Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize Win: Background information when reading Girl, Woman, Other

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Girl, Woman, Other

A Novel

by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine  Evaristo X
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine  Evaristo
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    Nov 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize Win

This article relates to Girl, Woman, Other

Print Review

Bernardine EvaristoIn October of 2019, Bernardine Evaristo took home the Booker Prize in a win that garnered special attention for multiple reasons. Specifically, Evaristo was the first Black woman to win the prize, and she didn't have the win all to herself; the judges split it between Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

This isn't the first time a Booker Prize has been shared by two winners. Judges gave the award to both Nadine Gordimer (for The Conservationist) and Stanley Middleton (for Holiday) in 1974, and also to Michael Ondaatje (for The English Patient) along with Barry Unsworth (for Sacred Hunger) in 1992. However, following the Ondaatje/Unsworth win, the Booker Prize Foundation implemented a rule requiring that a single winner be chosen from then on, a rule that's held in successive years—until 2019.

That the judging panel chose to deliberately flout the official requirements, and in the same year they chose the first Black female winner has generated controversy. Sam Leith, a former Booker judge, described the situation as an "epic fail." Another previous judge who preferred to remain anonymous felt it "a huge disappointment that the chance to make history emphatically was passed by."

Evaristo herself affirmed, when asked, that she would have preferred not to have had to share the prize, but also stated that she was happy to win alongside Atwood. "I was very happy to share the Booker because I still won the Booker," she told NPR, "...And if I was going to share it with somebody, who better than Margaret Atwood?" Atwood was also agreeable about the split, stressing the important role of prizes in expanding opportunities and recognition for less established writers. (Atwood also mentioned plans to donate her prize money to a Canadian indigenous charity, adding that she was "too old" and had "too many handbags" to keep the money for herself.)

Notwithstanding how either author feels, the framing of Evaristo's Booker win has been undeniably different than it would have been had she won solo. Sana Goyal, a writer for Live Mint, pointed out that the Guardian initially published an article with the headline, "Booker judges split between huge event novel and obscure choice" before editing it to "Booker judges try to have it both ways." In December of 2019, a BBC presenter omitted Evaristo's name as winner when referring to the Booker Prize, saying that it had been shared between Margaret Atwood and "another author." Evaristo called this out on Twitter, stating, "How quickly & 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." A BBC spokesperson later issued an apology, stating that the presenter had been speaking unscripted and forgotten Evaristo's name. Evaristo's comment has now been retweeted more than 10,000 times.

Controversy related to the Booker Prize is nothing new. In 2014, for example, the prize was expanded to books by writers of any nation, provided that the books were written in English and published in the UK. Many objected to this move for fear that the lists would become dominated by Americans. Atwood has been one of the authors calling in recent years for the Booker Prize to return to only considering works from the UK, Ireland and the Commonwealth (a voluntary association of 53 countries including Canada, representing most of the UK's former colonies).

Following the Booker Prize announcement, total sales of Girl, Woman, Other quickly doubled, with more copies purchased in five days than in the previous five months. Some readers complained that booksellers weren't promoting Evaristo's book with the same enthusiasm as Atwood's. This may have been due at least in part to stores selling out of Girl, Woman, Other soon after the win because they weren't prepared for the upsurge in demand.

Bernardine Evaristo photo by Jennie Scott, courtesy of the author's website

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to Girl, Woman, Other. It originally ran in January 2020 and has been updated for the November 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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