Jeanette Winterson is roughly twelve years older than me. We both grew up in northern towns and, assuming the ‘Jeanette’ of the novel bears enough relation to the author (they are NOT the same person, as the author points out in her introduction), we both grew up in religious homes, in communities which were ‘zealously’ religious.
I was in the early years of my religious fervour when Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit came out. We were all told about it, prayed against it, hated it but didn’t read it, of course. It encouraged nothing but sin and debauchery. Read it, and you might catch gay from it. Pray God keeps you safe from such damnation. I kept away.
I would probably have maintained that stance for very many years – perhaps decades – but times change. While I always had my own mind and I was a rebel (frequently in trouble with church members and leaders), I was happy to consider this ‘not a novel for me’ even after reading and enjoying similar ‘coming of age’ and ‘awareness of sexuality’ novels such as The Color Purple. Through university years I read many novels which critiqued religion and introduced me to quite extreme themes and ideas. I enjoyed them all.
But it has only been in recent times that the idea of reading Winterson’s great novel has come to mind. It is considered a modern classic even if it is an early work and many consider her more mature works to be better. I guess I felt that after all these years it has stood the test of time and is worth reading. So, last year I did.
I don’t know whether I could kick myself for taking so long to read it, or if I am pleased I didn’t read it back when I really wouldn’t have accepted it. Either way, the book resonated with my own soul and experiences of growing up in those suffocating (albeit well-meaning) times.
I had expected it to be a novel attacking the church, belittling Christians and espousing homosexuality as the better way. I wouldn’t have been able to accept such ideas. I’m not gay, so that’s not a lifestyle that interests me (I believe I’m referred to as an ‘ally’ in LGBTQ+ circles – someone who is straight but supports gay rights) and I found the church to be a mostly loving and welcoming place. I can honestly say I would not be alive today – nor half the man I hope I am perceived to be – were it not for the love and support of evangelicals in my hometown.
I was delighted to see that Winterson didn’t write such a book. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a warm, kind and often funny book as much about northern life in the Sixties and Seventies (and still identifiable in the Eighties) as it is about sexuality and religion. Although Jeanette’s life choices are not compatible with her church’s ideology nor with her mum’s, she finds supporters and friends throughout the novel. Her life is not made hell, even though there are conflicts and traumatic times. Some of the events are so quirky that they make you smile at just how silly religious people can be. Some events are more disturbing and abusive. But that was life back then. You didn’t need to be religious to be abused or to suffer the plainly daft ideas that people had back then. Just being gay or non-white – or even have a different accent – would be enough, for a start.
Perhaps what is most beautiful is how there is a sense of her mother growing, quietly, imperceptibly, and without anything other than just age and life events happening to her too which changes who she is. She doesn’t stop being religious and the two of them avoid talking of Jeanette’s preferences for females. But they find a kind of peace between them; a thawing and breaking down of barriers.
In my life there have been many battles: some won, some lost. There have been fall outs and pain. But over the decades there has also been those times of thawing, re-finding each other, acceptance and growing. It is easy to be pompously religious and condemn those who don’t do as you do when your life has been sheltered and naïve. But sooner or later life happens to you and bad things occur. Then you have to rethink what you believe and how you live it. We all mature, eventually.
At the time, Winterson’s book was all about being a lesbian, as far as everyone was concerned – including the press. But the truth is, it is only tangentially about that. It is about the relationships of women – of all kinds. It is about unbridling creativity and its relationship with mental health. It is about the ridiculous nature of community but it is also about the warmth found therein. Winterson doesn’t try to champion one and condemn another. Somehow she successfully avoids presenting any ideological theme as right or wrong. It really is a remarkable book for all of that.
I’m very grateful for the upbringing I received. I went through considerable abuse, huge traumas and got into some pretty bad scrapes. But I was ‘saved’ by the church and, for a while, clung to every teaching steadfastly before I eventually matured and found that the road is a little more grey and less black or white. Or perhaps, to borrow from the metaphor of the novel, I discovered there are plenty of fruit out there I can enjoy – but I still like oranges. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a gentle companion to all of that. I’m glad I finally found it.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.