The 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction has been awarded jointly to Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other, opening up a backlash against the selection of two winners, when the rules, tweaked in 1993, stipulate that the prize cannot be shared. But this has been an unusual Booker season in more ways than one, and, mostly for happy reasons.
Of the 13 books on the longlist this year, eight were by women. The shortlist of six had four women authors. The 1959-born Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker since its 1969 inception. Atwood, at 79, is the oldest-ever winner. Once we get past the statistics — and ruffled emotions — we could take a moment to let it sink in that this could well be the year when the Booker Prize came of age. In rebelling against convention and going beyond discussions of colour, age or other restrictive notions, it has embraced both the overarching genius of Atwood and the sparkling originality of Evaristo’s achievement. A vocal advocate of inclusive literature and gay rights, the eight-book-old Evaristo has worked for the stage and radio, besides writing short fiction, poetry and essays. Atwood, who won the Booker first in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, needs little introduction.
This is not to say that the inequity will end with this year’s award. Dana Beth Weinberg and Adam Kapelner of Queens College-CUNY, in a 2018 paper published in the journal PLOS One, presented sobering findings — books by women were revealed to be priced, on an average, 45 per cent lower than books by men. For writers of colour, especially women, the numbers are starker. But the conversation around women’s writing must be more widely joined. As one of the Booker judges, Afua Hirsch, wrote, “You cannot compare them. But you can recognise them both. And I’m glad this is what we did.”