Racism and the Booker Prize: Bernadine Evaristo is not “the other author”!

While it was already doubtful whether Bernadine Evaristo as the first black woman ever to win The Booker Prize should have had to share it with Margarete Atwood, it is now an excellent example of the kind of systemic racism which blights the cultural sector as much as any other part of British society, as Gesa Stedman explains in her final post of the year.

In the context of the shared prize awarded by the Turner Prize jury – at the request of the four artists involved, who wanted to be joined winners so as not to force the jury to endorse one social issue over another, equally valid one – the BBC presenter commented on this year’s Booker Prize. Sandra van Lente (and some others) had already voiced their doubts as to whether a shared prize for the first Black woman writer to win it was appropriate. There is no doubt left now: it was wrong to make Bernadine Evaristo share the prize. Not only has it detracted from the fact that a highly successful, established Black writer like Evaristo could win the prize because so much attention was focused on Margaret Atwood, her co-winner.

It also seemed to make it possible for a BBC presenter to label Evaristo “the other writer”! There is a grave difference between a jury deciding to split a prize, and the contenders to ask for it to be split. But there is no difference between being called “the other writer” and being called “the other”. Both are racist. The BBC presenter has since apologised of course. But that is beside the point. An individual lapse by a senior presenter? They always practice names and pronounciation before going on TV. And someone who works in the cultural field? And he mentions the key literary prize which was only awarded weeks before and he cannot remember the name of the key winner? It is not an obscure 15th-century poet we are talking about here, and even then, it would not be justified, as one can research, and practice names before going out on air.

It is an example of the way the literary field works, and how much of British society works. There was, inevitably, a Twitter debate. And that is that, probably, for the foreseeable future.

But I want to end on a positive note: while I am not at all hopeful that racism is on the wane anywhere, at least the Booker win for Bernadine Evaristo – although a shared one – has led to 21 countries wanting to translate her most recent work. At least people in 21 other countries outside the UK can decide for themselves what they think of her work in literary terms.