An extract from Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Hay Festival Book of the Month for April and a generous, honest and true memoir full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life...
1 The Wrong Crib
When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’
The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960 – purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson – has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth – matt for every day, and a pearlised set for ‘best’.
I do not know why she didn’t/couldn’t have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world – a way of saying that she was here – a kind of X Marks the Spot.
She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice. She was alive when my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. It is semiautobiographical, in that it tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. The girl leaves home, gets herself to Oxford University, returns home to find her mother has built a broadcast radio and is beaming out the Gospel to the heathen. The mother has a handle – she’s called ‘Kindly Light’.
The novel begins: ‘Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.’
For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.
We always walked. We had no car and no bus money. For me, the average was five miles a day: two miles for the round trip to school; three miles for the round trip to church. Church was every night except Thursdays. I wrote about some of these things in Oranges, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note in her immaculate copperplate handwriting demanding a phone call.
We hadn’t seen each other for several years. I had left Oxford, was scraping together a life, and had written Oranges young – I was twenty-five when it was published. I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.
I dialled the Accrington code and number as instructed, and there she was – who needs Skype? I could see her through her voice, her form solidifying in front of me as she talked. She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose).
She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.
But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.’ I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. I am an ambitious writer – I don’t see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it. 1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir – and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James misunderstood Jane Austen’s comment that she wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house – I’ll explain why later – and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize . . . and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism. . .
The pips – more money in the slot – and I’m thinking, as her voice goes in and out like the sea, ‘Why aren’t you proud of me?’
The pips – more money in the slot – and I’m locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It’s really cold and I’ve got a newspaper under my bum and I’m huddled in my duffel coat.
A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like. Inside our house the light is on. Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer . . . We’re still on the phone in our phone boxes. She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is Hay Festival Book of the Month for April. Find out more here. And hear her talk about her new book Frankissstein at Hay Festival 2019 this May.