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Winterson's way

Book Review9402005-06-072005-05-19

Winterson's way

Jeanette Winterson speaks out on sex, America's religious fanaticism, and her new novel, Lighthousekeeping

Jeanette Winterson speaks out on sex, America's religious fanaticism, and her new novel, Lighthousekeeping

By Suzanne Stroh

Raised in poverty, religious fanaticism, and intolerance, Jeanette Winterson left home at 16 and burst on the literary scene 20 years ago with her award-winning autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit--the tale of a young lesbian girl who defies her crazily religious mother. With offbeat androgynous heroes, reworked fairy tales, and stories within stories, follow-up novels like The Passion established Winterson as a European-style fabulist with an international fan base.

In the 1990s she caused a major literary controversy with two steamy novels that barely disguised her affair with her married female agent. In 2000 a 12-year relationship with critic and broadcaster Peggy Reynolds ended in a "dark period" of bad press and poor reviews of her novel The PowerBook. Winterson rebounded in 2003 with an ambitious Web site and a popular children's book, The King of Capri. She recently published a second children's book, Tanglewreck.

Now 45 and single, Winterson splits her time between the 18th-century house she restored in London's East End and her 18-acre farm in Oxfordshire, where she grows her own food--part of her passion for working to eradicate hunger in the world.

Winterson returns to her storytelling roots in religious fanaticism and fundamentalism with her eighth novel. Lighthousekeeping (Harcourt, $23) is the tale of Silver, a Scottish orphan who becomes a blind man's apprentice tending a lighthouse built by the Stevenson family. Growing up there with the ancient blind man's gothic tales, Silver discovers the secrets of the former lighthouse keeper, the religious fanatic Babel Dark, who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

You were a Pentecostal preacher at 7. Is America in a religious revival?
Yes. It's marked by two things: moral fervor on the one hand and indiscretion on the other. People are no longer worried about what they say. Their moral fervor gives them license to say whatever they like. And that's when you get the return of the kind of intolerance that we thought we were pushing back.

How did this happen?
In the Clinton era the Right were backing off a little bit; the liberal left did have the upper hand. All that stuff with Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky was about trying to embarrass the Left into a position where it no longer felt it could talk about moral issues. But an indiscretion of the president does not mean that the liberal left is morally bankrupt. When I see this retreating and allowing the right-wing agenda to move forward, it's frightening. Mrs. Winterson [JW's adoptive mother] was a religious fanatic. I know what they are. They believe in their own mission, and they're not going to pull back to save anybody.

How do we recognize fanatics?
Intolerance. They're always so rigid that they can't allow anything else to come in and contaminate their thinking. They call on God as though God were the same as they are. We've seen this over centuries. Everybody who wants their own way eventually says it's God's will.

Christianity has been so co-opted.
I hate it when George Bush and his rich cronies take the high moral ground and say this is God's way, this is Christianity. Jesus wasn't giving tax breaks to the rich. He was looking after single mothers and prostitutes.

You've got two kinds of religious fanatics now--the right-wing Christians here and the right-wing fundamentalists [of Islam]. And between them they're going to blow us all up. Each of them is as intolerant, as fervent, and as wrong as the other.

And as powerful.
And you've now got the Left apologizing for being liberal. We're always doubting, hesitating, asking ourselves questions. That is good, but sometimes it saps our central belief in who we are and what we're trying to do. Every good thing that's ever happened in your country and mine has been the work of the liberal left. Every reform. Every civil liberty. Every fight for human rights.

Has anybody ever given you chapter and verse from the Bible about your sexuality?
Not anybody close to me. Once I left the church I didn't meet any more religious fanatics. Met a few barmy creationists who give lectures.

Do gay sex and the Bible go together?
No. I don't think the Old Testament is credible, not for modern society. We have to move past that. We can't worry about not eating shellfish or animals that chew the cud.

How can gays take back the Bible?
They can't take back the Old Testament. There's too much in there which is oppressive and frightening. What we can do is claim spirituality. God is religion-proof. If God exists, if there is a forming intelligence out there, it's not going to be one that wants to kill gay people and persecute unmarried mothers and take away everybody's welfare benefit.

You left home at 16. What would you say to a kid who has to leave home today, whether by choice or because their parents kicked them out because they're gay?
I'd say don't do drugs or drink, don't end up on the streets, don't sell your body. It's going to be incredibly hard. But you can do it. And it's worth doing it, instead of staying in a place which will warp your imagination and sap your energy and twist your desire.

What is the best ecstasy: food, art, or sex?
It very much depends on the person you are. I want a life full of off-the-chart experience. I want real food and real art, and of course I want sex, love, to be significant. By that I mean that it should be intense and you should really feel something. I wouldn't quarrel with anybody who said, I find my ultimate experience through sex--or growing lettuce.

Stroh is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She lives with her family in the Virginia countryside.

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