- Published: 3 March 2020
- ISBN: 9780241984994
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $19.99
Girl, Woman, Other
WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight
she thinks back to when she started out in theatre
when she and her running mate, Dominique, developed a reputation for heckling shows that offended their political sensibilities
their powerfully trained actors’ voices projected from the back of the stalls before they made a quick getaway
they believed in protest that was public, disruptive and downright annoying to those at the other end of it
she remembers pouring a pint of beer over the head of a director whose play featured semi-naked black women running around on stage behaving like idiots
before doing a runner into the backstreets of Hammersmith
Amma then spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her
until the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it
which only happened when the first female artistic director assumed the helm of the National three years ago
after so long hearing a polite no from her predecessors, she received a phone call just after breakfast one Monday morning when her life stretched emptily ahead with only online television dramas to look forward to
love the script, must do it, will you also direct it for us? I know it’s short notice, but are you free for coffee this week at all?
Amma takes a sip of her Americano with its customary kick-starter extra shot in it as she approaches the Brutalist grey arts complex ahead
at least they try to enliven the bunker-like concrete with neon light displays these days and the venue has a reputation for being progressive rather than traditionalist
years ago she expected to be evicted as soon as she dared walk through its doors, a time when people really did wear their smartest clothes to go to the theatre
and looked down their noses at those not in the proper attire
she wants people to bring their curiosity to her plays, doesn’t give a damn what they wear, has her own sod-you style, anyway, which has evolved, it’s true, away from the clichéd denim dungarees, Che Guevara beret, PLO scarf and ever- present badge of two interlocked female symbols (talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve, girl)
these days she wears silver or gold trainers in winter, failsafe Birkies in summer
winter, it’s black slacks, either baggy or tight depending on whether she’s a size 12 or 14 that week (a size smaller on top)
summer, it’s patterned harem pants that end just below the knee
winter, it’s bright asymmetric shirts, jumpers, jackets, coats year- round her peroxide dreadlocks are trained to stick up like candles on a birthday cake
silver hoop earrings, chunky African bangles and pink lipstick are her perennial signature style statement
recently described her style as ‘a mad old woman look, Mum’, pleads with her to shop in Marks & Spencer like normal mothers, refuses to be spotted alongside her when they’re supposed to be walking down the street together
Yazz knows full well that Amma will always be anything but normal, and as she’s in her fifties, she’s not old yet, although try telling that to a nineteen-year-old; in any case, ageing is nothing to be ashamed of
especially when the entire human race is in it together
although sometimes it seems that she alone among her friends wants to celebrate getting older
because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely, she tells them as the night draws in around her kitchen table in her cosy terraced house in Brixton
as they get stuck into the dishes each one has brought: chickpea stew, jerk chicken, Greek salad, lentil curry, roasted vegetables, Moroccan lamb, saffron rice, beetroot and kale salad, jollof quinoa and gluten-free pasta for the really irritating fusspots
as they pour themselves glasses of wine, vodka (fewer calories), or something more liver-friendly if under doctor’s orders
she expects them to approve of her bucking the trend of middle-aged moaning; instead she gets bemused smiles and what about arthritic flare-ups, memory loss and hot sweats?
Amma passes the young busker
she smiles with encouragement at the girl, who responds in kind
she fishes out a few coins, places them in the violin case
she isn’t ready to forgo cigarettes so leans on the riverside wall and lights one, hates herself for it
the adverts told her generation it would make them appear grownup, glamorous, powerful, clever, desirable and above all, cool
no one told them it would actually make them dead
she looks out at the river as she feels the warm smoke travel down her oesophagus soothing her nerves while trying to combat the adrenaline rush of the caffeine
forty years of first nights and she’s still bricking it
what if she’s slated by the critics? dismissed with a consensus of one-star reviews, what was the great National thinking allowing this rubbishy impostor into the building?
of course she knows she’s not an impostor, she’s written fifteen plays and directed over forty, and as a critic once wrote, Amma Bonsu is a safe pair of hands who’s known to pull off risks
what if the preview audiences who gave standing ovations were just being kind?
oh shut up, Amma, you’re a veteran battle-axe, remember?
she’s got a fantastic cast: six older actresses (seen-it-all vets), six mid-careerists (survivors-so-far) and three fresh faces (naïve hopefuls), one of whom, the talented Simone, will wander in bleary-eyed to rehearsals, having forgotten to unplug the iron, turn off the stove or close her bedroom window and will waste precious rehearsal time phoning her flatmates in a panic
a couple of months ago she’d have sold her grandmother into slavery to get this job, now she’s a spoilt little prima donna who ordered her director to pop out and fetch her a caramel latte a couple of weeks ago when it was just the two of them in a rehearsal room
I’m so exhausted, Simone whinged, implying it was all Amma’s fault for making her work so hard
needless to say, she dealt with Little Miss Simone Stevenson in the moment
Little Miss Stevenson – who thinks that because she’s landed at the National straight out of drama school, she’s one step away from conquering Hollywood
she’ll find out
at times like these Amma misses Dominique, who long ago absconded to America
they should be sharing her breakthrough career moment together
they met in the eighties at an audition for a feature film set in a women’s prison (what else?)
both were disillusioned at being put up for parts such as a slave, servant, prostitute, nanny or crim
and still not getting the job
they railed against their lot in a grotty Soho caff while devouring fried egg and bacon slathered between two slabs of soggy white bread washed down with builder’s tea alongside the sex workers who plied their trade on the streets outside
long before Soho became a trendy gay colony
look at me? Dominique said, and Amma did, there was nothing subservient, maternal or criminal about her
she was über-cool, totally gorgeous, taller than most women, thinner than most women, with cut-glass cheekbones and smoky eyes with thick black lashes that literally cast a shadow on her face she wore leathers, kept her hair short except for a black fringe swept to one side, and rode about town on a battered old butcher’s bike chained up outside
can’t they see I’m a living goddess? Dominique shouted with a flamboyant gesture, flicking her fringe, adopting a sultry pose as heads turned
Amma was shorter, with African hips and thighs
perfect slave girl material one director told her when she walked into an audition for a play about Emancipation
whereupon she walked right back out again
in turn a casting director told Dominique she was wasting his time when she turned up for a Victorian drama when there weren’t any black people in Britain then
she said there were, called him ignorant before also leaving the room and in her case, slamming the door
Amma realized she’d found a kindred spirit in Dominique who would kick arse with her
and they’d both be pretty unemployable once news got around
they went on to a local pub where the conversation continued and wine flowed
Dominique was born in the St Pauls area of Bristol to an Afro-Guyanese mother, Cecilia, who tracked her lineage back to slavery, and an Indo-Guyanese father, Wintley, whose ancestors were indentured labourers from Calcutta
the oldest of ten children who all looked more black than Asian and identified as such, especially as their father could relate to the Afro-Caribbean people he’d grown up with, but not to Indians fresh over from India
Dominique guessed her own sexual preferences from puberty, wisely kept them to herself, unsure how her friends or family would react, not wanting to be a social outcast
she tried boys a couple of times
they enjoyed it
she endured it
aged sixteen, aspiring to become an actress, she headed for London where people proudly proclaimed their outsider identities on badges
she slept rough under the Embankment arches and in shop doorways along the Strand, was interviewed by a black housing association where she lied and cried about escaping a father who’d beaten her
the Jamaican housing officer wasn’t impressed, so you got beats, is it?
Dominique escalated her complaint to one of paternal sexual abuse, was given an emergency room in a hostel; eighteen months later, after tearful weekly calls to the housing office, she landed a one-bedroom housing association flat in a small fifties block in Bloomsbury
I did what I had to find a home, she told Amma, not my finest moment, I admit, still, no harm done, as my father will never know
I was a forty-three-year-old mother of two when I lost my orgasm.
Like all prisoners, I feel the presence of my captor like tentacles reaching down to where I’m cowering at the bottom of the stairs.
When I was born my insides lay outside my body for twenty-one days.
One hundred and thirty-five metres above London, with one of the most spectacular city views in the world as your backdrop, who could say no?
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.