Why be Happy when you can be Normal?

Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson is a favourite author of mine, having first read Oranges are not the only Fruit as a queer teenager, and so I’ve been meaning to read her memoir for quite a while know. I ended up buying it on a whim when recently browsing books and I am so glad that I did.

Winterson’s memoir is something of a companion novel to Oranges, which Winterson refers to as ‘the story I could live with at the time’ with the reality being a far bleaker tale. Winterson writes with a desperation for the reader to understand her experience of being beaten or left to sit on the doorstep all night. However, despite this the memoir is filled with enough quirky little eccentricities that you never get beaten down, left unable to finish. Instead there is a desire to understand how this impressive author made it to Oxford and went on to live the life she did.

Winterson perfectly walks the line between revealing what her life has been like and choosing to hold back so as to remain a level of privacy. Although there are certain things Winterson chooses not to share, as is clear from her choice to unapologetically jump 25 years into the future, at no point do you feel entitled to the information as it simply seems too personal or too difficult to be shared. You are very aware that you are only privy to exactly what Winterson has chosen to share and that’s how you feel most comfortable reading about some of the lowest points in her life.

However, what is truly remarkable about this memoir is the absence of anger found in it, which is unexpected given the treatment of Winterson as a child. Winterson’s adoptive parents are never presented as objects of fury but mere products of the ill-treatment they themselves were on the receiving end of. Given everything you read about the treatment of Winterson by her adoptive parents this is an incredible feat as you would expect anyone to feel resentful or frustrated at the childhood they had to endure, yet Winterson’s memoir presents as a mere tragedy of circumstances. Whilst there is no justifying how Mr and Mrs Winterson treated Jeannette, there is also an absence blame through there being explanations for their behaviour. They had difficult lives and parented the only way they knew how.

I would absolutely recommend this moving piece of writing to anyone who is a fan of a memoir or Winterson’s writing. It is deeply tragic but incredibly interesting and should not be skipped over.

Loveless

Alice Oseman

I recently read Loveless by Alice Oseman in order to review it for The Publishing Post, a fortnightly magazine I work on as a contributing writer, and I had a surprising amount of thoughts on the book and so decided to write a more lengthy review of it here.

Loveless is a YA novel told from the perspective of Georgia, a quiet 18 year old who is starting university having never been kissed. This book brilliantly captures what it means to be a nervous fresher who feels completely out of their depth. While on the surface this may sound like a fairly predictable teenage narrative (of which there are hundreds), this particular story explores topics surrrounding asexuality and aromanticism in a rarely seen instance of representation.

The novel intelligently explores what it is to grow up surrounded by other people experiencing romantic feelings and relationships and wonder hwy you aren’t experiencing the same things. However, perhaps the best part is how Georgia frequently doesn’t even realise the things she isn’t feeling. She understands so many romatic and sexual feelings as unrealistic and only happening in books of films that she doesn’t even realise she’s different.

I have to mention one chapter in particualr, entitled Ellis. When Georgia returns home for Christmas after her first term at university her whole family are staying for the holiday. While I won’t give away completely what happens, Georgia ends up having an extended conversation with her older cousin, Ellis, about sexuality. Ellis is in her thirties and so the reader is given an inter-generational conversation between two age groups where this is rarely seen. It is rarely discussed how different the world has been for the current generation of teenagers compared to the millenials who are now in their thirties and so it’s easy to forget that the two can have very different experiences and understandings of sexuality and gender.

Admittedly, I found the language slightly simplistic at times, but recognise that I am not the intended audience for the book and I know that when I was I would have devoured it because the representation is fantastic. Although revisiting YA did make me feel slightly older than I would like for only being 21, it was deeply refreshing to see how societal perceptions of what it means to be LGBTQ+ have evolved and how this has translated into the YA fiction that I was desperately looking for when I was a queer teenager.

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo

I have finally read last year’s Booker prize winner and it might be one the best books I’ve read in a long time. The book follows the lives of twelve different characters, most of whom are women of colour, across several decades, giving insight into the varied experiences they have and how they shape the differing perspectives they have on the world.

Each of the characters are complex and flawed and yet Evaristo always manages to position the reader from a point of empathy when reading their chapter. Since the different characters are connected through various relationships, the reader often gets snippets of information about characters you have yet to read about which allows you to form a prior opinion of them which makes reading their chapters especially interesting. There is always more to a character and their life than expected which is eye-opening to read.

My favourite chapter was probably the first one about Amma’s life. Amma is a black lesbian living in London in the 1980’s fighting for her rights and trying to get into the theatre. Her life in the 80’s juxtaposed with her life in the present day is fascinating as it demonstrates how the world has changed and how her views and life have changed along with it, including her becoming a parent and transitioning into the mainstream theatre industry.

Evaristo also expertly demonstrates how systemically racist and sexist structures within society can unite women, particularly women of colour, whilst highlighting how different they all are and how so many other factors in life can determine where they end up. For instance, Carole’s journey through elite academia and the world of banking which required her to conform to society’s expectations in so many ways puts her in a wholly different position to Amma’s life as a black lesbian who refuses to meet any expectations that don’t match up to her own desires and combats systemic racism, sexism and homophobia through this rejection.

However, despite these differences, Evaristo successfully conveys the shared experiences that ultimately bring these women together and often drives them to help each other out, whether this means mentoring young women of colour to try and give them an extra step up in life or providing a safe space for women when they need it.

Finally, I enjoyed the style of Evaristo’s writing far more than I expected to. Evaristo’s writing lacks standard capitalisation, punctuation or sentence structure which allows the stories to flow far more naturally and creating a feeling of the characters naturally reflecting back on their lives rather than a more contrived and deliberate narrative being told. This stream of conscience style combined with the natural inclusion of key physical details and references to wider debates, such as who has the most privileged or trans exclusionary feminism, results in a deeply insightful and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post was one of the first queer YA books I read as a teenager. It looks at what happens to Cameron Post when she is caught with a girl and sent to a Christian conversion camp.

This plot lends itself to a deeply moving film which provides into the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth who face hostile and oftentimes actively harmful reactions to their identities but are powerless to avoid the dangerous situations they are forced into.

This film adaptation very successfully combines poignant moments that confront the audience with the treatment of queer young people with bittersweet moments of camaraderie between teenagers forced to find what little joy they can in such an abusive situation. The scene which immediately comes to mind at this point is when they are preparing food in the kitchen and start to sing and dance to the radio, which they’ve switched from Christian hymns to a mainstream station, before they are interrupted by Dr Lydia Marsh, the woman running the camp. This moment sums up the film brilliantly as it is one of the few moments of true joy that you witness the teenagers experience but it is abruptly cut short by an interruption that is an instant reminder of where they are.

I would also like to applaud the film for its representation of various minority groups. Although the protagonist, Cameron Post, is a queer white woman, her two closest friends at the camp are an amputee woman of colour and a 2-spirit native american individual, which is very refreshing in comparison to the many LGBTQ+ films which seem to almost exclusively feature individuals who are white, gender-conforming and able-bodied.

I was thrilled when I discovered this adaptation was being made and I was far from disappointed as it more than lives up to the novel, I would thoroughly recommend this film adaptation.