The Booker Prize 2019: how a joint win represents our current political moment

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This year’s Booker Prize went to not one, but two deserving contenders: Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo for their brilliant works The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other, respectively. This was a controversial decision, breaking a rule set in 1992 following a similar tie between Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth, which prohibited the division of the prize in the future. 

Despite literary director Gaby Wood’s insistence that the prize couldn’t be split, the jury could not choose between the two novels. The chair judge Peter Florence said that they tried voting, however “that didn’t work. There’s a metaphor for our times.” And funnily enough, the plurality that this year’s prize celebrates, whether intentional or not, is in itself a metaphor for our times. 

Atwood and Evaristo’s novels are so deeply individualistic, yet their narratives are staggeringly similar in being rebellious responses to the world around them

Voices are louder than ever with global communication on the rise, and the multiplicity of experience and perspective is becoming a prominent theme of contemporary creative expression. Both Atwood and Evaristo’s novels are so deeply individualistic, inevitably as a result of their different backgrounds and personalities, yet their narratives are staggeringly similar in being rebellious responses to the world around them.

Atwood’s The Testaments is the highly acclaimed sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a work gaining newfound recognition because of the 2017 television adaptation that has now spanned three seasons. The show was particularly impactful due to the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and the rise of sexist rhetoric and religious extremism, which many found to be an indication that Atwood’s totalitarian dystopia Gilead was not necessarily a far-off reality. 

The continued relevance of this piece of literature, enough to warrant an equally appreciated sequel thirty four years later, makes it almost a prophetic piece of work. The Testaments furthers this narrative by displaying direct rebellion against the establishment, a passion refuelled by present injustices in our present reality.

Evaristo’s is a similarly rebellious text; she decided to create twelve unique and complex black characters, mostly women, and explore their personal experiences with sexuality, gender identity and immigration. She introduces a variety of characters including Hattie, a 93-year-old woman with a fierce insistence to be self-sufficient, and Megan/Morgan, a non-binary individual who’s experienced an interesting journey with their gender identity. 

Through these multiple lenses, Evaristo explores the complexity and heterogeneity of the black female experience in Britain, to combat what she described as a real lack of black female figures in the literary canon. 

I had the privilege of hearing Evaristo speak about the novel’s position in its time at The Gordon Burn’s Prize 2019. She told the audience that when she began the novel, we as a society weren’t really having the conversations that we currently are. She noted that the social progress made in the last four years, while not perfect, has been dynamic in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Therefore, in a way, Evaristo’s work is a prophetic one as well, since the progressive themes in her novel encapsulates so many of the issues we are battling today in this Brexit era. 

Both occupy such revolutionary spaces in the modern literary landscape, and possess a similar honesty and authenticity of expression

Ultimately, these two works are very different in structure, narrative and style, simply because they’re written by two different writers. Nevertheless, they both occupy such revolutionary spaces in the modern literary landscape, and possess a similar honesty and authenticity of expression. 

Ultimately, these engaging literary responses are a bi-product of the creative demands of this global political and social climate. The fact that a Canadian 79-year-old and a black British woman are able to be jointly acknowledged as the most striking narrative voices of the year is a true symbol of hope that lies at the heart of today’s literary movement.

Image by Marco Verch via Flickr

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