Monday, December 17, 2018

Amy Leblanc on Jeanette Winterson

The Finding Place

Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags, and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all.

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

The pages of every Jeanette Winterson book in existence are held in the walls of my bedroom. Each of them is dog eared, highlighted, and occasionally marked with a single exclamation point in the margins when I simply do not know what to say. Her words have emboldened me and made me rapturous. It feels as though she grabbed hold of a zipper at the top of my head and lowered it toward the floorboards, revealing my spine and all of my vulnerable innards to the world. This feeling is not new to me and it is not unlike the clumsiness of undressing with a new lover.

As with countless others this affair began with a chance encounter in a used bookstore on Parnell Street in Dublin. We each have our own patterns and habits from experience; I tend to begin my search for books at the end of the alphabet. I made my way through Z, Y, X, and had just made my way to W when I found myself drawn to one orange spine amidst a wall of darkened books. I removed it from the shelf and in my hands was a tattered copy of The Passion with cigarette burns through the cover and a few pages hanging on by a thread. This book had been loved roughly and thoroughly. The value of the book, marked with an orange dot, was three euros.

          I got back to my hotel and devoured The Passion over the course of one sleepless night and knew that I was in love. I had just begun an affair that would tease me and potentially hurt me, but I could not turn back. I picked up as many of her books as I could find to keep the magic of her words alive in my mind. I read Oranges are not the Only Fruit and her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal in which she describes her early attachments to books and poetry volumes as lifelines. Winterson was adopted as a baby by fundamentalist Christian parents who condemned her sexuality and performed violent exorcisms on her. When Jeanette realized that she was a lesbian, she knew she had to leave. “Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” were the last hurtful words her mother tossed at her as she left home. After reading so much of her work, I am forever thankful that she chose not to be ‘normal.’

In her memoir, Winterson writes, “when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry offers – a language powerful enough to say it how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place” (p. 40). Jeanette Winterson’s critical and creative works have been seminal in contemporary women’s writing and in LGBTQ+ spheres of criticism and authorship. By defying gender and genre Winterson has created a new type of writing that redefines what it means to be human and reconceptualises the fluidity and transience of subjectivity. She’s changed the world of literature, but on a more personal level, she’s changed the way that I read. After loving her writing so thoroughly, I no longer settle for books that are unsatisfying, that drag things on too long, that leave me feeling empty.

Her words have caressed me when I am overwhelmed and I have relied on her novels to get me through heartache. She writes, “the poem finds the word that finds the feeling.” In this way she has put words into my mouth to get to the heart of a feeling that I am never able to articulate. I find comfort in her ‘finding place’ and I seek shelter there when language is uncertain and imprecise.

Amy LeBlanc holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature and creative writing from the University of Calgary. She is currently non-fiction editor at filling Station magazine. Her work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear in Room, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Geez, and EVENT among others. Amy won the 2018 BrainStorm Poetry Contest for her poem 'Swell'. She is the author of two chapbooks, most recently Ladybird, Ladybird published with Anstruther Press in August 2018. She attended the Emerging Writers Intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts in October 2018


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