When in 1997, Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, Oranges Are not The Only Fruit, she found her inspiration in her childhood, portraying under a thin veil of fiction her Pentecostal mother terrifying both daughter and husband in a house where rules led often to abuse. And the fierce Mrs W. – as the mother is most often referred to- was not fooled. In a strange phone call – “I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.” – the estranged mother explained that for the first time in her life she had to order something under a false name, and that her reading confirmed her doubts: “… if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?” she asked her daughter. And she continued, “it’s not true”.
“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? the photographer frames the shot; writers frames their world.”
Writes Jeanette Winterson fifteen years later as she has now decided to reframe her story, and abandons the illusion of fiction. But if Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a memoir of an adoption, of a botch childhood, of abuse and misery inflicted by a fundamentalist christian mother and a self-effacing father, it is also – and that’s personally my favorite part – the story of a young girl becoming a reader and then a writer.
The only books allowed in the Winterson household were the Bible, a few commentaries and Jane Eyre, six books altogether. Four year old Jeanette learned to read in Genesis, and from there devoured whatever written page she could put her hands on. While her mother had a system – every night she would read the sacred text aloud to her daughter and husband, and when she was done with Apocalypse, she would leave them a week to reflect on what they had heard before starting again at the beginning – Jeanette early on also devised her own stategies for her secret readings. Since she did not know where to start and had no one to advise her, she simply decided to read from the “A” shelves in the local library and work her way through Z, limiting herself at first to prose and fiction. Years of reading and discoveries ensued – with in the end some help from the librarians that were intrigued by this strange and resilient reader – and when around thirteen she got a job – a few hours after school and on Saturdays – she used the money to buy books eager to own words and start building her personal library:
“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.
There is a warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”
But one day her mother noticed that her mattress was strangely raised and found underneath paperbacks she had been hiding. Thrown outside, set on fire, the stash disappeared in a blaze under Jeanette’s eyes. Who the next day realized that there was a way for her to keep the words, not matter what: “‘Fuck it’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’.”
A writer was born.