Bernardine Evaristo becomes first black woman to win the Booker Prize

All hail book queen Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other. Spell reports on last night’s Booker prize ceremony...

Culture

It finally happened: a black woman claimed the prestigious Booker Prize – a first since the literary award was established way back in 1969.

Girl, Woman, Other.

While it’s been a long time coming, it couldn’t have gone to a more deserving recipient. Author, poet and Londoner Bernardine Evaristo picked up the award last night for her eighth novel Girl, Woman, Other alongside joint winner Margaret Atwood for her mega-seller follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments.

In her acceptance speech, the Anglo-Nigerian writer encouraged more black women to put pen to paper: "A lot of people say, 'I never thought it would happen to me', and I will say I am the first black woman to win this prize, and I hope that honour doesn't last too long. I hope other people come forward now."

Seeing yourself in fiction

Evaristo may have been up against heavyweight names on the shortlist, which also included Salman Rushdie, but Girl, Woman, Other has been a critical smash and word-of-mouth success. And for young black women looking for themselves in literature it’s been hailed as a must-read!

Describing her book, which follows the lives and struggles of 12 individuals, mostly women who are black and British, Evaristo told The Guardian: “Fiction excavates and reimagines our histories; exercises our imaginations through flights of fancy, takes the reader on transformational adventures, and probes and presents our motivations, problems and dramas. What, then, does it mean to not see yourself reflected in your nation’s stories? This has been the ongoing debate of my professional career as a writer stretching back nearly forty years, and we black British women know, that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will.”

Inspiring the next generation of black writers

So, for anyone who thinks book prizes aren’t for them, Evaristo believes her win is a sign things are opening up in the notoriously closed world of literature. “It’s a bittersweet experience,” she admitted last night. “In one sense it’s great to be the first, but I shouldn’t be the first. I think this prize has moved with the times. Our culture has moved somewhat in the past few years. I don’t think it would have happened five years ago or ten years ago. I think it’s about how the prize is won and who gets to be the judges. It just has not gone to black people, hardly at all. Hopefully it will inspire people. Hopefully I will be a role model, especially to writers of colour.”

What a woman!

If anyone’s an inspiration, it’s Evaristo. Her rollcall of achievements should make her a literary household name alongside the likes of wordsmith wonder woman Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Because alongside writing, Evaristo is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London and vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature, while she also co-founded Spread the Word to give a leg up to writers in London, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and was behind Britain's first black women's theatre company, Theatre of Black Women. Now that’s a CV!

Girl, Woman, Other, published Hamish Hamilton, is out now.

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