Oranges An Autobiographical Novel No Not At

Oranges An Autobiographical Novel? No Not At All And Yes Of Course Essay, Research Paper Oranges an autobiographical novel? No not at all and yes of course.1 In the mind of the modern reader the phrase `autobiographical writing` conveys a notion of an accurate retelling, in part or in whole, of the author’s life.

Oranges An Autobiographical Novel? No Not At All And Yes Of Course Essay, Research Paper

Oranges an autobiographical novel? No not at all and yes of course.1 In the mind of the modern reader the phrase `autobiographical writing` conveys a notion of an accurate retelling, in part or in whole, of the author’s life. The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of the term reinforces this preconception, `autobiography : a personal account of one’s own life.`2 This idea of an `account` implies something factual, a recounting of events as they actually took place. The so-called `autobiographies` of Maxine Hong Kingston and Jeanette Winterson challenge these rather limiting definitions. When assessing these texts it is no longer acceptable to think of them as straightforward descriptions of the events in the lives of the authors. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Woman Warrior are both texts that go beyond the realm of the factual account. They blend history and myth, fact and fiction. Both texts fit more appropriately into Eakin’s definition of autobiography, which sees the process as an `art of self-invention`.3 This notion of invention of the self is a theme that plays a major part in both books. The authors themselves view their works as texts that fit Eakin’s definition rather than that offered by the dictionary. When asked whether The Woman Warrior was fact or fiction, Kingston responded `it’s closer to fiction.`4 Similarly, when Winterson was asked about the truthfulness of Oranges, in an interview for The Guardian, she asserted that `she’d made some of it up….and some of it was true, but what was what she couldn’t remember anymore.`5 One of the chief implications of recognising these works as fictions as much as they are fact, is a need to detach Winterson and Kingston, as authors, from Jeanette and Maxine, the characters about whom they write. King Kok Cheung, in her essay on The Woman Warrior, stresses the need to `distinguish each fictive `I` from the writer.`6 This is a view that can also be found within Oranges itself: To create was a fundament….Once created, the creature is separate from the creator, and needed no seconding to fully exist.(p.45) Winterson is the creator and Jeanette her creature, existing independently from the author who gives her life. The writing of autobiographies in its conventional sense can be viewed as a passive exercise. The author holds up a mirror to their past and records their experiences. However, Winterson and Kingston are creators rather than recorders. They do not use reflection, they start with a blank page and the very act of writing is part of their construction, a process in the creation of their identities. One of the underlying themes of feminist literary theory is the notion of woman as `made` rather than born. This idea is strongly supported by the autobiographical techniques employed by Winterson and Kingston. They do not write linear texts with fixed positions, a pre-conceived starting and finishing point. Their writing is pasted together from a variety of materials, more like a collage than a photograph, not a precise representation but a diverse, fragmented image. One of the chief motives Winterson and Kingston have for writing is that they are figures that have overcome oppression. They are more than women writing in a patriarchal society. Kingston must surmount linguistic and racial barriers while Winterson grows up in a community that will not accept her sexuality. Speech and language play an important role in Maxine’s fight against the oppressive societies of which she is part. The Woman Warrior opens with an implicit instruction: `You must not tell anyone…..what I am about to tell you.`(p.11) This negation of language, the removal of speech, is a recurrent theme of the text. It is ironic that in writing The Woman Warrior Kingston has told and her ultimate achievement is in this telling. Maxine has a unique relationship to language. She lives and was born in America, and writes in English, yet her first language is Chinese and her early life is profoundly affected by Chinese culture and ideology. Maxine is what Heilbrun has called an `outsider twice over`.7 Firstly she is `other` because she is female, secondly because she is Chinese. The notion of being an outsider is closely bound up with the theme of `tonguelessness`. This idea is evident from the outset of the book, the `no-name aunt` is an important figure to Maxine. Her silence, a silence she was culturally bound to maintain, is the key to her tragedy. Firstly she is silent when a man demands to sleep with her, then she is unable to explain to the villagers how she has fallen pregnant. Metaphorically gagged by society, the silent victim is treated as the silent criminal. Maxine’s other aunt, Moon Orchid, is also a character who is unable to speak. When she confronts her husband, who has moved to America and remarried, she can only `open and shut her mouth without any words coming out.`(p.138) Maxine is influenced by Chinese culture, where women are portrayed as silent, and combines this with her own experiences as a young child in America, unable to speak English at school. Both her Chinese past, where aunts have no name and thus no identity, and her American present, where her IQ is zero because she is unable to communicate, are constant reminders of the removal of the female voice. For Maxine this absence of sound is a void, the blackness with which she covers her work at school. While in her past this black vision is something without hope, for Maxine, the dark screen is a curtain, behind which there is potential, `so black and so full of possibilities.`(p.149) As Cheung writes `the destructive weapon of tradition is turned into a creative implement, and a speech impediment becomes literary invention.`8 Maxine blends the Chinese oral tradition of the `talk-story` with the literary American culture in which she grows up. In some respects this can be viewed negatively, Maxine as the trapped misfit outside both cultures. Physically situated in America but constantly influenced by the Chinese culture her family brought with them to the States: Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit into solid America.9 However, Maxine has something of a privileged position. The fact that she does not live completely within one culture or the other, yet cannot escape the influences of either, gives her a unique insight. Not a Chinese insight or that of an American, but a specifically Chinese American perspective. Her writing constantly displays this `dual-culture` influence. Written in her second language, the text is a somewhat corrupt form of English. But this produces a uniquely refreshing Chinese American language, with Chinese idioms, metaphors and ideology and the talk-story culture, fused with English language in which Kingston writes. She is constantly thinking in Chinese, from right to left across the page, and it is meeting in the middle with the English words she writes from left to right. Maxine’s paradoxical relationship towards language is perhaps most clearly illustrated by her recollection of her mother cutting her tongue. When Maxine asks why she did this her mother responds, `I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language.`(p.148) What appears to be a truncation of language is also at the same time a process of freeing. Out of the silence, `You must not tell…`, comes the freed tongue that can `speak languages that are completely different from one another.`(p.148) Jeanette’s relationship towards language in Oranges appears to be vastly different to Maxine’s. While Maxine finds a voice for women, `transforming putative defects into stylistic effects`10, Jeanette, even when a young girl, is a gifted orator and it is her preaching skills that bring many people to the Church. What Jeanette does share with Maxine is that she is also part of a culture that is structured to deny her any self-expression. Kingston might be seen as an author with no option but to write, `writing is not the chosen but the desperate alternative to speech`11. Winterson, on the other hand, seems compelled to write by a deep-seated anger, a desire to speak out against the injustices of society, `she was born to wrong circumstances`12. Like The Woman Warrior, Oranges does not simply progress with a factual account of the experiences of the central character. The text combines Jeanette’s story interspersed with sections of reworked fairy-tales, and compact insights into Winterson’s philosophy. It is in these reflections, as much as from the story of Jeanette, that we can gain an understanding of Jeanette Winterson. The chapter entitled Deuteronomy, somewhat ironically subtitled `The last book of the law`, would be more accurately described as a chapter of the `anti-law`. Deuteronomy embodies much of the philosophy apparent throughout the book. At a structural level the text is fragmented, it has no uniform narrative pattern. There is no single text, but a variety of texts operating at a number of levels. This notion of fluidity and multiplicity is something that not only applies to Oranges but can be seen as an underlying theme of feminist critical theory more generally. Luce Irigaray expresses the view that: Woman is neither open or closed. She is indefinite, in-finite, form is never complete in her…..This incompleteness in her form, allows her continually to become something else, though this is not to say that she is ever univocally nothing.13 Similarly, autobiography is in this case an `indefinite` form. The whole notion of incompleteness, a refusal to believe that anything can be pinned down or reduced to any universal truths is an underlying theme of Winterson’s ideology. What Winterson has written is a story , `a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained`.(p.91) There is a rejection of any notion of linear progression, the idea of moving from an arbitrary start to an equally hypothetical finish, or in the case of autobiography from birth to death. Instead the circular image prevails: The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like a string full of knots. It’s all there but it’s hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. (p.91) There is a rejection of so-called `truths` , `facts` and `history`, and a privileging of story and myth. For Winterson history is merely a story reduced to a single form. The personal element of the individual teller is removed and instead the `story` is conveyed impersonally and rigidly – history is a law of the past. This history is male, written by men, about men for a patriarchal society. The same can be said of the history of autobiography: the monstrousness of selfhood is intimately embedded within the question of female autobiography. Yet how could it be otherwise, since the very notion of a self, the very shape of human life stories, has always, from St. Augustine to Freud been modelled on the man.14 This is a key reason for the autobiographies of Jeanette Winterson and Maxine Hong Kingston taking the form they do. They do not write within the existing patriarchal framework of autobiography but construct a female system. One of the chief ways this female system, is implemented is through a process of re-writing the fairy stories and myths most deeply embedded in patriarchal culture. Alicia Ostriker highlights the importance of such reworkings: ..this feature of women’s writing as a process of revisionary myth-making that plunders sanctions of existing language where our meanings of `male` and `female` have been preserved.15 Winterson and Kingston take these fantastical tales from within their culture and make subtle adjustments to their meanings. One of the most well-known exponents of this process of `revisionary myth-making` is Angela Carter: Reading is just as creative an activity as writing and most intellectual development depends on new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.16 This is just the technique Winterson and Kingston employ. They take old bottles, be them the bottles of the Chinese oral tradition or the fairy-tale culture of princesses and wizards from Western culture, and into them place their own vintages, carefully doctored reworkings of their literary pasts. They are crucial figures in what Carter has called `the demythologizing business`17 , revising `the myths of folklore and so on`, that are `a vast repository of outmoded lies`. 18 Winterson starts many of her tales with the traditional `Once upon a time….` opening followed by the introduction of the beautiful princess figure. This, however is something of a parodied image, `so beautiful that the mere sight of her healed the sick and gave a good omen to crops`. (p.59) Traditional gender stereotypes are reversed, the beautiful woman is acquainted with science and the prince is not given the male attribute of being `handsome` but he is described as `pretty`, a word usually reserved for attractive female characters in such tales. In Winterson’s writings there is a refusal to reach the `happily ever after` ending that is always inevitable in traditional fairy stories. In answer to the prince’s proposal of marriage the beautiful women, who stands above the kneeling prince, replies `You’re very sweet, but I don’t want to marry you.` ( p.62) Ultimate knowledge in the tale lies not with the male figures, such as the prince or his advisors, but with the beautiful woman and the advisor’s mother whose teaching her son had forgotten. This superiority of women is not tolerated by the male characters – the goose and the woman lose their heads. The theme of perfection is central to the tale. Just as she opposes the rigidity of history, Winterson seems to be against the notion of a perfect existence. To accept only one true set of meanings, one ultimate state of perfection is wrong. It is like saying that oranges are the only fruit, and Winterson is insistent that they are not. Perfection is not the beautiful woman, it is the geezer who `gets a bolt through the neck`. ( p.65) Jeanette can be seen to relate very closely to some of the figures in the fairy tales. Winnet Stonejar, an anagram of the author’s name, is an alternative Jeanette in a different world. Just as Jeanette is dominated by the influence of her overwhelming mother, so Jeanette is symbolically tied to her father by `an invisible thread around one of her buttons`. (p.144) This method of self-expression through other characters is one also employed by Kingston. Maxine is highly influenced by the mythical figure of the woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, who Cheung argues, Maxine communes with `to facilitate the painful process of breaking silence`.19 Just as Maxine must develop from the girl with a zero IQ to a Grade A student and then to the writer, so the young girl must become a warrior. They must fill the traditionally male roles of fighter and writer. For Maxine, the warrior is a role model, a `feminist model daring to assert authority, challenge patriarchy, and shed feminine decorum`. 20 While Fa Mu Lan overcomes her enemy by slicing off heads Maxine uses the literary sword to vanquish her adversaries. The woman warrior is also afflicted by language, the anti-female markings carved in her back represent the constant reminder of the influence of a male-orientated society. Maxine recognises her affinity with the warrior : The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar….What we have in common are the words at our backs……The reporting is the vengeance -not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.(p.53) Where they perhaps differ is that the anger Maxine feels she transforms into something creative rather than destructive. By the end of The Woman Warrior Maxine has developed from the passive listener to the creator of stories herself, `I also am a story-talker`.(p184) Maxine is perhaps more like the figure of Ts’ai Yen, the poet, the writer of songs. Ts’ ai Yen sings to the foreign music of the barbarian’s and likewise Maxine is something of a poet who sings her own song in a different tongue. It is through these mythical characters that Maxine makes her symbolic return to China: She does not (and does not want to) return to China, but she reconnects with her ancestral culture through writing.21 Jeanette Winterson and Maxine Hong Kingston are both writers who have refused to `starve in silence`. In writing their lives , or perhaps more accurately, their fictional lives, they have not merely fitted their existence’s into the patriarchal framework of conventional autobiography. They have constructed themselves through an on-going process of `fictional autobiography`, intertwining fact with fiction, and history with myth. In creating their identities they are making no attempt to untie the knot and lay down the undisputed facts. Their ultimate achievement is that they do find `the power of naming themselves` and become what Tillie Olsen has called `only’s`: We who write are survivors, `only’s`….. Only’s are used to rebuke (`to be models`) ; to imply the unrealistic, `see it can be done, all you need is capacity and will.`22REFERENCES 1. Jeanette Winterson Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, intro p.xiv 2. Concise Oxford Dictionary 3. King Kok Cheung `”Don’t Tell”: Imposed Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior` in PMLA no. 103 p.163 4. Ibid.,p.163 5. Rebecca O’Rourke `Fingers in the Fruit Basket : A Feminist Reading of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in Feminist Criticism, Theory and Practice ed. Susan p.67 Sellers 6. Cheung, p.163 7. Cheung, p.163, citing Heilbrun 8. Ibid., p.162 9. Ibid., p.164 10. Ibid., p.172 11. Ibid., p.165 12. O’Rourke, p.59 13. Sarah Mills, et al. Feminist Reading Feminists Reading, p.173 14. Mary Jacobus Reading Woman, here citing Barbara Johnson, p.23 15. Mills, p.172 16. Ibid., p.133 17. Ibid., p.133 18. Ibid., p.133 19. Cheung, p.165 20. Ibid., p.168 21. Ibid., p. 172 22. O’Rourke, p.59