Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? & Mary Karr’s Cherry
Seems like I made the same mistake with both of these books – they’re secondary autobiographies supporting their respective authors’ main bodies of work which I haven’t yet read. Second-hand availability be damned – I saw these authors recommended, but only got my grubby little hands on later books resting on their laurels as established writers. I actually bought Cherry for $2 and read it right at the start of the year without getting ’round to writing about it yet, but it makes sense to conflate Cherry’s response with Why Be Happy…. Both are memoirs narrating chronologies of precocious adolescence with intermittent input from the adult writer-grown. Both dealing with early sexual awakening and the process of becoming a gendered body in the world. Both with difficult parents, absent in different ways. Both starring girls who are accidental bookworms escaping impoverished lives through literary means – both in travelling imaginatively beyond their confines via novels/poetry, and finally leaving their hometowns to pursue a literary education. Both of these authors were already famous for other work well before delivering these books, and their bodies of work are frequently alluded to in the autobiographies, but I was bereft of this context in reading.
Cherry is the telling of a particular-yet-universal adolescence in small-town Leechfield, becoming aware of her gender and experimenting harmlessly with sexuality. Further investigation reveals that Karr’s earlier memoir, The Liars’ Club, dealt with her being sexually assaulted as a child, as well as revealing more detail about her loving but alcoholic father and artistically inclined yet flighty mother. I wasn’t sure what sort of clearly famous and interesting poet Karr would grow up to be, and given that the book reads like a novel but has a plotline solely based around a girl’s intro-to-sex (that’s surprisingly coy about the coitus – it’s lyrically vivid, sure, but in a zone of almost pre-sexual sensuality) and relies on the True Story About Someone You Already Know TM factor for interest, it wasn’t an especially gripping plotline. Sexing the Cherry, indeed. Girl in small town experiences human condition, encounters joy and suffering within banal confines of rural Americana, gets out, becomes Somebody. We are told this at the start and that’s pretty much all we get. The ending is somewhat mystifying; clearly after reaching the Big City, Karr goes on to become a well known writer, but we’re told that rather than shown it and we don’t get to see the lasting impact on her life from the childhood so brilliantly described. But the way we get that childhood! In fizzy, delirious, sparkling language that takes me right inside the places and smells and gangly-limbed wonderment of that whole nostalgia for a place I’ve never been myself.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal has a more interesting shape as a crafted narrative, consciously skipping twenty-five years to bring us to the point at which Winterson makes contact with her birth mother in those last redemptive chapters. This gives the story a cyclic curve overall, a spine of shape and focus despite its almost-unsophisticated turbulent thrashings as it leaps through time and in and out of focus. There’s humour, too, carrying us through the beatings and exorcisms; the quirks and terrors of the tyrannical adoptive mother Mrs Winterson. The way Winterson (Jr) plays with time – her own time and the reader’s experience of her life’s chronology – is interesting, and useful for me trying to think about how I’d sustain longer narratives. The quarter-century leap was not as jarring as it would have been in any other book, though I wonder if I let her get away with it because I was longing to get ahead and meet Susie Orbach. Winterson tackles all sorts of social and personal issues in the midst of this – gender, class, religion, sexuality, loneliness – without explicitly centring the story around those concepts. She also talks insightfully about coming to terms with the ugly hurt part of yourself as a person. ‘This is the most dangerous work you can do. It is like bomb disposal but you are the bomb. … Mess this up, and you will go down with the creature’ – tethered as it is to you, sharing your blood, your food.
I think myself a pretty unforgiving reader when it comes to memoir. Before I started writing uncomfortable amounts of autobiography myself I was largely not that interested in reading about life for life’s sake, and unless you’re a brilliant writer and the story’s exceptional I still probably won’t bother. There are so MANY good books out there, so many exceptional stories. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or aggressively hustled by cash grabs in popular memoir genres stacking Whitcoulls shelves. I guess this is why I prefer personal essays to memoir novels; they demand a bit less investment of time and energy and committed attention/love from a reader, and briefer snapshots keep their sharp edge better. I think my distaste for memoir is softening as I grow up, but for now my tastes are inward and selfish.
A thought about memoir writing in general: the premium placed on ‘reality’ in the creative writing market – both in print and online – is disturbing given how much incentive it creates to embellish one’s stories. The more lurid, the better. But neither of these autobiographies aroused my suspicions in that regard. And despite our vastly different lives, Karr and Winterson and me, we all have so much in common. It’s soothing, that community. The violence of girlhood. All things bright and beautiful, all traumas great and small…
A final note: In interesting contrast to some of my fears this year about the elitism of Literary Writing (in which I lump lyric/experimental essay with poetry because I imagine the readership and publishing environment is quite similar) Winterson has this to say:
I had no one to help me, but the[n] T.S. Eliot helped me.
So 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 schools because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid 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 is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Hawkes is an artist and perpetual student currently nesting in Wellington. She has just completed an MA portfolio of creative non-fiction writings for the IIML, titled SKIN HUNGER. She has had work published this year in Starling and Up Country.