Another month. Another book group on Zoom. This time to discuss Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other
. We're a small group of mainly retired professional women. Our discussions are lively and we get on well. When we disagree, we agree to differ. And we're willing to be challenged, as this book did. Our youngest member is over here from Texas. Neither a Republican nor a Trump supporter, she provides us with a Transatlantic perspective on US politics and social issues, useful in these turbulent times.
On the whole, with only one firm exception, we liked the book. Its minimally punctuated layout didn't confuse us, although we found it a shade long. It was difficult to keep track of its full cast of 12 principal players, their partners, relatives and interconnections. Friends of mine hadn't cared for it. One found the lesbian element too overpowering. Another felt the structure of all those individual stories 'too easy'. I had listened to the BBC edited radio version and was inclined to agree. But reading it in full I found it absorbing. Even compressed tales require a careful selection of information and a distinct style of delivery.
The author evokes the lives of a diverse range of black, first or earlier generation, immigrant women in modern Britain, whose known origins lie in sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean. Their stories are bookended by the launch of a play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey
, at the National Theatre, written and produced by Amma, the first of the 12 protagonists. Her success is praised by her admirers, but others see her as having sold out to the 'white' Establishment. All are marked by impoverished childhoods. Their mothers, clever, professionally qualified, newly arrived in the 'mother country', find themselves working in lowgrade, poorly paid jobs to support their families, unwelcome, automatic respect denied, rejection for better jobs commonplace. Absconding husbands only make things worse.
The most horrifying tale is the gang rape of 13-year-old Carol, invited to a friend's party who, not knowing any better, drinks too much and is carried off by the friend's brother and his pals. She never tells anyone what happened. The shame is too great. A schoolteacher helps her focus on her schoolwork, which, with a gift for mathematics, leads to a place at Oxford and a high-flying financial career in the City. But her success alienates her from her family and when she later meets up with the teacher who helped her she treats her with contempt.
Some of the women turn to lesbianism. Amma is empowered by it. Her friend Dominique falls into a brutally controlling relationship until she cuts free. Some try it as an experiment or turn to it for solace. One emerges as not merely transgender but considers herself gender free. At this point, she is referred to as 'they', which is confusing. I'm sorry but this doesn't make me transphobic. I just object to a minority colonisation of a perfectly clear grammatical plural.
Most of us in the book group have had little contact with BAME people. Edinburgh isn't so ethnically diverse as London or the large English cities. We feel unsure how to refer to them without giving offence. We don't feel prejudiced, but how can you gauge that if any tendency you might have is never tested? Through my husband I have contacts with people from immigrant Muslim communities. Their economic struggles are similar, but their visibility issues cluster around religion and fears of radicalised terrorism rather than their skin colour. Usually, the first generation have it hardest. Masters degree-holders drive taxis or work as hotel porters, warehouse maintenance men and the like. They hope their children will compensate by doing well, but there is always need. Young people in this country tend to assume their parents will support them until they can support themselves. In immigrant communities, the expectation is the other way round, especially in old age.
The historian and television presenter, Professor David Olusoga, born in Lagos in 1970, is a high-profile commentator on racial issues. Of mixed Nigerian and British race, he came to Britain at the age of five. He and his siblings were raised by his mother, initially on a council estate in Gateshead. His account of the racist abuse they suffered as a defenceless family against the violence of National Front supporters and subsequent inadequate police protection is heart-rending. He was also not considered very bright at school and consigned to a remedial class. Now, garlanded with many degrees and awards, he has disproved that assessment many times over.
Another commentator the BBC draws on here in Edinburgh is Scotland's first black professor, Heriot-Watt's Emeritus Professor in the School of Life Sciences, Sir Geoffrey Palmer OBE, an expert in brewing. Born in Jamaica in 1940, he was raised by his grandmother and aunts while his mother came to Britain. He joined her in 1955, a month short of his 15th birthday. She had a job lined up for him. The authorities decreed he had to go to school.
Despite also being diagnosed as 'educationally sub-normal', it proved the making of him. A later job as a lab assistant led to a degree in botany at Leicester University, but no university would take him until his boss pulled a few strings. Afterwards, applying for a research post, a member of the interviewing panel, former Conservative Cabinet Minister Sir Keith Joseph, told him he should return to the Caribbean and 'grow bananas'. Later still, a highly colourful professor of brewing at Heriot-Watt, Professor Anne McLeod, took him on as a PhD student. He made his name developing a technique of barley abrasion, of considerable commercial value to the brewing industry. He retired in 2005, also garlanded with awards, including his OBE and knighthood for his academic and charity work.
I met him in the late 1980s, in an interlude between a career in university administration and a reluctant return to teaching. I was typing and tea-making for the careers department at Heriot-Watt in Chambers Street, a lonely and stultifying experience with an unsympathetic, unhelpful boss. Dr Palmer, as he then was, swept into the office one day and introduced himself. The pub on the corner of Lothian Road and Cambridge Street near the Traverse Theatre had been renamed Palmers in his honour and he was delighting in the publicity. He was charming, friendly and entertaining. I still remember those brief cheering exchanges.
Evaristo, Olusoga and Palmer are all signal successes, but their paths to those successes took intelligence, character, determination and luck.
None of us in our book group has ever come close to these experiences or those of Evaristo's characters. We can only imagine them.
We Scots like to think we behave better to our immigrant communities, that we occupy a higher moral ground than elsewhere, but, sadly, we delude ourselves. We are a small assertive nation, with deeply divisive communities of our own, which don't necessarily like each other very much. Try being a Roman Catholic in a West Lothian town during an Orange march, for instance. Or teaching with a cultivated Edinburgh accent in a comprehensive school in a predominantly working-class area. Wherever we are, we seem to have this instinctively primitive tribalism, always wary of those we consider 'Other'.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh