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Culture

Bernardine Evaristo on womanhood: “I refuse to be invisible”

For International Women’s Day on March 8, Bernardine Evaristo – author of the historic Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other – writes a personal essay for PORTER on what womanhood (or womxnhood) means to her…

Lifestyle

As a child, I was called a ‘tomboy’ due to my rumbustious energy, tendency towards scruffiness and propensity for climbing trees, instead of comporting myself with ladylike decorum. It’s such sexist nonsense, of course, and it’s astonishing that these gender proscriptions are still imposed on children today. Eventually, my spirited younger self morphed into a teenager who wore patched-up jeans, hippy sandals (aka ‘Jesus creepers’) and shapeless sweaters. It was the beginning of my conscious rebellion against gender expectations. I did once succumb to wearing a pair of platforms but, when I fell over and almost snapped my ankle, I swore never to wear heels again – and I stayed true to my word.

By my early twenties, I was deeply politicized and raging against the machine. I sported baggy old coats, men’s trousers, knitted waistcoats, red baseball boots, and my hair was either in a buzz cut or exploding with spiky dreadlocks. I was often mistaken for a boy, which annoyed me because I wanted my image to reflect my feminist theater-maker identity as a woman, in spite of my attire. I was also rejecting the tacit expectation that, as a black woman in 1980s Britain, I should try to be as unnoticeable as possible; to mitigate my darker skin through conformist clothing.

In my novel Girl, Woman, Other, the characters of Amma and Dominique (lesbian feminists who run a black and Asian women’s theater company) best illustrate my younger countercultural sartorial sensibility, as they similarly strive to break free from society’s shackles. Conversely, Shirley, their schoolteacher contemporary, straightens her hair and clads herself in understated ‘feminine’ clothes, hoping to be regarded as an unassailable paragon of respectability. A generation later, Carole, a working-class girl of Nigerian parentage, adopts the same modus operandi. Her meticulously perfected grooming represents the straitjacketing of her personality in order to succeed in the corporate world and the elevated social circles of her aspiration. In one sense, these are two extremes of black British womanhood. Amma and Dominique’s ‘warrior wear’ style signals their readiness to do battle with an unequal society, as it did for me, unaccepting of the secondary status imposed on me as a woman of color in a majority-white society.

By the end of the 1980s, I was beginning to change. The fire that fueled my fury at an exclusionary society did not stop burning, but instead it was transmuted from anger into an energy that has kept me going ever since. I learned to become positive in my outlook, aware that anger as a default emotion risks leading to self-immolation. I left theater behind and worked in arts management to support my writing career. At one stage, I began to dress as if I worked in an office – according to a friend who was appalled at my adoption of skirts, blouses, nylon tights and brogues. She chose to ignore the fact that the skirts were funky, the tights a bright tartan, and my brogues an electric blue. At this stage, I wanted to write books, with no idea if it would work out. It was a leap of faith motivated by the desire for my stories to be heard in this society. And, over the years, I felt it was my duty to never give up because, if so, how could I justifiably complain about our marginalization as women of color?

By the noughties, society was changing around me, too. We were becoming more integrated in Britain, although the flames of feminism were on the back burner and would remain so until recently. It was really only the #MeToo movement that precipitated a paradigm shift in our culture that saw young women, in particular, claiming and defining feminism for a new generation. Once that happened, I began to see young black women with a similar look to my younger self, with their shaved heads, gender-disrupting clothes, heavy laced boots and edgy attitudes. The big difference is that, these days, they are to be found modeling in the fashion pages of magazines.

I wrote Girl, Woman, Other to explore the plurality of black British womanhood, from the very young to the very old. I sometimes apply the term ‘womxn’ to the novel, which was coined to embrace women of color and trans women. I feel comfortable with the gender I was assigned at birth and have never felt the need to transition to an alternative, but I understand why some people want to dispense with the idea of gender binaries altogether, along with its codes and rules. I also notice the younger people that I know and encounter are much more accepting of trans identities than my peers. As they are the future, what will this mean for the future of womanhood as we know it? Will the conversation around challenging and dismantling gender continue to gain ground and eventually lead to its extinction – as a concept? Will non-binary become the norm at some point in the distant future?

Evaristo (left), pictured here with her friend, playwright Patricia St. Hilaire, in 1984, two years after they co-founded the Theatre of Black Women in London

In the novel, Megan, one of my 12 female protagonists, transitions to non-binary, renames herself Morgan, and adopts the personal pronoun ‘they’. Morgan undergoes a voluntary mastectomy, wears non-binary clothes and perplexes people who want to categorize them as either male or female. Their new identity is considered a radical act in a society steeped in restrictive gender binaries that are inculcated in us pre-birth, indeed, as soon as our parents start buying blue baby clothes for a boy and pink for a girl. Yet we can define womanhood – or womxnhood – for ourselves. My personal version represents creativity, family, freedom, community, ambition, self-fulfillment, leadership and much more, including the decision to be child-free, as opposed to ‘child-less’, which implies a thwarted ambition and a failure to fulfil my social obligation as a woman.

At different stages in my life, I have been a flamboyant dresser, just as I am a flamboyant writer, a literary experimentalist who treasures individuality. When I go hunting for clothes, I scan shops for the brightest, most distinctive colors. A shirt of bright pink, lemon and orange swirls? Lovely! This I will mismatch with a multicolored African-print headscarf. Beige is anathema to me. Black depresses me if I don’t break it up with a startlingly loud color. Whenever I am forced to travel in the rush hour, I am amazed at how even my, say, bright orange scarf stands out amid the overwhelmingly dark clothes. My style is a visual statement and representation of myself as a woman in the arts who is a creative thinker. It signifies that I cannot be stereotyped, controlled or silenced. Women of color are hyper-visible in some situations, on account of our darker skin making us stand out, and simultaneously invisible, when we don’t have a platform on which to speak out. I refuse to be invisible and I demand to be heard.

Bernardine Evaristo is an author and Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London. Her book, Girl, Woman, Other, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is out now in paperback