I am giving up the 11th grade next year and going back to teaching the 10th. That means goodbye, American Lit, goodbye Invisible Man and The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. Our 10th grade curriculum is much more eclectic--I can't say I'm looking forward to re-reading The Odyssey, but it'll be nice to come back to The Metamorphosis again. We're also probably the only school in the country that teaches Jeanette Winterson's coming-of-age gay novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
When I read it last, I dreaded it because I really hated Winterson's novel Sexing the Cherry. I was surprised to find that Oranges wasn't bad, and on this second reading (really more of a fourth, considering I read it along with two sections of the tenth grade in 2013) I was surprised to find that I genuinely liked it. Without Sexing the Cherry darkening the corner of my vision, I was able to enjoy the humor that pervades the novel. Most of it is mildly at the expense of Winterson's Charismatic Pentecostal upbringing:
I felt a bit awkward so I went to the Sunday School Room. There was some Fuzzy Felt to make Bible scenes with, and I was just beginning to enjoy a rewrite of Daniel in the lions' den when Pastor Finch appeared. I put my hands into my pockets and looked at the lino.
'Little girl,' he began, then he caught sight of the Fuzzy Felt.
'Daniel,' I answered.
'But that's not right,' he said, aghast. 'Don't you know that Daniel escaped? In your picture the lions are swallowing him.'
'I'm sorry,' I replied, putting on my best, blessed face. 'I wanted to do Jonah and the whale, but they don't do whales in Fuzzy Felt. I'm pretending those lions are whales.'
'You said it was Daniel.' He was suspicious.
He smiled. 'Let's put it right, shall we?' And he carefully rearranged the lions in one corner, and in Daniel in the other. 'What about Nebuchadnezzar? He started to root through the Fuzzy Felt, looking for a king.
'Hopeless,' I thought, Susan Green was sick on the tableau of the three Wise Man at Christmas, and you only get three kings to a box.
I left him to it. When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I'd seen Pastor Finch.
'He's in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,' I replied.
'Don't be fanciful, Jeanette,' said the voice.
That's funny. On another level, you might read it as a statement on the restrictiveness of Jeanette's upbringing, and her mother's religion. And you wouldn't be wrong. But you might also read it as part of a kunstlerroman, a novel about the development of an artist, and consider the way that Jeanette plays loosely with the structures of Biblical narrative, but doesn't abandon them.
The problem I had teaching this novel, and the problem I anticipate having once again, is that students are happy to sit at the first few levels. Representation of gay characters is important, and I'm glad we teach this book. But to some extent, it can be calcifying--instead of encouraging our students to push the limits of their thinking, it can encourage them to confirm the things they already think and believe. I don't particularly care what my students think about religion. But I hope that I can get them to see how even the chapters are named after books of the Bible, and that Jeanette uses the religious stories and structures to help understand her life even long after she has been chased out of the church for being gay. That's what makes Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit so powerfully tragic, but it's difficult to appreciate if you have never felt the need for a religious community in the first place.