By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #38 – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Can you imagine what it would be like to find out you're gay when you've grown up in a strict Christian community? Jeanette Winterson writes about it in her part true/part fictional memoir.

What if the community you grew up in does not accept you for who you are? To this day, many people still do not feel like they can be themselves, because they have always been told that what they are is a sin. I recently read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, which is a sort-of memoir about her own childhood in a strict Pentecostal family, until she found out she was gay. Want to know what happened to her? Read on

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a so-called autofiction about Jeanette, who was adopted and raised by a strict Pentecostal family, until she finds out she is gay. Since this is considered a sin, Jeanette is punished heavily for this, but eventually she realises that she might not belong in this community, that she has to find her own path in life and write her own story.

Throughout the novel, there are several short stories which mirror Jeanette’s life, such as fairy tales and stories from Arthurian legends and the Bible, as well as several allusions to other books – such as Jane Eyre (but it isn’t until much later that she finds out her mother changed the ending). Some of these stories have a clear link to Jeanette, but others are more abstract, and I occasionally wondered why Winterson decided to include them. I think it shows that life isn’t always straightforward either; instead, we often don’t understand what’s happened to us after we’ve had the time to reflect on it.

The events in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit are based on Winterson’s own life, but she only wrote them down much later, when she was 26 years old. Therefore, while reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, I kept wondering which parts Winterson had made up, and which of them had really happened to her. However, I soon realised that doing so was completely irrelevant, because this novel isn’t about facts, or fiction. Instead, it’s about how the stories we’re told as a child define who we are, regardless of whether they’re true or not.

All stories are, to some degree, true. One cannot tell a story without laying bare part of oneself. Writers of fiction, of made-up stories, especially, have to evoke parts of themselves in order to fully understand what their characters go through, and to be able to move the plot forward in a realistic way. While Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit can be interpreted as an LGBTQ-novel since it deals with a lesbian woman who is growing up in a strict Christian community, that does not mean it should only be read by women who have been through the same hardships. Quite the contrary, in fact; most books are universally enjoyable because they are about people so very unlike ourselves, but who deal with issues we all have to face in life.

On the other hand, all stories are fictional. While some novels are more evidently made up than others, even factual stories such as memoirs and (auto)biographies are shaped by their writers. Each author, each storyteller, each writer has their own unique point of view, and therefore a story cannot possibly be told in the exact same way twice. Each storyteller has to make certain choices as to which story to tell, and inevitably emits some details in favour of others. Winterson makes the audience aware of the importance of stories within her novel, and in doing so draws attention to the fact that her story isn’t necessarily true, but isn’t untrue, either.

The title of this book is also a play on this same notion. It is attributed to Nell Gwynn, the mistress of Charles 1st, who was portrayed as an orange seller. Therefore, Winterson thought she might have said “Oranges are not the only fruit”, but she never did. By choosing a title like that, Winterson makes clear that fact and fiction are blended in her novel. She also claims – but is it really true? – that many booksellers were unsure which genre this novel belonged to, and initially placed it at the preserves (food) section. Later on, it was categorised as LGBTQ-reading, and only recently was it classified as literary fiction. This indicates that it’s quite hard to put a label on this novel.

The title Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, like its genre, is multi-interpretable. Superficially it makes sense because the nameless mother in the novel keeps giving her daughter oranges, and tells her they’re not the only fruit. The title could also refer to the first story in the Bible, in which Adam and Eve were told not to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Of course they did, and in doing so they gained knowledge of Good and Evil, and this mirrors Jeanette’s growing awareness of the world around her after she finds out she is gay. The oranges reflect the one-sides stories her mother has always told her, and eventually she realises that some of these stories aren’t true, or there’s more to them than she knew before; she’s found out there are other types of fruit. Since she does not belong to the Pentecostal community anymore, she now has to write her own story.

Just like there can be several analyses of the title at the same time, so can this entire novel be about several things at once. It doesn’t matter whether we don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. What we read is Jeanette Winterson’s story about her childhood, and it’s up to us to interpret it. For stories aren’t only shaped by their authors, but also by those who listen to them.

What did you think of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? Have you ever read a book which inspired you to change your life? Do you think all stories have to be either true or completely made up? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!

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