This work flows like a river out of Eden

A Review of Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton) 2019

Evaristocover

I didn’t think I was going to review this joyous book.  It won the Booker Prize which restricts the conversation a bit.  What is there left to say?    Yet   I was fortunate to be in the audience to attend a talk given by the author at the Hay Festival and this changed my mind. So here are my thoughts.

Evaristo’s prose sits on the page in all its poetic wholeness with scarcely a capital letter or full stop to be seen.  Yet unlike Woolf who can sometimes leave you scrabbling for a handhold or for a breath, this work flows perfectly like a river out of Eden.  It’s not officially stream of consciousness.    I have no idea how she did it,  but Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her knowledge of scansion must have helped.

The book which in unBooker-like fashion is not a challenging read,  follows the lives of 12 women in modern Britain.

The first question that Peter Florence, the Director and co-founder of Hay Festival who also happened to be Chair of the Booker panel this year asked was:  We understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ but what about ‘other’  The reply from Evaristo was that she wanted to show how these women come to be perceived as being ‘other’.   What it is about societies that ‘others’ people.

What does it mean to be ‘other’.  Race, identity and belonging – the topic that gave birth to a thousand and one theses and to which we can add gender and sexual orientation, are all things which can confuse, emotionally and intellectually.  Which of us really knows ourselves?    But the author does not seem in the least confused about any of it, getting inside the heads of each of her characters, taking them from childhood to the epiphanic moment when they find a way to be.

It is not just a matter of being black in a society in which to be black meant you could not book a bed for the night because your putative landlady thought your colour might rub off on her sheets (welcome to Great Britain pre-Race Discrimination laws).  It is not just a book about having a particular skin colour – to be a woman even in 2019 is to be ‘other’ from the standpoint of many aspects of our societies in which our institutions are still crawling out of Victorian patriarchal attitudes and doing so relatively slowly, changing only when forced to do so by law or scandal or both.

A lot of books (thankfully) are now written by women – some treat of the reality of lived female experience in a modern world.   Many do not.  Some writers of both sexes add female characters – even strong female characters – as a box ticking exercise or as characters to be exploited in some way by men.

Girl Woman Other is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary literary scene and I am so happy that Evaristo has been recognised.

Elif Shafak. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) 2019

Elif

Elif Shafak I regard as one of today’s greatest writers.  I loved The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve although I struggled a bit with the Architect’s Apprentice but that’s OK.  It was an earlier work and it’s not always possible to love everything.

Leila is the author’s masterwork so far. 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World was  on the shortlist for the Man Booker when Bernadine Evaristo won with Margaret Atwood.  It must have been an unenviable task to judge this year’s prize.

Like Evaristo, Shafak takes a culture – her culture –and shows us how it excludes, abases and abuses women in a way that is culturally so normal that it is invisible.  Such invisibility does not extend to the minds of  writers and artists, of course, many of whom are currently subject to persecution in Turkey.   In a moving tribute to her grandmother, whose funeral she did not feel able to attend for political reasons, the author says that she felt the fictional character of Leila and her grandmother had met and become good friends:

“… sister-outsiders.  After all boundaries of the mind mean nothing for women who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight ….”

Leila, Or Tequila Leila as she is called – is the lead character in 10 minutes 38 seconds.  ‘Is’ I say.  Not ‘was’.    It’s important to Leila to be counted among the present tense, we find that out in the prologue before the story proper even starts.  The reason being that she is dead by the time the story starts.   She still narrates the story.  Raped by her uncle as a child (and blamed – look what you made me do) her life slowly falls apart.  She ends up working in a brothel in Istanbul.  But life is regenerated in a human and beautiful fashion by a strange and curious circle of friends that come into being. Shafak’s storytelling seems to me second to none in so many ways but her characters are particularly wonderful.  Magic realist, perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless.

“Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death.   People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath.  But things were not clear-cut like that.  Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’  If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

I believe in the permeability of that sandstone.  And the book’s ending is a celebration of freedom.

 

 

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline Criado Perez. A review.

 

This is the second review of my 10 books of Summer.

I have related elsewhere Perez’ story of the loos in the Barbican

But loos are the least of the gender data gap problems, a symptom of a much wider malaise.  Structural male bias is everywhere.  Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions.  Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all.   If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result.   This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia.  This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez;  now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I have chosen to look at two areas that the author discusses, health and the formulation of GDP.

I start with health – the most important thing for a human being before you get to the wealth or happiness bit.  Go into any bookshop (assuming you can still find one) and look at the medical and anatomy sections, Perez suggests,     you will discover that the human figure is male. The author found that:

‘as recently as 2017, the covers of books labelled ‘Human Anatomy’ ‘were still adorned with be-muscled men’

Because it is assumed that the human body is male and that on a one-size fits all model (ie, apart from the reproductive bits there is not much difference)   what works for the guys will work for the gals.   Horrifically this appears to be current medical thinking!  Women are as a result largely being excluded from medical research. Why?  Because the results of clinical trials are being presented as valid for both men and women, even when women have been excluded from the study and even though as a result of this data on whether a particular drug will be efficacious for a woman is unknown.

This despite the fact that researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body as well as in the ‘prevalence, course and severity’ of the majority of human diseases.

“Sex differences appear even in our cells:  in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins, in immune cells used to convey pain signals; in how cells die following a stroke.  A recent study also found a significant sex difference in the ‘experssion of a gene found to be important for drug metabolism’.  Sex differences  in the presentation and outcome of Parkinsons disease, stroke and brain ischaemia … have also been tracked all the way to our cells …”

The inclusion of sex specific information in textbooks is dependent on the availability of sex specific data, but because women have largely been excluded from medical research this data is severely lacking.  And because this data is lacking, it is not being taught in medical schools.

photo of green data matrix
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

For example:

  • Most early research into cardiovascular disease was conducted on men
  • Women represent 55% of HIV positive adults in the developing world … we also know that women experience different clinical symptoms and complications due to HIV.   Yet a 2016 review of the inclusion of women in HIV research found that women made up only 19.2% of participants in antiretroviral studies, 38% in vaccination studies and 11.1% in studies to find a cure.
  • And because of their routine exclusion from clinical trials we lack solid data on how to treat pregnant women for anything.  Perhaps it is understandable that pregnant women would not want to take part in clinical trials,  but that is no reason Perez states to throw our hands up in despair and do nothing.
  • The absence of female representation in clinical trials also means that drugs are not sex specific and drugs that work for men are finding their way into general use without anyone knowing if they work for women.   Conversely, drugs that do not work for men are discarded during the clinical trial process without anyone finding out whether they would have worked for women.

 

The formulation of a country’s GDP is an inherently subjective process,  states Perez.

She quotes Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University.

‘A lot of people think GDP is a real thing.  But actually it’s a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition.  And a lot of uncertainty.

Measuring GDP is, she says, not like measuring how high the mountain is.’

In the 1970s – a period which has always been seen as a ‘golden’ window for productivity GDP rose (in the UK).

But what was actually happening during that period is that women were leaving the domestic sphere and starting to do out to work.    Work in the home had never been counted as part of GDP,  as presumably it still is not.

So the things done in the feminised private sphere which were invisible, suddenly got visible and added to the male-dominated public sphere.

Perez writes:

The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 80% in low-income countries.  If we factor this work into the equation, the UK’s GDP in 2016 was around $3.9 trillion (official figures $2.6 trillion).  In 2015, unpaid care and domestic work in Mexico was valued at 21% – ‘higher than manufacturing, commerce, real estate, mining, construction and transportation and storage’.

None of this is the result of some dire scheming or deliberate policy, it is because of structuralised, self-perpetuating sex discrimination which has become so natural to us that we no longer see it.   Because women are invisible, it is not deemed to be necessary to collect sex specific data.   Because there is no sex specific data, women are invisible.

“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this as discrimination.  Or really we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on.  It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.”

“There is an overwhelming need for women to be more involved in research, the author concludes.  “When women are involved in decision making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.”

This book must have entailed a huge amount of work.  It is thorough researched and detailed.  Thank you Perez for showing us the male bias by which our still achingly patriarchal society is structured.  Sisters, there remains a long road ahead of us.


 

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist and human rights campaigner.  She is best known for getting a woman put on the Bank of England banknotes and for campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.