Hazel McHaffie

injustice

Girl, Woman, Other

Did you know that last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday‘? – that day in the literary calendar when there’s a bonanza release of new books in time for Christmas. And this year, because of Covid-19 significantly delaying publication for authors across the board, as many as 600 new titles were released in 24 hours. 600! In one day!! SIX HUNDRED!! What hope is there for mid-or-below-mid-listers to be even noticed, huh? About as much as for a youngster with three C-grades-on-the-basis-of-teacher-assessment getting into Oxbridge, I’d say.

Seemed like a good week to home in on one title that has made the grade, big time: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which I mentioned in my post two weeks ago – co-winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Attwood‘s The Testaments. Evaristo is the first black woman ever to achieve this distinction, and she comes across at interview as a bundle of energy and zeal and determination. Positively effervescing! Given the high profile racial issues have been receiving of late, it could be argued that this book – its subject matter and its author – must surely be falling into fertile soil.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction, which took her six years to complete. It’s written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, without capital letters or full stops for sentences, or proper paragraphs, line breaks being used to control rhythm and beat. Sound confusing? I know, and yet … it’s very readable (says this Booker Philistine with wonder in her voice). Here’s a wee peek inside …

The novel follows twelve characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades, from different backgrounds, having different experiences, making different choices. Each character has her own chapter, but their lives overlap and they are all interconnected in some way. Some of them are close – friends, relatives, lovers – others simply visit the same theatre on the same night. But common threads pervade their stories: oppression, prejudice, discrimination, racism, injustice, sisterhood. Which come in all shapes and sizes. Typically of literary books, there’s no real plot, but the characters challenge the reader to consider British attitudes and practices towards black women through the ages, and more importantly, one’s own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

The primary character and lynch-pin is probably Amma, a black lesbian playwright, now in her 50s, whose new play is being produced at the National Theatre in London. Her vignette starts the book; her after-play party almost concludes it. This part of the story is semi-autobiographical: Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. In between, we meet eleven other characters who range through frustrated teacher, abused partner, sassy teenager, nonagenarian farmer, non-binary person, adopted waif, and so much more besides.

Did it work for me? On one level, yes. I found the unusual writing style surprisingly fit for purpose. The characters come alive through their patois/pidgin, their disjointed paragraphs, their learned experiences over time. I especially enjoyed Carole, a Nigerian girl who rises above her circumstances – poverty, gang rape at 13, schooling in an establishment that specialises in producing teenage mothers and early career criminals – to acquire a degree at Oxford amongst future prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, and goes on to set the world of finance alight. And yet still finds herself overlooked and suspected. Then there’s her indomitable mother Bummi, determined to make a success of life against the odds, setting up her own very professional and superior cleaning services company, gradually accepting her daughter’s steps away from her African heritage, but herself accepted by the young English high society man Carole marries. I couldn’t help but take to the sassy teenage LaTisha, the queen of backchat, spouting her unique brand of philosophical wisdom and researched facts, all the while emoting pure insolence – a special skill of hers according to her teachers. And I really took to Hattie, 93 years old, a great great grandmother, still living alone and running the family’s 800 acre farm, outspoken about modern hifalutin ideas like mobile phones and non binary identity and central heating.

But for me, their brief biographies lacked a certain overall depth, and I’d have liked more development of their individual and collective stories. That in itself is a remarkable reflection. Booker Prize winners usually leave me shrugging my shoulders and saying, So what? This one left me wanting more. I’d call that a success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gender, sex, chromosomes and other details

In our family, the two generations below me are runners. With the Edinburgh Marathon Festival in a matter of days now, we’re all gearing up – in my case just to be there at as many vantage points as possible to cheer them on as usual. In their case to be in peak condition to stay the course and surpass their personal bests. And this year is exceptional in that one of them (son-in-law) is doing the 5K, followed by the 10K on the Saturday, then the half marathon followed by the full marathon on the Sunday. Now, that’s keen! Super fit. Totally focused.

Although the competitors all run together, divided at the starting point into bands according to speed and ability, the results are announced by gender – fastest male, fastest female. So, X and Y genes do matter! But what if there are question marks over one’s gender? And that’s what’s preoccupying part of the sporting world at this precise moment. The male-female definition isn’t as binary as people used to think; about 1.7% present with atypical patterns of chromosomes and biological characteristics. And the South African runner, Caster Semenya, is caught in this hazy overlap.

It seems that all her life Caster has been portrayed as ‘a frea’. Imagine the burden of that!  As a youngster, she grew accustomed to having to show her genitalia to a coach before a race. The mind boggles. And since she rose to fame as a gifted athlete her success has been overshadowed by doubt, vilification and abuse. As it’s reported anyway, she was born intersex. But she was brought up as, and identifies as, a female. In the sporting world however, now she’s an adult, there are questions about her right to compete as a woman. She produces unusually high levels of testosterone. Such a fact must be difficult enough to deal with in one’s own local community; but because she’s an Olympic champion gold medallist, and because these results got into the wrong hands, her personal information has been paraded world-wide. And now she has – again publicly – lost her case to compete in her natural state. Henceforth she must take medication to lower her testosterone levels if she wishes to race against women. No one knows what that medication would/will do to her, but in her world every second counts.

Shutterstock image

This is about much more than justice in sport; it raises huge ethical questions. In Caster’s case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has decided the rights of the individual must be sacrificed to ensure the welfare of the majority. They say their decision is ‘necessary, reasonable and proportionate’ in the interests of fairness. Is it? From her rivals’ point of view, I’m sure we can all appreciate that it does seem unjust to lose to someone with such a huge inbuilt biological advantage. But what about other athletes with inbuilt advantages – eg. swimmer Michael Phelps with his massive arm span and double-jointed ankles and low production of lactic acid which means he doesn’t tire as quickly as ordinary men? Should he have been disqualified?

And what about Caster’s own perspective? After being cruelly ridiculed for her body all her life, here was something she naturally excelled at, for which she trained hard, and now she’s being denied the opportunity to compete as the woman she is. Lose, lose. What a monumental injustice this must seem. In fact she’s shown immense dignity in the face of this latest humiliation. She admits to feeling upset and degraded by this ‘unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details’ of her very being. At the moment she’s contemplating leaving the arena. ‘I’m finished’ she tweeted when the ruling came through. ‘Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity.’ How desperately sad.

Why do I talk about this case on my blog this week? Partly because the questions it raises have been exercising my mind, and partly because it’s another example of the reality that there are very few absolute black and whites in the world of ethics – my world! And that’s before you start factoring in transgender athletes and self-assignment of gender and competing interests and … It goes on and on. Scrambles the mind, doesn’t it?

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