An Open Letter to Jeanette Winterson

[avatar user=”jporter” size=”medium” align=”left”]J.S. Porter, Poet / Author[/avatar]

Dear Jeanette,

Congratulations on taking up the two-year post of professor of creative writing at Manchester University. What a treat for students to have a mind as alive as yours in the classroom!

There’s so much I admire about you and your presence in the world. Let me enumerate. I appreciate your website (where else can I get a list of great poems and a personal commentary on them?), your working-class pride (up Manchester), your writing style (grounded in nature and books).  I like what comes through of your personality on the page –  fearlessness and daring, leavened by dollops of humour.

But what I admire most about you is that you’re a voice for literature in our time. You speak up for reading and books, Shakespeare and the Bible, for “news that stays news” in poetry.

Can’t talk about reading and writing any better than this—

“Learning how to read deeply – and that means diverse and sometimes difficult texts – trains your brain and improves your sense of self.”

“Learning how to write, even reasonably well, gives fluency to the rest of life.”

Your memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a stunner. On one level it’s the story of two mothers and a daughter, the story of the daughter’s search for her birth mother and the story of the daughter’s resistance to the adoptive mother’s oppressive power to impose a way of life – a life of fundamentalism, anti-body, anti-sex, anti-life.  In your Shakespearean phrasing, you were born “A burping, spraying, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life” and in Mrs. Winterson’s eyes, your mom, you remained rude to the time of your breakthrough novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit¸ an early fictional account of life with mom.

Mom did give you the King James Version of the Bible, though, as you gratefully acknowledge. Every night she’d read from its linguistic riches, nothing thinned out or dumbed down. That was her gift to you and it was immense. From the Bible, you picked up novels, sometimes your mother’s hand-me-downs, and explored Shakespeare and the poets in your schooling and on your own.

To get through the slog of constrictive days you wore Coleridge’s words as a talisman: “keep the heart awake to love and beauty.” You kept an ever-expanding library within you. “The countryside, the natural world, my cats, and English literature A-Z were what I could lean on and hold onto.”

“A tough life needs a tough language” you say in your memoir. “That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”

You’ve even got me reconsidering the paucity of my reading in fiction. “Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating.”

Thanks, Jeanette. And thanks to Ashley McGhee for introducing me to Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.

– John

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