Life lessons from the lesbian classic: ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’

Oranges are not the only fruitBY FRANCESCA LEWIS

Thirty years have passed since British lesbian writer Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.” A semi-autobiographical experiment in meta-fiction, the novel is a truth-bending rewriting of Winterson’s own childhood as an adopted daughter of a domineering Pentecostal mother. Covering her life — or a version of it — from age seven to 16, it tells the tragic, witty and inspiring tale of her coming of age in this strange, oppressive environment. Winterson was only 24 when she wrote it, having escaped her abusive background to attend Oxford University. The book won The Whitbread Award for a first novel.

“Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” despite a subject-matter some might find controversial, is taught in schools in the United Kingdom. This is where I first discovered it. A troubled and intense baby-queer, I was assigned the novel in my A-level English Literature class. Winterson, for her revolutionary combination of working class grit and high-minded poetic sensibility, as well as her devilish gallows humor and melodramatically romantic spirit, became my favorite author.

In 2012, Winterson revisited the time in her life that was the basis for “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” this time in a memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.” Revealing the brutal truths behind her first novel, it is the perfect companion to it. Having read the memoir and re-read “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit last year,” I had a chance to reflect on some of the wisdom contained within these books.

Religion, like everything, is open to interpretation

Jeanette’s mother is fiercely religious in a way that dominates her life. Not allowed to read any other book than “The Bible,” the stories and ideas within become her only frame of reference. Though, by the end of the novel, Jeanette is unsure whether she still believes in God, she admits that she misses the companionship of an unconditionally loving entity.

The novel is even split into chapters named after bible chapters, showing that even after escaping her mother, Jeanette cannot quite escape her influence. However, Jeanette has managed to find her own interpretation of the religion that permeated her early life and there is always, throughout the book, a sense of two Gods and two bibles. Her mother’s God is wrathful and judging, while Jeanette’s is comforting and forgiving. Her mother’s bible is a long list of rules and limitations peppered with portents of certain doom, while Jeanette seems to look upon the text much like she does the Shakespeare she reads in secret. To Jeanette, “The Bible” is just a good book full of stories about the human condition. This rejection of dogmatic belief shows us that religion, and life, are what you make of them.

Humor and poetry can transcend tragedy

In a lot of ways, “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” is a rather dark novel. Though Winterson doesn’t go into the full extent of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, later detailed in her memoir, she does paint a picture of a strict, stifling home life with a cruel and overbearing mother. The parts of the novel that deal with Jeanette’s sexuality are particularly painful, though playfully and artfully undercut by humorous asides and magical realist flights of fancy. The subject might be dark, but “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” is full of wit and poetry.

Winterson has a skillful way of driving home the tragic nature of events while simultaneously highlighting their absolute absurdity. The old adage that you either laugh or cry is very apt in this case. The humor that runs through the novel humanizes its less likable characters, chiefly Jeanette’s mother, without excusing their actions. Winterson is reminding us that if you maintain a rich inner life, it can never be taken away from you, no matter how hard life gets.

“Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”

The book’s title refers to the oranges that her mother offers Jeanette whenever she is upset or in doubt. As the novel goes on, these oranges come to represent heterosexuality and “the norm.” As a child Jeanette accepted the oranges without question but as she gets older she begins to question them. When she bumps into her ex-girlfriend, now married and looking “bovine” (Winterson’s amusing assessment of anyone who seems conventionally happy) offers Jeanette an orange, she refuses it.

For people who are unconventional, especially born to more conventional parents, it is a powerful message to hear that “oranges are not the only fruit”. The real Jeanette and her mother, Mrs. Winterson, had an interesting conversation when Jeanette was leaving home at 16.

Jeanette told Mrs. Winterson that being with her girlfriend made her happy and Mrs. Winterson replied, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” When the fictionalized Jeanette chooses, in “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” to leave home and work a string of strange jobs (ice cream parlor, funeral home, mental hospital) rather than remain in her mother’s narrow world, she is choosing a kind of happiness we all aspire to. Not the “bovine” fake happiness of the norm, but the vibrant, electric happiness of freedom.

Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist writer from Yorkshire, UK. She writes for Curve Magazine and The Human Experience as well as writing short fiction and working on a novel. Her ardent love of American pop culture is matched only by her passion for analyzing it completely to death.

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