Queering Contemporary Literature: The Work of Jeanette Winterson

By | July 27, 2021

Guest post by Shareena Z. Hamzah-Osbourne

A powerful use of language is to tell people our story, especially to tell our loved ones about ourselves. They will hopefully reply using the language of acceptance and understanding. Conversely, a person can conceal their own story through language, or have their declarations met with words of hate and violence. This is when language has an even more important role to play in illuminating the path to equality; as Jeanette Winterson says, we need a language “capable of expressing all that it is called upon to express in a vastly changing world.”

Contemporary fiction makes a vital contribution to combatting prejudice and supporting the LGBTQ+ community through the work of many queer writers, such as Jeanette Winterson. She is an award-winning contemporary British author, who has been described as ‘one of the most gifted writers working today’; she has written over 20 novels to date, all of which touch on issues of diverse gender, sexuality, and identity. From her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), to her most recent, Frankissstein (2019), Winterson contests what is “natural” or “normal” in the eyes of conventional society and depicts what can happen when the status quo is challenged.

Winterson’s writing strives to unlock the potency of words and to create an energetic literary space in which language has the power to influence and inform. She has stated that she writes “for anyone who is interested in books, in thinking, in expanding their imagination, female or male, and sexual orientation.” Winterson’s particular use of the language of desire and pleasure challenges normative boundaries, and she creates symbolic and metaphorical dimensions in her works to convey her conceptualizations of diverse gender, identity, and sexuality. Her novels have contributed in a major way to LGBTQ+ debates by destabilizing orthodox thinking and providing an alternative view of gender, sexuality, and identity in the current times.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was a controversial debut as it was one of the few novels that portrayed lesbianism and encouraged the acceptance of same-sex desire to achieve mainstream success. This impact was further enhanced by the BAFTA-award winning BBC TV adaption. Winterson uses her personal experiences as a base for the invented reality in all her fiction but Oranges is the most autobiographical, dealing as it does with the childhood and teenage years of “Jeanette”, a girl who comes to realize she loves other girls. And not just in the Christian sense of her fundamentalist adoptive mother, who engages her evangelical community in the task of prosecuting her daughter, in their church’s kangaroo court, for her supposed sins and transgressions.

Her most recent novel, Frankissstein, questions the sexual politics of today and the near future, and offers a vision of what technological advances may mean to a still-embodied society. In this way, Winterson conforms to her declaration that the “artist is a translator,” as Frankissstein seeks to interpret – among other subjects – how gender confirmation surgery and digital uploading of the human brain might affect society as gender becomes more fluid, but possibly obsolete. Ry, a re-imagining of Mary Shelley, was born female, lives as male, and occupies a liminal and ambiguous point on the gender spectrum: “I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.” Ry also says at one stage: “I’m fully female, I am also partly male”. This line is key to how Winterson wishes to present Ry’s transness: that it makes them more of a person, rather than less. The central paradox at the heart of the novel’s portrayal of transgender and transhuman issues is that Ry – who has undergone significant change – desires physical stability and bodily stasis, while cisgender Victor seeks to do away with his body entirely and transition to a digital-only existence. The question is: what would “gender” mean or signify in a post-human society?

Winterson’s texts create worlds that reflect and exaggerate reality, giving hope of acceptance to each individual by encouraging the expression and performance of their desires. Her literary creativity enables her work to present profound insights, at once intensely personal yet poignantly universal. For Winterson, language is not merely a medium of communication; it is a dynamic presence that enhances the understanding and acceptance of non-normative ideas of sexual politics, culture, and ethics in society, particularly those of the LGBTQ+ community.

Jeanette Winterson's Narratives of Desire cover image

Shareena Z. Hamzah-Osbourne is an Honorary Research Associate in the College of Arts & Humanities at Swansea University, UK, and has been a Research Fellow in the Florence Mockeridge Fellowship group. Prior to her academic career, she worked in media and advertising in Malaysia, and she has since taught at universities in Malaysia, Iran, and the UK.

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