It feels good to be back in the groove of spending time with my books. The little down time I have these days is often dedicated to things like- sleep! and showering!- but I have managed to get in at least a few minutes of reading every day, which makes me very happy.
For my birthday I was given two books by my husband and this was the one I decided to dive into first. Another memoir, this time written by Jeanette Winterson, whom I had never heard of before. After a tiny bit of research I have come to discover that she is a pretty well-known British author. Originally from Manchester, Jeanette was adopted at 6 weeks old by a cold woman and her overly passive husband. She grew up in the small northern British town called Arlington, and, in a story that is very reminscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (minus the magic), she spent her younger years escaping her dismal home life by reading. Her most famous work that was published in the 1980’s, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was a fiction that resembles much of her own childhood and early life. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is where the lines between fiction and truth become apparent between the two.
There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms. – Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Winterson is an intellectual who studied at Oxford and is more well-read than I could ever hope to be, but what is extra endearing about her is the fact that she is mostly self-taught. Her adoptive parents were neglectful at best, although her stories recount trauma that is both emotional and physical abuse. Her mother was deeply religious in a misguided and troubling way, and it’s quite remarkable to read the inner strength that young Jeanette had inside to survive her upbringing. Her intellect, wit, and will to live life on her own terms are all things she uses to navigate her life that began with her biological mother putting her up for adoption and continues through her teenage years when her mother discovers that Jeanette is gay.
…I had realized something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. – Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I liked Winterson’s departure from the usual layout of memoirs. She writes her memoir as she would a fiction, which is probably why Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was such a success. She wrote her life as a fiction first in Oranges and then filled in the facts later in her memoir. She intersperses her narrative with bits of poetry and passages from literature, not because it adds flare to her story, but because her life is a tangled web of real life experiences, literature, and poetry. She cannot be physically removed from the books she has read because they have been incorporated into her being. She is a complicated culmination of the stories she reads and the ones she writes throughout her life.
I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. -Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson managed to write a complex memoir in bits and pieces, without a clear beginning, middle, or end. She toys with time in a very Stephen Hawking-esque way and she takes the reader on a journey into her mind that is unlike anything I have experienced before.
The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need. Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture—exploit the new thing then move on. There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are. -Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
After this somewhat intense and intellectual book, I am thinking I might re-visit my old friend, Summer Sisters by Judy Blume, and discover what I find relatable now that I am a mom and as we approach the early days of summer.