The walls are the narrative: Jeanette Winterson breaks down barriers for LGBTQIA+ community

Several clubs and organizations sponsored the Written on Identity and Written on the Body: The LGBTQIA+ Story event and hosted author Jeanette Winterson via Zoom Nov. 30.

The talk, hosted by The Journal of Critical Thinking, The Onyx, English Club, Student Union Activities Board (SUAB), and The Gatepost, opened with a personal poem written by the Editor-in-Chief of the Onyx, Olivia Banks, who said she wrote it in response to Winterson’s novel “Written on the Body.”

Winterson was invited to participate in the event by the student leaders who organized it. 

Taylor Langmeyer, vice president of The Journal of Critical Thinking and a graduate student in English, introduced English department chair Lisa Eck, who praised Winterson as the author of 19 novels, two short story collections, a volume of critical essays, and a 2012 memoir titled, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winterson’s work has been published in 18 countries.

Winterson discussed her decision to name a character after herself in her novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” 

This is not an autobiographical character, she said. “I think you should be able to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact.”

She added, “If you can do so, you are much freer than if you’re bound by all the other stories that are going to be told about you.”

Winterson also said being adopted and raised by Pentacostal parents was a “good beginning” for her. It “gave me a sense of something much bigger than the size of my own life.”

She added, “Everybody needs that.”

When Winterson was 16, she left her home after falling in love with a woman.

“I was given a choice, which is the kind of choice the church does give you. Either give up the girl, or give up your home,” she said. “And, obviously, you don’t give up the girl. That would be the coward’s way out.”

After leaving her home, she ended up at the University of Oxford, where she studied literature.

“I threw myself out like a wild ball of energy into the world,” she said. “[I] thought that the best way that I could manage my past was to create it in the sense of this business of reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact.”

She said the inspiration for her novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” came from her experience of being kicked out of her home for falling in love.

“I realized that I wanted to talk about something that was real to me, because that is the only way to talk about anything at all,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in writing a diary.

“It couldn’t just be my story. It had to be a story that would reach other people. The people who were not crazy kids from northern towns in England, brought up by Pentecostal Evangelists, but one that would go wider,” Winterson added.

She said when she got around to writing “Written on the Body,” she was “fed up with the binary.

“I still am,” Winterson added.

She said she found herself asking why the male/female binary was so important.

From there, she tested the limits in her novel.

“I wondered what would happen if I wrote a book where the narrator wouldn’t be identified in that way,” she said. “But what’s this person’s name? Even if they don’t have a name. How old are they? What do they do for a living? Where were they brought up? Do they have any family? Do they have any friends? Who are they?”

Winterson added, “I thought, ‘If I strip all that out, will I just be left with a cipher? Will it be meaningless? Or will it work?’”

From there, she created the narrator for her novel, “Written on the Body.” The character has no name, is non-gendered, and there is not a lot of information given on their past.

She said from the time the novel was released, she had received letters asking who the narrator is. Those who wrote to her often assume the narrator in the novel is female because Winterson is female or that the novel painted a “bleak picture” of a man because, “You must hate men.”

Winterson called those assumptions, “The stupidest thing ever.”

She added most of the people who wrote these comments to her were men, and she said they were angry.

“When people get angry, it’s because you’ve hit somewhere,” Winterson said.

“I think one of the things that we can expect from literature and from writing is that those nice, straightforward assumptions should be unsettled, so that we have to ask ourselves what it is that is bothering us,” she added.

Winterson also invited the audience to think about the reasons they do or don’t like something by comparing the process of self-reflection to the process of judging art in a gallery.

“When we say, ‘I like something,’ or ‘I don’t like something,’ we’re not talking about the piece in question – we’re talking about ourselves,” she said.

She said what she likes to do when she gets an idea is to “just test it” as if it’s a science experiment.

“Just throw it at the wall, see if it breaks, see if it holds, and see what happens to the experiment inside it,” Winterson added.

She said, “These things [novels, short stories, poems, and films] are containers. They have walls. The walls are the narrative and what goes on inside them is the story.

“This [ideology] goes back to the Greeks. They knew that container, that dramatic situation, would allow us to manage our own situations better,” Winterson added.

She said humans are “uniquely storytelling animals,” and retaining a connection to life puts a person in charge of their story.

She advised the audience to walk around without their headphones on to retain their connection to the world and “see what happens.

“I think it’s that sense of retaining your connection to life which allows you to truly be in charge of the story, rather than let the stories be in charge of you,” Winterson added.

Sara Hughes, a senior English major who moderated the event, asked Winterson how she responds to critics and readers when it comes to her work.

Winterson said, “I don’t read it.

“Your job [as a writer] is not to worry about what happens on the other side of the work,” she said. “Your job is to do the best work that you can, in any discipline. Whatever it is, your job is to do it.”

She said she loves hearing people’s views of her work but added, “I won’t worry about it.”

A panel featuring Director of Inclusive Excellence Initiatives Patricia Birch, English Chair Lisa Eck, and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate Josh Luttrell, followed Winterson’s talk.

Birch shared the initiatives her division has sponsored to support FSU’s LGBTQIA+ community, including JRI Framingham Glass, an affinity group for young LGBTQIA+ adults of color.

She referenced an article she read earlier that day about actress Laverne Cox, who said someone she was with had been attacked.

“And Laverne Cox said, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, or how well people know you – these biases continue to happen,’” Birch said.

She added, “That’s why I do the work that I do in the Center for Inclusive Excellence, along with students, staff, as well as a program coordinator, to support our students in bringing these issues and concerns to light.”

Birch also referenced FSU’s events surrounding National Coming Out Day and Trans Day of Remembrance.

Eck, who has written an article on Winterson’s novel, “Written on the Body,” shared the importance of literature.

“We read to find ourselves,” she said. “But, we also read to encounter others in that intimate space where we can change our minds or where we can get out of ourselves.”

Eck said the conversation of who the genderless narrator is has changed exponentially during the years she has taught “Written on the Body” in her courses.

She said when she first started teaching the novel, her students would debate whether the narrator was male or female, straight or gay, or whether they were transgender by comparing them to common gender roles and stereotypes.

Eck added over time, her students have found less of a reason to debate who the genderless character is.

“It’s a whole menu of gender stereotypes that just fall apart when you press on them,” she said.

Luttrell, who has worked for the Massachusetts Department of Education, talked about the importance of LGBTQIA+ advocacy and education in schools.

“Adding this sort of stuff, [LGBTQIA+ education] to the curriculum and into the environment is really crucial in helping us all grow up to create a better world for us,” he said.

Luttrell also advised anyone who is struggling to come out to talk to someone about it.

“If you yourself are looking to come out, or you know someone who is, you can kind of test the waters by telling some trusted personal friend, a family member, someone who you know will react positively, have your back, and help you through everything,” he said.

Winterson ended her talking by asking the audience to promise to always continue moving forward no matter what happens.

“Hold your head up. Do your best work. Be creative. Be confident. Be clear-eyed. Work to your strengths. And learn the rest of your lives,” Winterson said. “There’s never going to be a moment where you say, ‘I’ve done enough.’”

[Editor’s note: The Gatepost co-sponsored this event and The Gatepost Editor-In-Chief, Ashley Wall, co-hosted the event.]