GA Book Club #6: ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

Welcome back to the Girls Against Book Club and Happy New Year! I’m really excited to continue with the book club in 2018 with, hopefully, more and more people getting involved. Throughout the last month, we’ve been reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, a novel which I will discuss in this post.

I really enjoyed reading this novel throughout December; it’s engrossing and relatively easy to read.  The issues that it brings to light are also an important aspect, for me the most important aspect, of the novel and it’s therefore a book that I would recommend to everyone.

The novel tells the story of Jeanette, loosely based on Winteron’s own experience but not autobiographical as she stresses in the introduction which I will touch on soon. Jeanette is adopted by a woman who is determined to make her a Christian missionary and her entire childhood is dedicated to this purpose. However, when Jeanette comes out as a lesbian, she is completely isolated by the Christian community she has grown up around and is forced to reconsider everything she has been taught by them.

In the introduction of the novel Winterson criticises those who have described her novel as autobiographical, stating that male writers use their own names and experiences in fiction frequently without this being called autobiography. ‘Is this assumption about gender? Something to do with creative authority? Why shouldn’t a woman be her own experiment?’ These are some of the questions she asks on this topic in her introduction.

Another interesting part of the introduction is Winterson’s exploration of why it took so long for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit to have been viewed as ‘literature’. She states that if she had been a straight white male, it would have been given that title from the beginning. Roxane Gay discusses a similar subject in Bad Feminist, the first book club text, in reference to the disregard of women’s literature and it’s something that has stuck in my mind ever since reading the book and writing the post about it. The fact that this has now been brought up by more than one female author shows that this issue is pervasive, affecting female authors around the world.

I love reading introductions of books and I cannot understand why anyone skips them; they often shape my understanding of the context of the entire novel and can often change my opinion of the entire novel. The introduction to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was no exception. But on to the actual novel and some of my favourite moments!

There are lots of humorous moments in the novel and they are often produced from the many eccentric ways of Jeanette’s mother. A part that I found particularly entertaining was Jeanette’s discovery that her mother had been lying to her about the ending of Jane Eyre (WARNING: Jane Eyre spoilers ahead- although I don’t know if you can spoil a novel that’s been in print for nearly 200 years); Jeanette’s mother’s version of the story sees Jane end up with St John, an evangelist, rather than Mr Rochester, which particularly upsets young Jeanette when she finds out. Although this was a humorous moment of the novel, it portrays the importance of  literature and popular culture for children growing up as it really does have the ability to help shape us as humans. It also shows the extent to which Jeanette’s life has been shaped by Christianity, making the church’s abandonment of her later on in the novel because of her sexuality even more devastating.

The end of the novel was the most powerful part for me. The writing becomes less about narrative and more about meaning I think and there are some really important extracts. The pastor explains that Jeanette’s sexuality is a result of the church’s ‘going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church’ because ‘having taken on a man’s world in other ways’ Jeanette had also done it sexually. This reasoning is clearly utterly ridiculous but not shocking. Men blaming women for things that have nothing to do with them is a frequent theme in books, films and life and the sarcastic and mocking tone Winterson creates in describing the pastor’s thoughts on why women are to blame for absolutely everything was the perfect satire of this issue.

Honestly this next section doesn’t have any sort of theme but I just want to discuss two of my favourite quotes from the novel that I couldn’t help re-reading and going back to.

The first is ‘my mother had painted the white roses red and now she claimed they grew that way.’ How beautiful! This metaphor summarises the events of the novel so perfectly and the phrasing is stunning- I love it! It was also a really important moment in the novel as Jeanette realises that her mother and her community have given her a mould for her identity that is wrong, and she is glad she doesn’t fit into it.

Another brilliant and important quote from the novel is ‘But not all dark places need light, I have to remember that.’ Jeanette’s childhood in this novel is extremely difficult and unlike anything I know of and, again, Jeanette’s acceptance that she can move on from it as herself was such an important and inspiring moment.

This was a really important read for me. It reinforces how difficult many LGBTQ people’s upbringings can be and portrays the importance of acceptance in allowing people to form their own identities.

For the first month of 2018, the book club will be reading Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard. It’s a non-fiction book that traces the origins of the misogyny within our society to it’s ancient roots, examining the ways in which history has mistreated strong women. I think this is going to be a really interesting and educational read and I’ll hope you’ll join me in reading and discussing it!

I’ve also released a list of the first 6 books the book club will be reading in 2018 that you can view here. I’m hoping this will allow more people to get involved with the book club as it means you can start reading the books that excite you a little bit earlier if a month isn’t enough OR if you have any leftover Christmas money left you can treat yourself to copies of some of them now!

As always, don’t forget to join our GoodReads group here and contribute to the monthly discussion. Or email us with your thoughts on Women & Power at girlsagainstbookclub@gmail.com.

I hope you all have a great 2018 and are looking forward to reading some brilliant feminist texts by strong and inspiring women, as I am!

Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).