Jeanette Winterson is speaking at The Opera House tonight. Photo: Sahlan Hayes SHZ
How can I introduce Jeanette Winterson? I could begin by saying that she’s one of the English language’s most significant writers. She won the Whitbread Prize for Oranges are Not the Only Fruit in 1985, she was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006 ‘for services to literature’ and her recent autobiography Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal recently topped writer Rachel Holmes’ top ten feminist books of all time.
I could also give you snippets of her extraordinary life-story: born in Manchester in England and adopted by rabid Pentecostal Christians, she began writing sermons at age six, underwent an exorcism organised by her adoptive mother at 16 after she was discovered being romantically involved with a girl, and yet somehow managed to break out of this wakeful hell to study English literature at Oxford.
But if I were to introduce Jeanette Winterson to a friend, I’d say that as an angsty 18-year old I cut out lines from her books, like ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’ and stuck them above my bed. Later, I blamed her soaring prose and her divinely irrational model of love for me staying in crappy relationships. Her books are imprinted with religion: the writing is rapturous, the themes are vast, and the effects are deeply political; all forms of dogma - from religion to gender - are mocked and undone. In her autobiography she describes herself as being quite literally saved by the English Literature section of the local library, so I thought I’d start the interview there.
Daily Life: What is the value of holding a book in your hand? And what impact do you think replacing books with computer terminals is having upon our civilisation?
Jeanette Winterson: I’m not anti-tech at all. I think that the web offers us an unprecedented chance to share global knowledge. But one thing does not replace the other. A book and a computer screen are not equivalent. I want these things to run in parallel. We have cars, but we still need bicycles. But what we are seeing is the usurping and the overtaking of books. E-books and computer screens are not a different version of the same thing.
DL: How is the e-book different?
JW: Well, if everything is on e-book, how are you ever going to seduce your potential lover? You know when you go to a lover’s apartment, and you look at their book-shelves and then you get a conversation going… you can’t really do that with a kindle list (laughs).
Books are a memory system for us. As you get older the bookshelf becomes part of a memory of a lifetime. You have books there from your first date, through your divorces and onwards. They’re a map of who you are.
The problem with the e-book is that unless you come from the right family or have the right education, you can’t find those books. They’ve vanished. They are no longer on the shelves for disadvantaged kids to find.
DL: There’s something so democratic about a library…
JW: Anyone can go there, rich or poor. There’s no entry, you can just be there. For me it’s really about democracy. We need to keep that democracy of language and that democracy of literature.
DL: Who do you imagine reading your books and how would you like them to be read?
JW: I want the reader to come with a genuinely open mind, to enter the space, and to try to find the writer’s rhythm. If you play a piece of music at the wrong speed it’s going to sound weird. Writers have rhythm. We write with breath. You can’t just speed-read like you’re running through the airport. You’ve got to ask: ‘what is the pace of this book?’
DL: Many commentators have expressed concern that the proliferation of short-form journalism is killing novels; we have neither the time nor the attention span to enter into its world.
JW: I think that there has been a shift in reading habits. When people say: ‘I don’t have the time to read anymore’ we shouldn’t take that as a fact of life, we should take it as a warning signal. This question of why nobody has time to do anything, including reading, is something that ought to make us ask why we’re running the world the way that we are.
There’s nothing more private than reading a book. You’re in the space with the writer, nobody can see inside your head, it’s not a communal or shared experience at that level, not until you talk about it. It’s you and the book, and that is very precious. In a world where we’re very rarely on our own, it’s hard to get that space. The book allows that space to happen, even if you’re in the subway, wherever you are you can dive into that private world. It’s a form of meditation.
DL: I want to get on to your memoir, via another recent memoir, Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum. Here Taylor says, half-jokingly, that most feminists are more angry with their mothers than with any man. How do we reconcile feminist critiques of mother-blaming (seen particularly in psychoanalytic literature) with the very fraught relationship many women have with their mothers?
JW: Mothers are our first love-affair. She is our entry-door to the world. And I think that relationship is so fraught partly because there is nothing in modern society that helps either the mother or the daughter. The mother and daughter are often isolated together as dad goes to work, and I think that the isolation is really unhelpful.
Whether it’s men or women, we simply expect so much from mother. And it’s so hard for her to deliver in the world that we have created.
It’s very hard for a family to manage now unless both parents go to work. And if both parents go to work then where does the responsibility fall for that endless amount of time that kids need: the home-making, all that incredible mending that mothers used to do? In the past that labour was never acknowledged, except for those dedications in books ‘to my wife’.
The mother is also often the battleground for the child’s emerging identity, much more than the father who often gets off lightly. And there’s nothing we can do about that except to try to develop a genuine emotional intelligence, to help mothers learn how to raise children, and take that on more as a society.
I think the nuclear family is a complete disaster.
DL: It seems that a lot of the critiques of the nuclear family that were around in the 1970s have dwindled away.
JW: They have diminished. Because of the great backlash that happened across the world in the late-80s. We think of it as the Regan-Thatcher backlash but it happened here too. From about 1968-1978 it looked like the world was going to change. And those critiques were real: of sharing, of different family structures, the idea that money should not always be the priority. But the right came to power and they’re still in power. It’s a vicious right-wing agenda which is anti-freedom and weirdly anti-family because the structures it demands from the family are absolutely impossible.
You can’t have a nuclear family in the right-wing, old-fashioned conservative way and say that both parents have to work a 60 hour week to pay the bills.
AS. Love is a great theme in your work. Is it possible to have passion without surrendering autonomy? And what would an emancipatory model of romantic relationship look like?
J.W: It would look like the relationship I’m in now actually. I have nothing but contempt for instrumental relationships. People who think, ‘I’m going to marry the right person, live in the right house, in the right suburb, micro-manage my emotional life’ are in for such trouble. You have to date some people who are absolutely useless - dangerous and malevolent - because you have to fall in love to the full capacity of your heart.
AS. So you don’t renounce that line in the end of Oranges about how you want a lover who you can destroy and who can destroy you in turn?
JW: Oh, it’s all very Wuthering Heights. It’s why we never tire of all the crazy love songs. I think it is part of life. Later on you can find a love which is not destructive, but no less passionate and allows you to go out in the world together and separately and to build something. But it’s very unusual to hit that one first time round.
AS: What is the relationship between creativity and madness?
JW: I think creativity is on the side of health. I don’t think that it’s the thing that drives you crazy. I think it’s the thing that tries to keep you sane. I think it’s the thing that allows you to hold on to the best places within you, that allows you to keep on giving something to the collective. So even if you are Dylan Thomas - dying, drunkard - you’re still writing those poems. You’re still doing something.
The world is full of really crazy people who are offering nothing to society. A lot of them are in politics and a lot of them are running banks. I mean, I think Tony Abbott is mad. Why would you sell your country to China? And why would you destroy it so that Gina Rinehart can have some more mines?
AS: So madness is a label that gets slapped on creative outsiders rather than right-wing politicians…
JW: Look at George Bush or Tony Blair! Going into Iraq has meant destabilising the entire middle-east. These men are psychopaths. They’re running around destroying the world for the rest of us. And just because they turn up for work everyday in a suit we somehow think that they’re sane.
I mean, I don’t mind a few bottles of bourbon in a hotel room if you keep those poems coming, that’s fine by me…(laughs).
AS: What is the value of poetry today?
JW: If you want the best words in the best order then a well-constructed poem is the place to go. I want a language which is complex and broad and vigorous with a wide vocabulary and the possibility of being precise, so that I’m not always living in a world of similes. ‘It’s like this or it’s like that’. Poetry is very good at moving away from what it’s like and moving to what it is so that we find a way of describing feelings which are elusive.
I have a very political view of what literature is, and that includes poetry. It is part of the wider world. It’s not an ivory tower. It’s a way at every level of engaging with the world that we live in, of keeping our imagination alive. I don’t want to live in a necrotic, passive society. I want to live in a place that’s alive. And art and literature are a way of keeping the mind alive.
AS: What’s your family trashy lesbian movie?
JW: Thank god they’ve changed….!
AS: They were terrible in the mid-90s.
JW: I actually like really bad ones… like The Killing of Sister George. From my point of view, it will be a great thing when everybody’s gender but also their sexuality is of zero interest.
AS: But your writing has been so crucial for queer kids coming out…
JW: It has. And I want it to be there to empower queer culture. It has a meaningful place in society as a critique as well as being part of an inclusive space. But I do have a vision on the horizon where none of that will matter anymore; a time when we live genuinely as a community.
It’s very utopian. I don’t know if it will ever happen…certainly not in my lifetime.
But it is getting better.
Jeanette Winterson will be speaking at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, 10 August. Tickets available here.