The prestigious Booker Prize award ceremony marked a historic occasion this week, with this year’s prize split between two authors: Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. The Booker Prize has not been spilt since the institution forbid the practice in the 90s — it had only happened a couple of times prior — but this year’s shortlist of English-language literary works was so extraordinary that the judges felt that they were at an impasse when forced to decide whether Atwood or Evaristo had written 2019’s best original work of fiction.
The two authors themselves made history in their own right, with Evaristo becoming the first black woman in the prize’s history — also, the first black Brit to have ever won the award — and Atwood becoming the Booker Prize’s oldest author; Atwood has won the award once before for her book “The Blind Assassin.” The well-respected Booker Prize comes with a monetary award of £50,000, which the two writers will have to split; Evaristo told reporters that, while she would have loved having the winnings to herself, she was happy to share it with Atwood. “That’s the kind of person I am,” she said. Atwood plans on donating her share of the winnings to Indspire, a Canadian non-profit that advances the educational opportunities of First Nations youth in her home country.
No one, especially Evaristo and Atwood, could have expected a split prize this year, an outcome that the Booker Prizes administration had rejected several times throughout the judging process, described by a spokesperson as an “agonizing five hours.” Pardon the pun, but the outcome is perhaps a testament to how incredibly relevant both novels are in the context of identity, feminism, and politics, and how impossible it would be to celebrate the influence of one work over the other.
Girl, Woman, Other is a feminist exploration of everyday life and African diaspora identity, spanning generations and told through the voices of a dozen characters — mostly black British women. “When I started the book six years ago, I was so fed up with black British women being absent from British literature,” Evaristo told the New York Times. “So I wanted to see how many characters I could put into a novel and pull it off.”
In a separate interview, she told The Guardian that she had written her younger self into the novel through the character of Amma as a way to honor the grit of LGBTQ black feminists in the 1980s. “A lot of the women creating theatre and art and dance and so on were lesbian or bisexual and working in a quite segregated way, but feeling empowered by each other – not having to explain themselves to other people, not feeling that they needed to bring men in,” she explained, noting that she’d identified as a lesbian in that same period. “Then, I think, a lot of people reach a stage where they no longer need that; and also sexuality changes; my own sexuality changed.”
As for Atwood, who by now is a household name with the Hulu adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” having raised her international profile, her book The Testaments is a sequel to the former novel that takes place 15 years in the future. Unsurprisingly, the book considers themes of feminism, patriarchy, and religion, but through Atwood’s unapologetic and sometimes unconventional gaze feels just as urgent as ever in today’s political and cultural climate.