Friday, March 23, 2012

What We're Reading: Memoir

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is an award-winning British author who is perhaps better known in the United Kingdom. She became famous for the semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was made into a popular BBC drama. It is considered one of the most groundbreaking and important Gay and Lesbian novels in contemporary fiction. Winterson’s adoptive mother discovered that her sixteen-year-old daughter was engaged in a lesbian relationship, and kicked her out of the house. When she asked her daughter why she was involved with this girl, Winterson replied that the relationship made her happy. Her mother’s parting remark to her became the title of this affecting memoir, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

While Winterson’s sexuality was, as she grew older, the flashpoint between herself and her Pentecostal mother, this memoir is concerned with much larger themes than Winterson’s sexual orientation. It would be unfortunate if readers passed on this book thinking that it would be of interest only to gay or lesbian readers. Like any good memoir, the story may be particular, but the themes are universal. A memoir is not only a story of what has happened in a life, but what has been learned, and the lessons Winterson has learned are presented here in a way that is eloquent and compelling. A literary memoir gives us an idea of why someone became a writer, what place writing has in their life. That of course happens here, but in a very interesting turn, Winterson’s rewriting and reimagining of her troubled upbringing in her fiction did not, as she had thought, put demons to rest. In her fifties, some of the issues she thought she had resolved for herself came back to haunt her and she suffered through a period of breakdown and madness.

The fundamental and mythic dichotomy in Winterson’s life has been the opposing world views between herself and her adoptive mother, differences not so much philosophical as psychological and of defining character. Her mother was socially withdrawn from the world and that removal was a conscious choice. She had a nihilistic and depressive view of the world as a bed of sin and evil, and believed that life, which was meant to be trial and suffering, was being lead in the “End Time.” Her inability to impose this stifling and repressive view of things on a daughter who was in love with life and hungry for experience of the world created a war between them that was endless and without mercy. More proximately, it fostered in Winterson an abiding sense of her not belonging anyplace and wondering about her true identity, specifically about her birth mother and father and the circumstances of her adoption. This memoir is concerned with the existential and universal need for a sense of self-identity, for love, and for a place of belonging, for home. Winterson began a search for her birth mother, returning again and again to an exploration of the disjuncture of adoption and how the impression of that primal loss informs so many of the other fundamental needs in an adopted child’s life.

For those of us involved with public libraries who believe in the importance of literature and reading in people’s lives, Winterson’s memoir is eloquent testimony. She notes here often the saving grace of her finding books and a refuge at her public library, how the world of literature allowed her to build an alternate world that kept the one at home from crushing her. This is a book about adoption and identity, about home and belonging, but it is also about the uses of literature, both reading and writing it. One cannot help but imagine that this book, like the books Winterson read as a young girl, will be discovered on the library shelf by some other young and estranged soul. That they will read it. And that they will choose happiness.

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