Jeanette Winterson interview

One of my favourite books of 2011 was Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why be Happy When you Could be Normal? So I was delighted to get the opportunity to interview her recently for Third Way Magazine.

Anyone familiar with her award-winning Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in either its novel or BBC TV serial format, will remember the bold landmarks of the writer’s thinly-disguised autobiography: the terrifying adoptive mother, the gospel mission tent, the collision of lesbianism with fundamentalism.

What’s shocking about her new memoir, 25 years later, is that the unvarnished truth turns out to have been much bleaker. Routinely beaten, often hungry and left all night on the doorstep, Winterson was told by her depressive mother that she picked the wrong crib when she adopted her.

Yet Why be Happy When you Could be Normal? (the title was her mother’s real-life question as she evicted her at 16 for being a lesbian, previous attempts at exorcism having failed) is singularly free of the anti-religious bitterness one might expect. In fact, when I spoke to her at her home in Spitalfields for Third Way, she was even prepared to put in a good word for her Charismatic upbringing.

“I guess it’s made me the kind of passionate person that I am in the sense that I think of life as luminous – lit up – rather than rather grey,” she told me. “And that’s definitely something that the Charismatic movement has. I also like the idea of a genuine community where people support each other and are there for each other.”

She was considerably less complimentary about the insularity and homophobia that has sadly become associated with organised religion, but said she continued to draw inspiration from the historical figure of Jesus:

“Here is someone who talks about love and forgiveness, and talks, in fact, about dissolving family ties and form­ing different kinds of obligations and friendships, and who isn’t afraid to hang around with whores and ‘sinners’ – it’s a very uncomfortable story and I don’t know why it has become so comfortable to so many people. I mean, whenever I read the Bib­le I’m surprised at how radical it is.”

Most moving in both her memoir and our interview was her honesty about her own struggles. As she recounts her relatively recent nervous breakdown, suicide attempt and quest to find her birth mother, what emerges is grace, humour, compassion and a spirituality based on the power of love.

“There are three kinds of big endings,” she writes. “Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness… Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.”

I’d highly recommend this courageous, moving and ultimately redemptive book from a remarkable woman.

Click here for the full interview.

Posted on: 16 Mar 2012 in Book Reviews, Features, General, Interviews, Journalism, Spirituality
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