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Subtlety is key to Jeanette Winterson's coming-out narrative, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: her first acclaimed novel, published in 1985. In 1990, Winterson adapted the novel for BBC television, her story broken up into 3 episodes. And in 2012, Winterson published her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which many readers have noticed directly parallels circumstances and characters from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Winterson is a British novelist and screenwriter. Much of her work comprises gay and lesbian fiction, and semi-autobiographical pieces. And more recently, she has authored children’s books, illustrated books, newspaper articles, and books of essays on art and culture (some of which also include LGBT+ themes).
Much of Winterson’s strict Pentecostal evangelical background can be seen in her first novel, where the protagonist (also named Jeanette) finds herself rebuked and abandoned because of her sexuality, or her “unnatural passions” (Winterson 92). This phrase is substituted for "gay" or "lesbian" throughout the novel by Jeanette's family and members of her church, as if it is too dirty to refer to deviant sexuality in any other way. Jeanette asks her girlfriend Melanie, “Do you think this is Unnatural Passion?” (92). And Melanie replies, “Doesn’t feel like it. According to Pastor Finch, that’s awful” (92). In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette comes by her sexuality through this close friend, Melanie. She first befriends her, and slowly discovers her romantic feelings for Melanie, which are returned to her. Jeanette, even while in a fundamentalist Christian household, finds her sexuality to be an exception from the rules of her community.
What I believe to be so distinctive of Jeanette's coming-out narrative in comparison to many other acclaimed lesbian coming-out stories, is the protagonist's innocent and trusting behavior toward the most important players in the story: the pastor, the church, her first girlfriend, and her mother. Jeanette is surprised when her love for Melanie is wrong or considered to be a "sin," because the love that they share is viewed by both of them to be lovely and perfect, not shameful or "awful" in any way. Secondly, the narrator, Jeanette, almost stumbles upon her sexuality with another member of her church, Melanie, and is not yet informed of public opinion (church opinion). In other coming-out narratives, the protagonists are already informed that society deems being gay as different and undesirable. So rather than being confident in the beauty of their love for other women, they are bogged down in the stigma and issues of being viewed as a lesbian. The naivety of Jeanette is most significantly due to her age and inexperience with the world outside of fundamentalist Christianity. Finally, the biblical themes which are so prevalent to the coming-out story also make for a interesting social commentary on religious oppression and the culture of rural Britain in the 1980s.
The titles of the chapters in the novel reflect the religious themes to come: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, and Ruth. In the first chapter, we hear an origin story, not only of Jeanette's adoption and religiosity, but of her lesbianism. The first two gay women she comes by as a child are explained by her mother to have "unnatural passions." The two women who own a paper shop down the street offer Jeanette a banana bar, and a trip to the beach (note the image of a crushed up banana bar). When Jeanette's mother hears of this, she simply tells Jeanette, "no," and as consequence, she is never to go to the shop again. Of course, Jeanette does not realize the significance of this incident until she is much older, she only notes her confusion and sadness in no longer getting free treats.
And in Exodus, we see the first markings of Jeanette's split in ideology with her mother. Ever since Jeanette can remember, she has known herself to be "special." Most of this is due to her mother's insistence that Jeanette was adopted as a foundling, to eventually become a missionary. Jeanette's mother sees direct parallels between herself and the virgin Mary, who both begot children in a similar fashion: without sex. Similarly, Jeanette's mother sees a specialness in Jeanette, who like Jesus, was brought unto the world through immaculate conception, and is soon to bring the good news to the rest of the world. These biblical images only foreshadow Jeanette's nature soon to come.
Winterson's tale offers reflection on the process of coming-out through comedy, mostly by Jeanette's childlike world and over zealous religious themes. And the comedy is important, due to many of the story's themes being emotionally heavy and introspective. It is not surprising to see so many similarities between this novel and her autobiography, considering the reflective and intimate emotions that Jeanette contemplates throughout finding her identity.
Starting this Thursday, June 9th, from 5:30 to 7:00pm, Elizabeth Hutchison will be leading a weekly reading group. The goal of this group is to read all of Jeanette Winterson’s, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit within 5 meetings, and discuss the process of coming-out within the context of this piece and other relatable works. Come to the first meeting, having read the first two chapters of the novel, titled: Genesis and Exodus.
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