I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Heartbreaking and funny: the true story behind Jeanette's bestselling and most beloved novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In 1985, at twenty-five, Jeanette published Oranges, the story of a girl adopted by Pentecostal parents, supposed to grow up to be a missionary. Instead, she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. About a young girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night, and a mother waiting for Armageddon with two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer; about growing up in a northern industrial town; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. She thought she had written over the painful past until it returned to haunt her and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also about other people's stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.
I’m glad that I read Oranges are not the Only Fruit first—this is a wonderful follow-up, the autobiography following the semi-autobiographical novel. What courage it takes to reveal the details of one’s life in this way—Winterson opens herself up and shows you exactly why she would rather be happy than be considered “normal.”
It’s highly ironic that her adoptive mother asked her that question: Why be happy when you could be normal? Mrs. Winterson (not Mom or Mother) is far from what most of us would consider “normal.” She became Pentecostal, but used it mostly to control her husband and her daughter—she continued to smoke, read mystery novels (although she forbade her daughter to read), refused to sleep with her husband, and generally practiced some fairly odd house-keeping practices [why was there a gun in the duster drawer?]. She was never what society would consider normal but neither was she happy. And unlike most mothers, adoptive or otherwise, she did not want happiness for her child.
I loved Jeannette’s attempt to read through the Literature section of the public library in alphabetical order, probably because that’s something that I would have attempted at the same age, had the idea occurred to me [or had I access to such a library]. After all, I am reading through an enormous list of science fiction and fantasy sorted by date published and by author, and I see nothing strange about it. (Like JW, although I set myself a specific order, I see nothing odd about playing around with that order a bit.)
I heard Jeannette Winterson interviewed on CBC radio, where she told the story of hiding books under her mattress until her mother could not help but notice how much the height of the bed had increased. She described the subsequent “raid” that her mother performed, armed with a flashlight and flinging the offending books out of the window, into the yard, where they were subsequently burned. Young Jeannette went out the next day and collected scorched scraps and realized that the literature was still inside her. She vowed to continue reading and to write. I have to say, I think the interview version was better than the written version, but the incident still was amazing.
Well written, bravely revealing personal details, well worth a read.