keep creating and persisting, and that’s way more important than any accolade.
Further reading: Enobong Essien, ‘Why This Year’s Booker Prize Has Made Me Lose Faith in Literary Awards’ https://bookriot.com/2019/10/25/2019-booker-prize/
Aditya Mani Jha, ‘How the Booker 2019 Winners Capture the Spirit of Resistance in the Age of Trump’https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/read/booker-2019-winners-capture-the-spirit-of-resistance/article29732901.ece
Rumaan Alam, ‘Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other Deserves All the Prizes’ https://newrepublic.com/article/155596/bernardine-evaristos-girl-woman-deserves-prizes
Zoe Robertson, Arts and Culture Editor