Maybe there is a live wire who enters your classroom on the first day of school, and wordlessly places her books on the teacher’s desk, squaring her back to you and all your friends. Introduces herself — in her left hand, no less — by mirror-writing the “Jabberwocky” poem on the blackboard, suspending a zealous exchange erupting on the floor about body hair and deception.
She was new to the school that year and we were oh-so-jaded adolescents, demanding to be impressed. But before the silence broke in waves across our chatter, we had thought we were the only ones with something to say.
The class went still.
Even teenagers stop to think sometimes.
A few months later, on school Parents Night, mine wandered the hallways, amused by the title of my book report book, Sexing the Cherry. It was my first Jeanette Winterson, on loan from the personal collection of the new teacher, the female phD in a man’s suit. Ours was a Victorian home — we didn’t discuss sex — and in that stage of pubescence, everything was embarrassing. But not Winterson. I remained unfazed by the sex and the cherry in flagrante delicto on the cover of that first book. A slim volume, I carried my copy around with me for months, doodling in its pages until I remembered it was not mine, and went to the bookstore to have it cloned: an offering to my teacher, apology included.
She didn’t seem to mind.
At the time, I was sure the name of the book meant more than I, or my parents, could ever know: what Winterson knew. And anyway, I was permissive about everything when it came to art.
Wanting. Welcoming. Wide.
My parents may not have cultivated open dialogue around the dinner table, but they recognized the value of a good story by any artistic means: music (mainly 60s Québecois), art (Toronto in the 80s), clothing (designers’ last call) and books (biographies of lives lived around the world). And while providing my siblings and me with a colourful backdrop of culture from which to draw inspiration, like a well (unlike what Winterson had – or didn’t), they did not suspect the full effect of this transfer of information on my budding brain. A shy child by nature, I now experienced a bold enthusiasm ripening inside me, fueling the fires of imagination — igniting more than my parents ever had in mind.
To allay the situation, they implemented curfews, monitored phone time, cautioned me against taking things too far.
But it was too late.
Winterson’s work guided me firmly away from our principled suburban existence on this planet, pulling me waaaaay into outer space.
Where, it turns out, I was much more comfortable.
By escaping to other galaxies, I was able to relieve myself of the expectations of my own. As a girl, teenagerhood was extra fucked-up: a turbulent mess of mixed messages and mind games, a come-as-you-are invitation on irresistible stationary, welcoming choas into everyday lives. We were directed to take care of ourselves, but to submit to any boy who turned up. To absorb the emotional work of armies of mothers — with our faces numbed by smiles at all times. To think critically about the system from the comfort of its ranks. Be bold without offending. Look seductive without sex. Make out with our abusers til they stop.
Art gave me an alternate universe I could accept unconditionally. One where the rules were guaranteed to be weird. Where stories might not match up. Where girls weren’t pumped out by machines: alternate versions of their own instincts.
Girls who get very good at hiding things. Even from themselves.
My friends and I spent Saturday nights in one another’s bedrooms whipping ourselves into frenzies to the tune of female-fronted punk bands. Their voices howled from the tiny speakers of ghettoblasters we’d got as birthday presents years before the hormones hit. Our music goddesses were no more princesses than we were, and we reveled in their torn ball gowns, lipstick smears, crooked crowns. Winterson gave me all that and a bag of fleas plus foundlings, funeral parlours, raving mothers — oh, and fruit. She flipped us on our heads so we could see the world actually was upside down. Through her, we saw holes in the patriarchy — and poked them.
In my mind, I became neither male nor female, and I believed I could see beyond the skin wrappers of those around me. On the outside I may have well looked like an adult-in-training; a student arriving to class at the prescripted times, bearing trails of assignments done to deadline. But on the inside, my edges were turning to fuzz.
That’s why Winterson’s realism was one I was finally comfortable with: a magic one.
History, hermeneutics, hermaphrodites. Stories so dense I could live in them for miles. Stories within stories, guileful breaks during time, diamonds plucked from the bases of human spines — Winterson spurred me on to look closer, affirming that nothing was as it seems. To me, each of her sentences was charged with explosives — I spent days dismantling them, decoding their symbols, hiding out in the spaces between lines.
She processed things I couldn’t, went places I didn’t, thought things I wouldn’t. In fact, I would read years later in a neatly packaged précis, the characters in Sexing the Cherry were searching across time and space for self.
In a nutshell, I could relate.
In the end, reality never did burrow into my skin and infect me in the way others thought it should. Instead, like a good girl, I internalized Winterson’s irreverent princesses until they established themselves inside my gut, spewing their turbulent flora into my bloodstream, crusading from within to come out.
But take caution, girls: dual existences can be dangerous, and only in my future would I wake up to the war inside me, finally admitting to myself who won. Decipher the secret messages encrypted in Winterson’s script; fully understand what she’d told me about myself. By that time, the strain between my inner world and my high-functioning mirror image would prove too much. Smack me behind the head, crack me in two, a radical new self spilling out. All over the floor.
Now I find myself playing catch-up in later life, wishing I had heeded my own warnings.
As Winterson says at the outset of The Passion (and I’m paraphrasing here): autobiography doesn’t exist. There is only art. And lies.
As they used to tell me in the classroom: Listen!
Sylvester Green’s fiction and poetry was written by someone else, with another name.