Why 2 women writers sharing Booker is good for feminism

Last Updated 09 December 2019, 13:27 IST

Last week, two Booker Prize winners were announced: Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (she of The Handmaid’s Tale and Blind Assassin fame), and the relatively unknown (at least to me) Bernardine Evaristo were jointly awarded the Booker in a flagrant “flouting” of the rules by the judges when they declared a tie instead of choosing one of them. This meant, among other considerations, that the two winners had to share many things: the stage, the recognition, the glory, and most important of all, the prize money of GBP 50,000.

Atwood, 79, is a giant in the literary world, with a career spanning close to 60 years and an oeuvre that is as vast as it can possibly be: numerous novels, poetry anthologies, and works of non-fiction are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her body of work. Her side avatars include environmental activism, literary criticism, academia, and political commentary, and she is one of the world’s staunchest allies of feminism. Her book that won the Booker this year, The Testaments, is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, coming close to 35 years after the first book, but fictionally narrated about 15 years after the first book ends. Even those who have not yet read her will know, or have heard, of her.

Evaristo, on the other hand, is a black British author with eight novels to her credit (her work explores the African diaspora), and is someone new I am excited to discover and read, as any other writing dilettante would be. Discovering a new author who plays with form and narrative (as my post Booker announcement research revealed), is a prospect that has this perennial student of literature drooling. She is the Booker awardee this year for her latest novel Girl, Woman, Other.

The judges defended their decision as something that they had to do because they “couldn’t separate” one book as the clear winner over the other and that it was “their decision to flout the rules.” Swift was the backlash that followed, the most common sentiment being that the judges could have made a statement by choosing Evaristo over Atwood and “making history”. Another shared sentiment was that this year’s decision will go down in history for its rule-flouting rather than for the emphatic recognition they could have bestowed on Evaristo as the first black woman to win the Booker.

Points well-made, and well taken, but here’s the thing: what competitions like these do is surface authors most of the world might not yet have discovered, which they have done with Evaristo. Atwood is merely coincidental to the whole shebang here, and I reckon she knows it. And like any other competition, the decisions are hugely subjective. First of all, that one panel or jury can decide one book as the best of the year from the thousands that enter the market is hubris (quite possibly male hubris). Secondly, it’s a charged world we are all living in. Having said that, that the decision this year honoured both a literary giant and a hitherto lesser-known woman of colour is something worth celebrating, for awards, when they pay lip service to woke politics, become mere popularity contests.

At this point, I must put out a disclaimer: I’ve read both Salman Rushdie and Elif Shafak, two of the other nominees this year. I haven’t yet read Lucy Ellman and Chigozie Obioma. But thanks to the Booker, the first book I will read will be Evaristo’s.

All this to say: The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it does bend toward justice, albeit late in the case of recognising women writers’ enormous contribution to the literary canon. In this case, both women. So, what if one is white (another SJW bugbear) and one is black? They are women of the written word, and the more women are recognised in this world, the merrier it is for all involved.

Don’t agree with me? Just look at the grace with which both writers dealt with having to share the prize with the other. We should all be so thankful. More, please.

(Published 19 October 2019, 19:18 IST)

Follow us on