We read to know we’re not alone.” These words, taken from William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands, capture our deep motivation to read. When we read, we see life through another’s eyes, sometimes recognizing our own desires, dreams, and disappointments. It’s like the feeling of a friend’s arm, silently extended around your shoulders. You’re not alone.
But as Christians, we are called to more than this. We’re called not to comfort ourselves but to discomfort ourselves. We’re called—like the Good Samaritan—to stop in the wayside world of the other, especially others who are least like ourselves. And sometimes, the passport to that world is a book.
Girl, Woman, Other is a 2019 Booker Prize–winning novel by Bernardine Evaristo, whose works experiment with prose and verse and explore the African diaspora. The book is set in London, my hometown. I recognize its places, streets, and turns of phrase. But its 12 protagonists could hardly be more different from me. Most were born in poverty. Most experiment sexually. All live as black or brown women in majority-white contexts. One whose faith had carried her through trials felt that faith die along with her beloved husband. (It was buried when her prosperity-gospel pastor traded sex for a small business loan.) But even across these differences, Evaristo conjures empathy with a magician’s flare. Indeed, the book is structured around empathy.
Chapters 1 to 4 narrate 12 women’s tales, in clusters of three. For example, chapter 1 gives us the keys first to Amma’s inner thoughts, then to those of her daughter, Yazz, and finally to those of her best friend, Dominique. We learn each woman from the inside out, but we also see them from the outside in. The effect is a sustained soliloquy, as actor after actor takes the stage. Time and again, the other becomes the self.
As a white, British woman, I emerged from this book with a richer understanding of the range of experiences of black and brown women in my country—not least the hurt and the heartbreak. Despite addressing issues as serious as rape and emotional abuse, and topics as fraught as gender, cultural origin, immigrant status, and sexual experience, Evaristo is never monochrome or preachy. She highlights the complexities at play while being playful with complexity.
One example of this playfulness is Evaristo’s portrayal of Nzinga, an African-American “builder of timber houses on ‘wimmin’s lands’ in the ‘Dis-United States of America,’” with whom Dominique falls deeply in love. When Dominique first brings Nzinga to meet her best friend Amma, Nzinga opines on what black women should and shouldn’t do, including not wearing black socks or underpants or using black garbage bags. As Evaristo tells it, “Amma kept flashing Dominique looks, is she serious? are you serious?” But Dominique is lapping it up.
We’ve all seen friends imbibe nonsense from those they adore. If we’re honest, we’ve probably done that ourselves. But the comedy of this moment becomes poignant as we witness Nzinga shrinking Dominique’s world down, inch by inch, to an abusive cage, from which Amma ultimately helps her escape. Evaristo’s characters have flaws and foibles, and intermural fights, and we see how love and politics get tangled up. But even as we are struck by difference, we’re also invited to identify.
Some of Evaristo’s most powerful moments knock at generational walls. Amma is not the conventional sort. An iconoclastic black, lesbian, feminist playwright, she is also deliberately promiscuous. Yet the Amma with whom Evaristo leaves us when she quietly passes the mic to Amma’s daughter, Yazz, is filled with conventional feelings. She’s realized her dead father, whose traditional thinking she despised, was “a good man.” She’s started trying to police her daughter’s clothes. And she has suffered that same daughter’s rejection of her most deeply held beliefs:
[F]eminism is so herd-like, Yazz told her, to be honest, even being a woman is passé these days, we had a non-binary activist at uni[versity] called Morgan Melenga who opened my eyes, I reckon we’re all going to be non-binary in the future, neither male nor female, which are gendered performances anyway, which means your women’s politics, Mumsy, will become redundant.
Amma won’t miss “the spiteful snake that slithers out of [Yazz’s] tongue to hurt her mother, because”— and here comes the punch—“in Yazz’s world, young people are the only ones with feelings.” But she will miss Yazz, so painfully. Amma’s monologue ends like this:
the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
In these moments, the most conventional, conservative, lifelong Christian parents among us will feel an unexpected arm across the shoulder. We feel it again when we hear from Yazz’s father. Roland is a gay academic with whom Amma chose to have a child. He has risen to celebrity heights. But when we hear snatches of his inner monologue, we find that the validation he desperately craves is from Yazz, from whom he longs to hear, just once, “You done good, Dad.” And we hear how he feels about the hollow in his side left by the long-gone little girl who used to curl up under his arm.
Purity and Compassion
Common bonds of parenting aside, should we even read about lives like Amma’s? The poet and Paradise Lost author John Milton urged that books should be “promiscuously read.” But should we Christians read books that feature promiscuity?
Girl, Woman, Other is not explicit in its depictions of sex. Nor is it evasive. When Carole is gang-raped at age 14, we feel its force. When Amma conquers woman after woman, we see her mental scorecard. When Dominique enters what becomes an emotionally abusive relationship with Nzinga, we’re not left wondering if they’re just close friends. Some of us will find even relatively delicate portrayals of sex to be deeply unhelpful. If that’s where you are, don’t read this book. But sometimes I wonder if we are so concerned with our purity that we sacrifice empathy on its altar—like the priest and the Levite, crossing to the other side.
Jesus set a standard of sexual purity before which all of us must quake. We must not look at women (or men) lustfully, and we must gouge out the things that take us there (Matt. 5:28–29). As Christians, we must surely guard our minds and hearts. But, sexual sinners that we are, must we not also open ourselves up to those whose sexual experiences (chosen and unchosen) are very different from our own? Jesus—whose mind was absolutely pure—turned his eyes of love to prostitutes and welcomed women known for sexual sin (Luke 7:36–50).
Don’t get me wrong: We don’t need gratuitous details. Books like 50 Shades of Grey are written to arouse, and we must flee pornography in all its forms. There are many books and films I’d scrupulously avoid. But Scripture itself sometimes narrates illicit sex scenes (Tamar’s rape by Amnon in 2 Samuel 13, for instance). And in many of the narratives from Girl, Woman, Other, we only understand the character—her fears, hopes, and disappointments—because we know the life she’s lived. LaTisha, the loud-mouthed grocery store manager, parenting three kids from different men, is sculpted by painful encounters with sex. So is Carole, the successful, faithfully married businesswoman, who was gang-raped outside LaTisha’s party when they were kids. Sometimes people’s sexual pasts are visible. Sometimes they are hidden. But they are always important.
Listen and Love
Knowing the story of a fictional character will not give us access to any real life. But fiction can expand our moral space, preparing us to empathize with those whose lives diverge from ours.
Some differences of experience are morally neutral. I can read and learn what it’s like to grow up in a different time, or place, or as a boy rather than a girl, or with a different racial or cultural heritage. Some lives call for moral sympathy, as with Evaristo’s Carole, a gang-rape victim whose endurance of horrific sin shaped her irrevocably. And some are culpably immoral, as with the heartless promiscuity of Amma, who never sleeps with the same woman more than twice to avoid entanglement. But all these categories of experience matter to a person’s life.
We all long to be known and loved. But if others won’t look at the parts of us most mired in sin, then they’ll never really know us in full. This applies to friendships with other Christians. It’s vital to me that my close friends listen when I confess my sin. I don’t need them to enable me, or to affirm what God does not. But I do need them to listen and to try to understand. Then they can truly help.
This same principle applies all the more to friendships with non-Christians, whose ethics may diverge from ours. To listen and understand is not to endorse. And while we must fight our own sinful tendencies, neglecting to understand the sins of others leaves us vulnerable to that most dangerous of all besetting sins: pride. The Pharisees judged the tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus ate with them.
But what if the book we are reading has explicit anti-Christian bias? While Girl, Woman, Other is careful to poke fun at every ideological viewpoint—including those evidently embraced by its author—there’s no way to spin it as pro-Christian. But this is no reason to remove it (or books like it) from our shelves. I frequently read books by strident atheists—Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the like—to understand the arguments they make. And books like Girl, Woman, Other give us access to something more precious: the internal worlds of non-believers, not just their arguments. Like inviting us into someone’s house, books can help us see the landscape in which our unbelieving friends might live. And when we see life through their eyes, we’re moved to greater tenderness as we point them to the Light of the World.
Girl, Woman, Other may not be for you. You may have other mission fields, and its themes might hit you in unhelpful ways. But it is excellently written and offers us the keys to houses that may (or of course may not) be quite unlike our own.
We read to know we’re not alone. But as Christians, we can also read to ensure we’re not leaving others alone. The hand across their shoulder could be ours. And reading might just help us stretch it out.
Rebecca McLaughlin is the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway). You can follow her on Twitter @RebeccMcLaugh.