In a surprising twist, earlier this week the 2019 Man Booker Prize committee opted to recognize two authors: Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. The rules governing Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award explicitly state that the prize “may not be divided or withheld,” but as Alison Flood writes for the Guardian, this year’s judges were reportedly unable to choose between the two novels. The decision to name a pair of winners has proven controversial, with many criticizing the fact that Evaristo, the first black woman to receive the Booker, has to share the honor.
The Testaments is a follow-up to Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, while Girl, Woman, Other is told from the perspective of 12 different characters, many of whom are black British women. Both novels “address the world today and give us insights into it and create characters that resonate with us,” as Booker chairman Peter Florence tells the Associated Press. “They also happen to be wonderfully compelling page-turning thrillers.”
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, says the judges deliberated over this year’s winner for five hours. They “essentially staged a sit-in in the judging room” to ensure they would be able to select two recipients.
Per the New York Times’ Alex Marshall and Alexandra Alter, this isn’t the first time the Booker Prize has been split between multiple awardees. After Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth won joint recognition for The English Patient and Sacred Hunger, respectively, in 1992, the committee decided to shift toward a single-winner model. Although judging panels have attempted to award the prize to two authors in years since, none have succeeded until now.
According to Peter Florence, chairman of the Booker judges, the award’s trustees only accepted the panel’s decision after three separate appeals.
“We were told quite firmly that the rules state you can only have one winner,” Florence said at a press conference. “[But the] consensus was to flout the rules and divide this year’s prize to celebrate two winners.”
At 79, Atwood is now the oldest-ever writer to take home the Booker. She first claimed the coveted prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, and several of her works have made the shortlist in the past. Already a giant of contemporary literature, Atwood has enjoyed a commercial hit with The Testaments, which sold 125,000 copies in the United States during the first week after its release and boasted the best opening-day sales of any book in 2019, according to the Washington Post’s Ron Charles.
Evaristo, a 60-year-old Anglo-Nigerian author based in London, has been writing for nearly 40 years, but she is better-known in Britain than on the international stage. Speaking with the Times following her win, Evaristo said she wrote Girl, Woman, Other in response to a lack of representation in British literature: “When I started the book six years ago, I was so fed up with black British women being absent from British literature,” she explained. “So I wanted to see how many characters I could put into a novel and pull it off.”
Atwood and Evaristo will now split the £50,000 (around $64,000) Booker prize money. Evaristo says the funds will go toward paying her mortgage, while Atwood has pledged to donate her share to a Canadian indigenous charity because she is “too old” and has “too many handbags” to spend the money on herself.
In an interview with the CBC, Atwood says it would have been “embarrassing” had she been the sole recipient of the prize, because awards like the Booker “should open doors [not only] for writers, but also for readers to become acquainted with books they may have not heard about before.”
She adds, “It expands their opportunities and possibilities—not just for the writer, but for the reading community as well. And my book is already doing quite well.”
Some critics have suggested that the decision to award the Booker to two authors detracts from the historic nature of Evaristo’s win. A former Booker judge who asked to remain anonymous tells the Guardian’s Flood it is a “huge disappointment that the chance to make history emphatically was passed by.”
“The case is less about Atwood being undeserving,” Sana Goyal, a Ph.D student studying literary prizes at the SOAS University of London, writes for Live Mint, “and more about wholly and fully rewarding, validating, and celebrating the first black (British) woman to win the Booker Prize for ‘fiction at its finest.’”
When accepting the award, Evaristo said she hoped the “honor” of being the first black woman to win the Booker would not “last too long.” Instead, the author reflected, she expects to see others follow in her footsteps in the near future.
Evaristo deemed it “so incredible to share [the Booker] with Margaret Atwood, who is such a legend.” Still, the author didn’t mince words when asked if she would have preferred to win the entire £50,000.
“What do you think?” she replied, as reported by Flood. “Yes, but I’m happy to share it.”