The judges of this year’s Booker prize have “explicitly flouted” the rules of the august literary award to choose the first joint winners in almost 30 years: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo.
The chair of judges, Peter Florence, emerged after more than five hours with the jury to reveal that the group of five had been unable to pick a single winner from their shortlist of six. Instead, despite being told repeatedly by the prize’s literary director, Gaby Wood, that they were not allowed to split the £50,000 award, they chose two novels: Atwood’s The Testaments, a follow-up to her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, and Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which is told in the voices of 12 different characters, mostly black women.
Evaristo’s win makes her the first black woman to win the Booker since it began in 1969 and the first black British author. At 79, Atwood becomes the prize’s oldest winner. The Canadian author previously won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin; she becomes the fourth author to have won the prize twice.
Atwood said after the ceremony at London’s Guildhall: “It would have been quite embarrassing for a person of my age and stage to have won the whole thing and thereby hinder a person in an earlier stage of their career from going through that door. I really would have been embarrassed, trust me on that.
“I’m not the jury. I have been on a jury that split the prize and I understand the predicament. I get it … they should have split it 13 ways but unfortunately that’s not how it goes.”
Evaristo, whose father is from Nigeria, said: “I’m just so delighted to have won the prize. Yes, I am sharing it with an amazing writer. But I am not thinking about sharing it, I am thinking about the fact that I am here and that’s an incredible thing considering what the prize has meant to me and my literary life, and the fact that it felt so unattainable for decades.”
At a press conference, Evaristo was asked if she would have preferred to win the full £50,000. She said: “What do you think? Yes but I’m happy to share it. That’s the kind of person I am.”
Evaristo said she would put it towards her mortgage; Atwood said she was “too old” and had “too many handbags” to spend it on herself. She said her £25,000 would be donated to the Canadian Indigenous charity Indspire, one she has previously helped with her late friend and First Nations leader Chief Harry St Denis.
Florence revealed the jury has been put under pressure to have one winner. “Our consensus was that it was our decision to flout the rules and divide this year’s prize to celebrate two winners,” he said. “These are two books we started not wanting to give up and the more we talked about them the more we treasured both of them and wanted them both as winners … We couldn’t separate them.”
The Booker prize has been split twice before: in 1974, by Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton, and in 1992, by Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. After 1992, the rules were changed to insist that the prize “may not be divided or withheld”.
We tried voting, that didn’t work,” said Florence. “There’s a metaphor for our times.”
Asked if she supported the decision, Wood said: “It is an explicit flouting of the rules and they all understood that. It was a rebellious gesture but it was … a generous one.”
Evaristo’s novel, he said, was “groundbreaking”, with “something utterly magnificent about the full cast of characters”; the novelist set out to write in a polyphonic series of voices as a “strategy against invisibility”, because “we black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will”. Atwood’s novel, meanwhile, is “more politically urgent than ever before”.