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15th October 2019

Opinion: Man Booker continues to fail black women

The Man Booker Prize is being praised because a black woman, Bernadine Evaristo, has won for the first time, but what does her having to share the prize say?
Opinion: Man Booker continues to fail black women
Photo: Lancaster litfest @Flickr

Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood have been named joint winners of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, in spite of the rule that outlaws tied winners. Evaristo won for Girl, Woman, Other and Atwood for The Testaments. Judges insisted they “couldn’t separate” the two works but this statement is as vague and confusing as their decision is.

As the BBC commented, ‘Atwood, 79, is the oldest ever Booker winner, while Evaristo is the first black woman to win.’ But surely the latter landmark is the more important one. Although age discrimination exists, racism is the far more pressing issue within society, as exemplified by previous Booker winners.

What’s more, the fact that Atwood is slightly older than some previous recipients of the prize is surely far less significant than the fact that the Booker is finally acknowledging black women. (For context, only 4 of the around 300 shortlisted writers for the Man Booker Prize have ever been black women!)

Therefore, the pairing of these two descriptions together, not just by the BBC but by many other publications too, seems to be removing the significance of Evaristo’s achievement. And this begs the question, what is the significance of the first black female winner of the Man Booker Prize having to share it with a white woman?

It seems unlikely that the judges really could not reach a clear consensus on which novel is more deserving. But perhaps they felt compelled to ensure The Testaments was included as a consolation prize of sorts, as The Handmaid’s Tale was not awarded the prize when it was first published, even though its literary and political impact means it really should have been.

Personally, of the two winning novels, I have only read The Testaments and the quality of the novel is what has led me to the conclusion that the novel has been given winner status on behalf of The Handmaid’s Tale.

But I still don’t believe that Atwood deserved the prize as an apology, especially considering that she won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. If any apology was due, surely it should be to black women, for neglecting their work for so long. But the split prize awarded to Evaristo is barely an apology of that sort, but an insult; a way of saying, we’re finally acknowledging you and your work, but only just.

It is especially infuriating that most of the coverage on the prize focuses on Atwood, with numerous quotes from her and descriptions of her previous encounters with the Man Booker, whilst Evaristo is simply mentioned as ‘the first black woman to win the prize’, with barely any exploration of Girl, Woman, Other or any of her other work.

As Atwood herself commented, as reported by the BBC, ‘I kind of don’t need the attention’- and it’s true, she doesn’t. The Testaments has already received huge amounts of attention and press with Waterstones shops all over the UK holding midnight events to honour it and The Sunday Times Style featuring Atwood as their cover star on the weekend of the novel’s release.

So why did the Booker feel compelled to include Atwood in the prize? Surely it would have been more worthwhile to focus the attention on Evaristo, who has not received as much praise and attention, despite being the author of eight works of fiction. One conclusion is that the Booker judges had a case of FOMO, as if not including The Testaments, when it has undoubtedly been the book of the year, would go down in history as a mistake.

No one can deny the impact and the importance of Atwood’s work and perhaps those behind the Man Booker Prize feel guilty about having done so in 1985. But so many black women have had their voices neglected at the hands of the Man Booker Prize, through its ignorance of them for so many years, and if guilt influenced this year’s judges decision in any way, it should have been for this.

This was the Booker’s chance to champion a black woman in a way they never had before, and it’s a shame that they weren’t brave enough to do so.

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