Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson


Elena Savvas (she/they) observes conversations between lesbianism and Christianity in the novel

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Image by Barb Howe, Flickr

By Elena Savvas

On January 6 2023, the Gender and Sexuality results of the 2021 Census were released. Despite the lack of diversity included in the survey on sexuality - the only options given were heterosexual, 'gay/lesbian', bi-sexual, pansexual, asexual, and queer - its results proved an insightful cultural moment at the start of the New Year. Out of those who completed the Census, 1.54 percent identified as gay or lesbian, approximately 1.51 percent as bisexual or pansexual, 0.06 percent as asexual and 0.03 percent as queer. One might say that these fractions do not seem as monumental as I am stressing at face value, perhaps due to the 7.5 percent that chose not to disclose their identities on the survey. However, it is the reality of the hundreds-of-thousands of people that have 'come out' in the name of archival statistics that I am astounded by. 2021 was the first year that gathered statistics on gender identity and sexuality, and its results have proven the existence of a community that is not going anywhere.

The Census also revealed other interesting statistics. Perhaps most notably, especially in news coverage, the survey showed that less than half of the population of England and Wales identify as Christian. This is a particularly important moment for data analysis in the UK, as the last Census in 2011, revealed 59.3 percent of the population to be Christian. This statistic sits between a number of others, evidencing the growth of the country's religious diversity: for example, the percentage of those identifying as Muslim moved from 4.9 per-cent to 6.5 percent, and Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism all saw a rise in numbers. However, according to The Guardian, it is the drop in numbers for Christianity that I am most intrigued by, especially as the 46.2 percent is teetering near to the 37.2 percent of those who ticked the box for 'no religion'.

Receiving this news after Christmas time seemed particularly provocative, especially as the self-assigned 'gay cousin' around the yule-table. After much pondering, I found myself gravitating towards my copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Originally published in 1985, the book follows the story of Jeanette, a lesbian girl growing up in an evangelist Pentecostal community in Lancashire, whose experiences (and name) are based on the author's own up-bringing.

The book is divided into eight sections named after the first eight books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. It was the perfect book to pick up again when contemplating my identity as a lesbian in a country that has only just changed from being over 50 percent Christian. In her narrative, Jeanette's character uses Biblical stories and parables to navigate her confusion about her identity. Winterson reconstructs Old Testament rhetoric from commanding one towards Christianity, tore-directing Jeanette towards her lesbianism. Dr Amy Benson Brown claims this as a "revisionary engagement with the Bible", arguing Jeanette as a visionary beyond its biblical definition.

The novel reconfigures the Bible in various ways, forming itself as a hermeneutical tale as Jeanette finds herself attempting to interpret signs and messages in the world around her, leading to her sexual discovery. Winterson subverts the use of biblical training as an exhaustive, intransigent means of religious conversion, or a means of conversion therapy, by showing the child's use of religious education to further separate herself from her mother's religious conservatism. Jeanette's character does take on a conversion, one that moves from doubt, to crisis, to epiphany, and to salvation, yet not in the way one might expect. This subversion of dogma is still powerful today, as queer people have found themselves grappling with dogmatic legislation that continues to oppress and hegemonize our identities; most recently this has included Rishi Sunak's blocking of Scotland's gender recognition legislation.

I cannot help but wish that Jeanette could see where we are now, to see that one's lesbianism and Christian faith can intersect, and that, in light of the Census, 'lesbian' is as much of an important identifier as 'Christian' is. However, Dr Kevin Guyan, LGBTQ+ data expert and Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, has urged that the Census' landmark figures must now be used to benefit queer communities, stating that "the data will not, on its own, address issues negatively impacting many LGBTQ+ people, such as the cost-of-living crisis, access to healthcare and affordable housing" and that the results "must be understood as the first step in a longer project of change." Perhaps, in the modern day, as we still wait for said 'project of change' to begin, we can hope these results will eventually help children that have had similar upbringings to young Jeanette, and to Winterson herself.

In an interview with book reviewer critic ˜Bakchormeeboy', Winterson herself has stated "we have to go on standing up for human rights, equality under the law to live and to love."