Preaching the Gospel of Jeanette Winterson
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Preaching the Gospel of Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson previewed her upcoming memoir at the Toronto Reference Library as part of Luminato’s closing weekend. Photo by Laura Godfrey/Torontoist.

Jeanette Winterson has a complicated relationship with religion. She has every reason to reject it—in her semi-autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), she explains how her Pentecostal Christian adoptive mother was so evangelical that when she read Jane Eyre aloud to a young Winterson, she changed the ending so that Jane married St. John River and went on to become a missionary. “The Devil led us to the wrong crib,” her mother used to say whenever she was unhappy with her.
So you can understand why the author was forced to leave home when, at 16, she fell in love with another woman. Queerness would not fly in the Winterson household, and really, neither would being a writer, as her mother claimed them all to be “sex-crazed bohemians.”

But when hundreds of giddy readers packed the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon for Luminato’s Friday night preview of Winterson’s upcoming memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (due this October from Random House), it was clear we had entered the Church of Winterson. The author embraces the idea too, hosting as if it were a revival meeting, although it’s clear she’s preaching to the converted. In the front row of the sold-out event, audience member Jax Cato has a quote from one of Winterson’s books tattooed down her side: “Written on the body is a secret code.”
We said earlier that the writer has an interesting relationship with religion. And she does, for despite rejecting many aspects of organized religion, scripture has been deeply engrained in Winterson since she was a little girl, and reappropriated passages are peppered through her speech throughout the night.
“Religion can still give me something, and certainly all those words can give me something,” she says. “But I don’t want the bigotry, and I don’t want the prejudice. […] In theory, if there is a God who created the whole known universe, would that God really care whether I’m sleeping with a boy or a girl?”
The audience bursts into mixed laughter and applause.
“If you think about it, wow, that’s really micromanaging,” she adds. “He’s got better things to do—he’s got all those galaxies to play with.”
We have to give kudos to Luminato’s organizers for lining up an author who resonates so strongly with the crowd—many of whom might have doubled their queer content for the evening by booking it to the festival’s K.D. Lang concert straight after the reading. (“Why do I think there might be some crossover?” quips Winterson.)
The author poses a bold and impressive figure, fast-talking and strong in her convictions. She admits that as a child, she didn’t have many friends: “Too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd.” But to her fans, who solicit her advice with some deeply soul-searching questions, Winterson’s honest, evocative writing has clearly inspired their confidence. “Is it possible to forgive someone who has hurt you without undermining yourself?” asks one audience member. Another wants to know, “What advice would you give to somebody who is struggling with the balance between fighting for your individuality and having to be strategic and conforming to represent an organization?”
“Quit your job,” Winterson suggests, before giving a more pragmatic answer. “There are things you need to do in the world. You need to turn up for work, you need to do a good job—that’s the world. But you have a duty to respect the person you are, to treat yourself well. We’re not here for very long, we really have to look after ourselves.”
The Jeanette Winterson love-in brought together an impassioned group, to say the least—and quite frankly, it’s heartening to see such a packed house of literati at the start of the summer festival season. “Art is the only thing that speaks to the reality of the human condition,” Winterson says. “If art’s a luxury, then we’re a luxury.”
Consider us officially luxuriating.