Coming Out Literature

Coming out is a scary thing. If there’s a choice an LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) individual has to make at all it’s the choice of when, where, how, and to whom they come out to. Both novels incorporated in this project—Melody Carson’s Bright Purple: Color Me Confused and Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—are very much coming-out books, coming from both a spectator point of view and that of a first person experience, respectively. While there is much to be written about regarding the lives of people who are attracted to the same sex, the process and story of coming out is one of the most important facets. Coming out to oneself is certainly a pivotal moment in someone’s life, but it is the vulnerable moment of shedding all the protective layers and baring complete authenticity in coming out to someone else that has the powerful potential to build community or tear it away.

I may not personally identify as lesbian or bisexual, but I have witnessed pieces of the coming out story of my father as gay, followed a couple years later with my unabashed ally “coming out” to our extended family. His was multitudes more painful than mine—something that I do not take lightly—but my own experience of being treated differently because of a stance I’m taking on the “wrong side” of LGBTQ+ issues, has opened my eyes to a fraction of what other people must face. This has propelled me into several genres of writing where I’ve focused on not just LGBTQ+ concerns but also their intersection with Christianity. My heightened sense of awareness about the “conflict of interests” of my dual identity—that is, being an LGBTQ+ ally and a Christian—has also shown me that so few are addressing this intersection in a way that is constructive to both identities.

In the same way, I found almost immediately during this project that even in the rare golden nuggets that are Bright Purple and Oranges—that is, gold nuggets in the sense that they are books that actually address both sexuality and religion as the major concerns of the text—both of these books do not constructively discuss the identity of the Christian lesbian. She appears to be an impossibility, a myth, and no one supporting her can have any substantial faith. Bright Purple views homosexuality as a curable confusion of the mind to the very last page and Oranges’ Christians are religiously extreme to the point of being comical and it closes with an agnostic lesbian narrator rather than a spiritual one. Each in their turn decided to choose one identity over the other as the one that “ought” to be the more defining part of a person.

No one should be harassed out of a belief in something greater. And no one should be denied relationship with the one they love.

But why not both? Why can’t someone choose both? The character of Jess from Bright Purple doesn’t appear to have chosen quite yet, though the final chapter assumes that God will be saving her from her fate of remaining a lesbian. So even those up in the air are meant to be read as someday choosing between sexuality and religion. The SCOTUS ruling of June 26, 2015 was a huge step in the Gay Rights movement and an opportunity for some Christian denominations to declare themselves as allies—that is, many Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Methodist, and Episcopal churches. But even with the world shifting to more open-minded ways of life, no new literature and relatively no new films are being written to reflect it. Or maybe they’re hiding under the heap of mainstream media. Or maybe they’re in the making right now.

I plan to be contributing to this new genre. Writing a work of fiction that centers around LGBTQ-Christian conflict has been something I’ve often considered, but now is an undertaking I can hardly wait to begin. For literature is not meant to be written only as a direct reflection of the author, but rather a creative narrative that takes issue with what the author finds is necessary for the world to hear. And I believe the myth of these dual-identities needs to be shaken to the ground. The Us vs. Them mentality dividing LGBTQ+ communities and the Church needs to end. Not every coming out story has to involve bigoted characters that all just happen to be Christian and the religious/spiritual lesbian, gay, or bisexual character does not have to remain an impossibility. Because while many will continue to use their religion to perpetuate violence and homophobia and others will stick to tradition more peacefully in their belief that LGB orientations go against moral code, there are some who do not reflect these ideas and they cannot be left hidden in the shadows. Both the secular and the spiritual LGB person should be able to see themselves proudly represented and unashamed of who they are. Because no one should be harassed out of a belief in something greater. And no one should be denied relationship with the one they love.

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Dual Realities

The world is full of binaries. Or rather the world is comprised of an array of spectrums and humans like to simplify them by creating categories—and the binary is our favorite. Are you right or wrong? Male or female? Black or white? And then everything gets shaken when you can’t quite tell which it is. As my professor for a Gender and Sexuality class once put it, to some things, like spectrums, “the answer is yes, yes, and yes.” There is no single “Truth” but rather validity that shines just as bright from one end to the other.

And yet, taking the color spectrum for example, what happens when you are two colors at once? Does your blue half overcome your yellow one, or have you become green and completely lost the essence of these two defining parts of yourself? Both Ramie and Jess from Melody Carlson’s Bright Purple: Color Me Confused and Jeanette from Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit battle between binaries they find themselves in, most notably between the conflicting morality of lesbian identity and conservative Christianity—though other binaries in tandem will help shape each character’s growth in demonstration of how such categorizing affects vulnerable people.

Before dividing the two narrators, Ramie and Jeanette, to their separate fates in each book, it should be noted the seriousness they both place on the dual realities of the physical world and that of the spiritual. While concerns for the people around them are ever-present, Ramie is often narrating off to the side her internal communications with God, “I pray as I hurry to French class. I ask God to forgive me for having bad thoughts, and I ask God to keep working on Jess” (Carlson, 57) and similarly Jeanette’s mother has trained her to keep the ways of God a high priority, “I was lying in bed one night, thinking about the glory of the Lord, when it struck me that life had gone very quiet.” (Winterson, 31) Whether through prayer or mediation or the way they interact with others in their lives, both girls have a high sense for what greater authority they are subjected to and with whom they are keeping in frequent communication. Being “in the world and not of it” is something both girls would probably count herself to upholding, though how they define “the world” may be slightly different.

In bridging towards the more conflicting dual-realities, Jeanette captures the feeling of being torn apart and the impossibility of fully encompassing two realities at once in an internal dialogue which takes place after she has been living away from the only home she ever knew. First an arbitrary speaker asks her “‘Don’t you ever thinking of going back?’” to which she responds:

“Silly question. There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intends to bring you back… I’m always thinking of going back. When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because the realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities.” (Winterson, 204-5)

The lesbian character of Jess in Bright Purple also goes missing from the novel for several chapters, partly from her own fear of ostracization and then later after being actively ostracized. Unfortunately the book begins where Jess has already come out to Ramie and so it is impossible to have an accurate idea of what their past best-friendship was like, given that all of Ramie’s memories of her are discolored by her abhorrence for her ex-best-friend’s “choice.” It is not until almost halfway through the book that the two girls actually have a second conversation, which climaxes to a yelling match where it is clear, from both Ramie and Jess’s side, that the second reality is taking priority over what they once had and the old Jess has not survived.

“‘I was your friend,’ I say quietly to Jess. ‘But you’ve changed. And that changes everything. Can’t you see that?’

‘No! … You’re the one who’s changed, Ramie! I trusted you! And you outed me! … I don’t care what people think anymore. I don’t have anything to hide.’ Then she turns around and looks at the spectators and yells, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I’m gay! … I’m out of the closet! Are you all happy now? Is this what everyone was waiting for? Do you want to take me outside and beat me up now? Do you want to starting throwing rocks at me? Do you want to—’ And then her face just cracks like she can’t control it, and suddenly she is crying.” (Carlson, 89)

It is clear from this exchange that while the second reality is chosen over the first—that is, the new Jess over the “reality” where Jess was perceived as straight—that even this second reality is not the same for them. To Ramie, our narrator, she sees the dividing line between the two realities as a choice Jess makes, a choice that is morally wrong which “justifies” Ramie’s own ostracization of her former friend. However for Jess, her identity as a lesbian has been with her for years and so the dual realities are instead before and after the closet, with the dividing line being the choice of openly presenting herself as she is, denying herself the privileges of being perceived as straight. She clearly understands the repercussions of this action by her expectations of violence.

All of this is feeding into two realities, two “truths”, which Ramie battles throughout the entire book: 1) God says to love everyone, neighbors and enemies alike; and 2) the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. Ramie feels the tug-of-war of feeling obligation to both love and despise Jess, and conflict rises when these are incompatible. It is clear from the bulk of the book that the despising overrides the love, though Ramie justifies most of her actions as being out of love, or at least for the greater good. For example, Ramie voluntarily quits the girls’ basketball team essentially to avoid being around Jess—and God forbid having to change in the same locker room—at a point in the book when she is the only one aware of Jess’s lesbian identity. However Ramie’s biases paint her situation differently.

“But I console myself with a Bible verse. ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ And that’s what I think I’ve done today. I’ve laid down my life for Jess. Even if she’s not my friend anymore. I’ve laid down my life for her. Maybe that’s what Nathan meant by loving your enemies. Although, to be completely honest, I don’t feel any love for Jess right now.” (Carlson, 63)

The trouble with this book is that it is unclear how much of Ramie’s hypocrisy is picked up by the target audience as such. Are conservative Christian teen girls trapped in this same muddling of love and hate so that they sympathize with another young girl self-centeredly twisting the love and hate together until she has become a whole new, bitter person? While I may read Ramie as the antagonist of her own book, who will pin that label on Jess instead?

These contradictions between sexuality and religion take on an even more complex head in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As Jeanette comes to terms with her identity as a lesbian in the second half of the book, there is certainly this similar backlash to what Jess faces in Bright Purple. However, Jess is given hardly any voice throughout the text and is mostly referred to in the projection of Ramie’s thoughts. Oranges, in its first-person narrative, gives a complete view of the inner workings of Jeanette’s mind. We observe that she does not see her sexuality and same-sex relationships as a facet of the world that stands in opposition to Christianity in the binary of the secular vs. the spiritual.

“[Katy] was my most uncomplicated love affair, and I loved her because of it… She was blissful. I took care never to look at her when I preached, though she always sat in the front row. We did have a genuinely spiritual dimension. I taught her a lot, and she put all her efforts into the church, quite apart from me. It was a good time. To the pure all things are pure…”(Winterson, 156)

This relationship takes place some years after Jeanette and Melanie’s scandal has already been found out, condemned, and both girls “healed” from the demons inside them. So while Jeanette sees the disapproval of the church—thus her reasoning for never looking at Katy when she preaches—the precautions she takes are not in an act of secrecy between herself and God but rather between herself and the homophobic people around her. While this is a facet of the “two realities” she speaks of, this does not compromise her relationship with God, which is noteworthy because of the large number of people who reject both the church and God after being faced with the cruel reality that is “love the sinner, hate the sin,” as demonstrated through Jess when she emails Ramie:

“‘being a homosexual is not a choice. it’s how we are made. don’t blame me, blame god. he made me like this. although i’m not sure i believe in god now that everyone who claims to be a christian is turning against me. i don’t know what i believe. but i know it’s no use talking to people like u.'” (Carlson, 106)

The marginalization of the “Other” is an age-old trend that stems from the greed for power by a dominant group, whether through sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, or any other means. Its only counter-actions that don’t involve overthrowing the powers that be are 1) assimilating as is possible into the majority’s culture for safety or 2) immersing oneself in one’s “Otherness” as a way of rejecting any connection to the oppressor. For gay Christians this means pretending to be straight or leaving the church for secular gay culture, because those who hold the power and “rule” the Church will never be converted to affirming same-sex relationships and demand it as the status quo.

Jeanette, in her initial refusal to neither assimilate nor reject her oppressors, begins her own attempts at something like an overthrowing in her refusal of narrow-minded ideas of what it is to be gay. As in Bright Purple where choosing to be gay is seen as contracting some kind of disease from hanging around other gay people and/or appearing too much like the other gender, Jeanette laughs at this idea when her mother remarks “‘Should have been a woman that one’” when a man brings his boyfriend to the church, openly holding his hand:

“This is clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it.” (Winterson, 164)

While this opinion appears to contradict ideas of the gender spectrum and its fluidity, its main objective of separating ideas of gender identification from sexuality is certainly subverting traditional, conservative ways of viewing the “Other” which tends to lump “Others” all together in a heap of misunderstanding—as well as unwillingness to understand.

Unfortunately this lumping together of the “Other” is something illustrated in an event in Bright Purple that is meant to be read as a sort of epiphany game-changer for the character of Ramie in understanding the need for tolerance of people who profess attractions to the same sex. Upon first glance it may appear harmless enough, because of how both minority traits discussed are used as justification for oppression, but a closer reading suggests otherwise. Ramie addresses Amy, after Amy has jokingly suggested shipping “homosexuals off to some deserted island” (Carlson, 155)

“‘But what if your opinion hurts others? Like I know that people have said or thought the very same thing about me. You know, bigoted people who think that just because I’m biracial, I should go live somewhere else too.’

‘Why should you be offended’ [Kelsey] continues. ‘I mean on one hand you’re saying that we need to accept homosexuals. But then on the other hand, you don’t want to be associated with them. What’s up with that?’

‘I mean, if you haven’t noticed, my skin isn’t exactly the same color as yours. So, I’m curious, do you accept me or not? … I mean you say you accept me, but that doesn’t mean you’re like me… So maybe it’s possible for us to accept Jess without being gay.'” (156-7)

To treat people equally despite differences in race and sexuality seems pretty obvious and is probably what the author is meaning to get at. What the issue is here, is that there is no moral binary for race while there is one for sexuality, according to this book. Homosexuality is, through the end of Bright Purple, seen as a sin that someone can be saved from, which has no comparison to race, which is merely the combination of your parents’ DNA that manifests itself in the physical features of your body. There is no intersection of Ramie’s race with her opinion on homosexuality and religion, while the same cannot be said for Jess, who cannot survive out of the closet long without choosing between the two.

Living lives that force either suppression of dual-identities or choosing between one or the other is a huge factor that drives much of the conflict in both Bright Purple and Oranges. Compromises are either unlawful or possible fatal to a character. It is a testament to humanity’s issue with categorizing people into harmful boxes and the need to move towards more open, spectrum-like ways of viewing people and the world. While having opposing conclusions in each novel’s final chapter, these contemporary novelists have both courageously opened a controversial door to a discussion of how Christians ought to approach homosexuality so that hopefully this harmful suppression of true identity comes to an end.

 

Works Cited

 

Carlson, Melody. “Bright Purple: Color Me Confused.” Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006. Print.

 

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 3rd ed. London, UK: Vintage, 2010. Print.

“To the Pure All Things Are Pure”

The tenth chapter in the book of Acts, the first New Testament book immediately proceeding the four gospels, tells a very important story that has shaped much of Christian culture, though it can easily go unnoticed. In the account the apostle Peter sees a vision in which something like a sheet is lowered from the sky, and on the sheet are a large number of animals that Peter recognizes as traditionally unclean according to the Law of Moses. However he hears the voice of God say to freely eat them, and in response to Peter’s objection there is the retort from heaven, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (New American Standard, Acts 10.10-16) While the vision specifically pointed towards a change in perspective on food, Peter immediately attributes this to a change in perspective of Gentiles, now seeing all people as able to have access to the gospel of salvation, the spirit of God, and eternal life. Because of this event, cultures like the western world converted to Christianity. But the message of change regarding the old Law, the stricter rules that set the Jewish nation apart from the rest of the world were considered a part of that culture and not carried over to Christian theology. Throughout history, we see sects and denominations split themselves again and again and often over debate over traditional doctrine. Someone is always going back to passages like Acts 10 to advocate for a less rigid way of living for God.

This is what I think the protagonist of British author Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is getting at. As the character of Jeanette stands firm on the non-perversity of her love and desire for other women, one line in particular stands out that also echoes Peter’s vision: “To the pure all things are pure.” (156) This iconic moment in the text is quoted by critics from Laura Doan to Jeanette King, but they all appear to be coming at the text with a more objective lens given their likely secular viewpoint. For anyone accustomed to the study, research, and debate of literature it should be readily acknowledged that true objectivity is impossible—and honestly pointless—because ethos inhabits too vast a portion of the human psyche. And with such substantial potential for emotional intelligence, what good does it do anyone to hinder it?

And so I, as a Christian and scholar of literature, approach Winterson’s Oranges with a peaked interest in how a traditional, and yet postmodern, Christian audience approaches this text, should they be so fortunate as to both stumble upon it and read it in its entirety. Winterson states in her introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Oranges that

“In structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel. This didn’t worry me, neither did it worry Philippa Brewster, my publisher at the newly former Pandora Press. It did worry her bosses though, who couldn’t see its market or its merit, and who were reluctant to waste a hardback on it.” (xvi-xvii)

Especially now, more than thirty years since the novel was published and any audience reading Oranges now is living in a world in which many countries—including the United Kingdom and the United States—have legalized same-sex marriage, the tensions between Christian churches and LGBTQ+ communities seem to be greater than ever. Did Winterson expect any Christians—both in 1985 and in the future—to pick up her controversial novel and read it? I would say that she did. But if by reading it they aren’t converted into this “to the pure all things are pure” theology, what is the object for them to come away with? I believe it is meant to prompt the question of “What makes sin sinful?” but also for readers to recognize Christianity’s religious origins in a patriarchy that controls first women and then any additional “Other”—be it other races, cultures, or sexual orientations—and the grave problems this produces.

The uniqueness of the book—which Winterson described in her introduction—has much to do with the ambiguity of her target audience. While the subject matter may make most conservative Christians squirm in their seats, it is by no means a book for secular folks alone. This is demonstrated in several ways, namely how the chapter titles are the first eight books of the Bible (Genesis-Ruth) and from the highly religiously intelligent narration of the protagonist, Jeanette. In fact, there is almost complete absence of reference to same-sex attraction for the first half of the book. It’s not until a hundred pages in that Jeanette meets the first girl that she will fall in love with. All prior to this is tens of pages describing the religiously devout life that Jeanette leads, thanks to her mother who adopted her for the sole purpose of raising her to be a missionary. In an essay tackling issues of homosexuality and the adoption of children, Margot Gayle Backus remarks on this undertaking:

“Ultimately, Jeanette’s mother earmarks Jeanette, rather than herself, to be the missionary in the family, thus enabling her to lay claim to the sacrificial aspirations of a saint without having to sacrifice anything. As Jeanette remarks, the process of rearing a child dedicated to such a holy mission would provide her mother with ‘a way out now, for years and years to come’ (10).” (136)

I first found it odd that this religious upbringing should be the focus of the entire first half of the book while the supposed central conflict didn’t arise until one hundred pages in. There are certainly many reasons why Winterson chose to write in the way she did, but one in particular is the process of building a firm foundation for the Christian audience. There must be a strong bond between the narrator and this kind of reader for any empathy to be cultivated. For once this familiar bond is set in stone, challenging questions can now be asked that will be given more credibility and serious thought, instead of being regarded as a piece of propaganda that gets tossed to the side without a more conservative reader having taken even a glance at it.

“What makes sin sinful?” seems at first to have a fairly clear answer: that which is not pleasing to God. Yet, if homosexuality is not pleasing to God, and therefore sinful, how can Jeanette reconcile her homosexual desires and behavior as sinless? This is the flabbergasting question that boggles the Christian’s mind. Critic Laura Doan notes this in The Lesbian Postmodern,

“Jeanette reaches what seems a sensible conclusion: if her love is not evil, it must be good. Jeanette experiences neither guilt nor self-doubt—let alone second thoughts. Her lovers attend her church, listen to her preach—they pray together before going home to make love. By embracing a credo (“To the pure all things are pure”) that assures her of the rightness of her love, she reconciles her private involvement with women and her public position in the church. She perceives no discrepancy, moral or otherwise, between her sexual preference (natural and essential) and the prescriptions of the church (cultural and social) because she believes, like Winterson, that love shouldn’t be ‘gender bound.'” (144)

What Jeanette finds to be evil is not what is written on a list of Do Not’s but rather evil is deliberate hurt of other people. This includes ill treatment of people, physical violence, theft, lying, etc. All very unloving things that can be done and are certainly not a reflection of God. If she is not hurting anyone—that is, if the sexual relationship is consensual—and she is doing it out of love, Jeanette sees it as not unnatural or sinful. Separate from being displeasing to God—for any sexual relations between non-married couples is sinful according to the Christian tradition, as with many other religions—many Christians feel that while the same-sex partners themselves do not feel they are being harmed, Christians themselves sometimes feel manipulated by their loved ones by their coming out. This is reflected in the Christian teen novel by Melody Carlson, Bright Purple: Color Me Confused, in which the narrator reacts inwardly towards her friend’s coming out by lamenting over how “my entire life spins totally out of control” (11) and later gives a general statement about coming out.

“I think people who decide to become gay should consider these things more carefully, especially before they jump out of the closet and scare everyone to death. They should think about how their new “orientation” completely disorients others around them. They should consider the unfairness of their selfish and sinful choice, and how it hurts all the people who love and care about them.” (34)

Surely many more Christians today would not have such a harsh view of LGB people, but this response is also still not far from the norm. Bright Purple’s narrator is able to lovingly accept her friend by the end while still holding on to the fact that God can save the friend, “from living the rest of her life as a lesbian.” (203) If this is a more homophobic stance than Winterson’s audience may be, Jeanette may receive some empathy for her sexually exploring teenage self, because of the fact that she holds so tightly onto her faith, despite the cruelty of other Christians. However, Jeanette takes it even further by not only declaring herself innocent but by accusing others as sinful for not accepting her as God made her.

“The problem, as Jeanette sees it, stems not from her exquisite longings for women, but from others’ inability to recognize and acknowledge the loveliness of sexual love shared between women. Jeanette’s strength and the strength of this coming-of-age/coming-out novel, emerges from a profound and unshakable conviction that her lesbianism is right and that any attempt to condemn or despise her—a celebrant of the most natural of passions—constitutes perversion.” (Doan, 137)

Certainly the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, and thus to reject, ostracize, and take judgment into one’s own hands would not constitute as loving someone as yourself. Here is where Winterson’s book might bring some Christians to serious questioning of their own convictions and even changing their minds, though many more may see same-sex attraction and relationships as unloving to God, if not to their neighbor.

Still, there is another aspect of religion that Jeanette’s character critiques for the benefit of any conservative Christian audience: patriarchal control. Upon a first reading, this may be lost on the audience, predominately because the Pentecostal church Jeanette grows up in is full of and run by women. Or so it seems. Pastor Finch is sometimes mentioned as is Pastor Spratt (often off doing missionary work), but these are the men who are actually running the show behind the mass of wailing, tongue-speaking, gossiping women. Even Jeanette’s mother, with a mostly absent husband and seeming to be pretty independent, actually is more controlled in her actions than may appear at first sight—because a second glance takes note of her devotion to male superiority, including a strange obsession with Pastor Spratt.

“[Jeanette’s mother] is an example therefore of the woman who identifies totally with the male symbolic order, deriving her status from it by serving it. Her conformity to the church’s patriarchal view of female sexuality is evident throughout the novel. She appears to have no sexual relationship with her husband,” (King, 119)

It is this same patriarchy that quickly accounts for Jeanette’s “deviant” behavior by her undermining male leads by giving sermons herself as a woman, though she—as well as other women—had been doing so for years without any sort of conflict.

“I knew my mother hoped I would blame myself, but I didn’t. I knew now where the blame lay. If there’s such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore… So there I was, my success in the pulpit being the reason for my downfall. The devil had attacked me at my weakest point: my inability to realize the limitations of my sex.” (Winterson, 172)

Sexual orientation is quickly reworded to be an issue of gender, something more familiar, but still qualified as “Other” enough to be accused of being subversive and thus silenced. Critic Jeanette King goes on to argue the predestined betrayal of mother to daughter when an exorcism previously performed has not fully healed Jeanette; the pastor proclaims, “‘The demon…had returned sevenfold.’” (Winterson, 168) leading to Jeanette’s demotion from church leadership. “Given that Jeanette’s mother has identified herself with the patriarchal church in this way, it is inevitable that she will betray her daughter when Jeanette comes into conflict with the church by falling in love with another young woman” (120) With patriarchy comes tradition to keep the status quo, to keep the men in power, and the Pentecostal church’s literal readings of the Bible are un-persuaded despite Jeanette’s convictions.

In her book titled “Lesbian Panic,” Patricia J. Smith remarks on the intersectionality of equal parts Christian and lesbianism that other books do not similarly approach.

“While institutional religion, Christianity in particular, is generally perceived as a primary source of social prohibitions against homosexuality, few of the novels I consider in this study have directly considered the interaction between the church and the lesbian individual; it is as if they actively deny the pervasive influence of this interaction over their subjects. Winterson, having herself been a child evangelist, unflinchingly examines the relationships between the male-controlled church policy of homophobia and finds an endless cycle in which the former is both the cause and effect of the latter.” (183-4)

While the intensity of the church presented in Oranges is not the norm in either the United Kingdom or the United States, and is often read with an ironic eye, it is neither the gay-bashing and homophobic material of Carlson’s Bright Purple nor one that treats the church like a joke. Perhaps this is thanks only to the intersectionality of both the narrator and author herself, but it is a dual-identity that is held by more people than many are willing to admit. Where the bosses at Winterson’s publishing house saw neither market nor merit for Oranges at first, the merit and market are invisible but larger than both a secular and religious audience might suppose. It is the patriarchal aspect of tradition that keeps literal readings of scripture the law of the land. Though Oranges may not be transforming many minds by itself, every year longer that it exists on bookstore and library shelves is one year further into a new age of Christian reform mirroring those of the past: from inter-racial marriage, to the emergence of Protestants, to the cleansing of formally unclean animals on the sheet in Peter’s vision. “To the pure all things are pure” may be comforting to some and subversive for others, but it certainly challenges an audience who might not readily agree and ally with everything Oranges brings to the table.

 

Works Cited:

Backus, Margot Gayle. “‘I Am Your Mother; She Was a Carrying Case’: Adoption, Class, and

Sexual Orientation in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” Imagining Adoption. 4rd ed. Ann Arbor: UM, 2004. 136. Print.

Carlson, Melody. “Bright Purple: Color Me Confused.” Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006.

Print.

Doan, Laura L. “Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Postmodern.” The Lesbian Postmodern. New

York: Columbia UP, 1994. 137-44. Print.

King, Jeannette. “‘Outside Time’: Prophets of Transgression.” Women and the Word:

Contemporary Women Novelists and the Bible. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. 118-20. Print.

New American Standard Bible.. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1977. Print.

Smith, Patricia Juliana. “The Proper Names For Things.” Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in

            Modern British Women’s Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 183-84. Print.

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 3rd ed. London, UK: Vintage, 2010. Print.

Claudia Rankine “Citizen” Reading

Today at 5:30 Claudia Rankine gave a reading of Citizen: An American Lyric at Eastern Michigan University. Intellectual though she is, I found her to be so open and personable, I cannot imagine anyone not falling in love with her. Through all the heaviness of her subject material–that is, everyday racism, intended or not, felt specifically by African Americans masked underneath the tight phrase “micro-aggressions”–she put an ease in the air where some people come in with an automatic feeling of tension.

She went through her book based on the images she had interspersed throughout the poetry, explaining the specific reasons for each one’s inclusion. Now and then she digressed but never without intention of making an applicable point. While the short narratives I had assumed were based off of interviews with people she knew, I was surprised at the amount of instances that involved Rankine herself, both in the book and in her digressions.

In the conclusion she showed a video made by her husband with her voice over. While not quoting directly from the line in Citizen, the whole video’s footage echoed “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying” (135). Rankine never used the word “scapegoating” but that is what white supremacy does. White prejudice, white threat, and white violence onto others is projected onto black communities who are then seen as the threats, the dangerous ones, the violent ones. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson–who advocated for freeing slaves though never found it economical for him to do the same–Rankine quoted, “‘After we free the slaves, we should send them back. Because they will have every right to want to kill us.'” This, Rankine said, is a piece of white fear that is perpetuated to this day, to keep the projection of potential for violence on blacks instead of whites.

At the end of the reading, the first question was asked, “What can I do to help?” I sensed the whole auditorium hold its breath, everyone feeling uncomfortable at the ignorance of the question. Rankine, bless her soul, gave a fantastic response that pointed out the privilege and why someone might feel they are able to ask the question “What can I do to help?” Because it is not a “black problem.” Racism is a problem for humanity as a whole. And as the man tried to recover himself later and the rest of the audience squirmed in our seats as he backtracked, a thought came to mind. That question is ignorant and I may be laughing at him inside my head, but have I ever had that question myself? I may have never verbalized it or made a fool of myself, but I have had a white-guilt reaction in the past with that question in mind. My hope is that he doesn’t take any humiliation he felt too much to heart, but rather actually listened to what Rankine said, because we all need to “self diagnose,” as she says, and realize where the problem is really coming from. That it is something everyone should be dealing with and working on, so that as one person changes at a time, how we view the world and interact with others like and unlike ourselves is filled more and more with empathy and respect.

 

Katrina’s Apathy

There is no such thing as an easy read when considering any section of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. In searching for a particular part to digest more fully, I couldn’t help but lean towards something with a more clear background. Something factual. Something historical. Reflecting on previous blogs, I decided to center on the four pages devoted to Hurricane Katrina. Being in grade school at the time of the actual event, there were vague images circulating through my head: muddy floodwaters risen to the peaks of houses, people huddled in a large arena, people who have lost their homes or even their loved ones. Nearly eleven years later, I had to look up what FEMA was, the conditions of the super dome, and various statistics, to get a better understanding of what I was actually reading.

The section is made up of small paragraphs full of quotes of anonymous interviewees of CNN. Some are clearly from the victims’ point of view, shedding transparent light on the situation. However others are completely disconnected, from a privileged outsider’s view–a relief worker, a resident of Texas, viewers of the news. Through the contrast, Rankine sets up criticism against not only on how Hurricane Katrina was handled but also how it is treated and talked about between the classes, the haves and have nots.

The first quotation that struck my attention was one that initially reminded me of an impatient white person: “Faith, not fear, she said. She’d heard that once and was trying to stamp the phrase on her mind. At the time she couldn’t speak it aloud. He wouldn’t tolerate it. He was angry. Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.” (83) If the man is white, I read his anger stemming from an expectation of justice. If his population is the victim–which he so rarely is–it appears more comic, that he isn’t used to feeling abandoned. And then I thought to myself, but what if I have it backwards? I read it again and the woman character, as she changed from black to white, it moved from hesitance to encourage a white man to fearful of the angry black man. And as a man of color he seemed to now be saying, “Out of all the injustice I have seen, all the pain, all the hurt, this national natural disaster is when I thought someone would notice enough to label it a ‘goddamn emergency.'” It is still a cry out for justice, but not a self-centered one. Just the phrase “where were they?” sounds like a collective question, though in a white voice I hear the same words inquiring after only himself. And it is this collectiveness, this asking for the people around you and not just yourself that also points to class, to a less privileged, individualized lifestyle. With this discrepancy of expectation in mind I read two pages later: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” (85) When looking back on the actual conditions of the super dome, I grapple with the appalling apathy and the inhumane perception of these hurricane victims who just happen to be of a lower class than those working on the relief. In an article posted by CNN last year marking a decade since Katrina, the arena was compared to a concentration camp. Where is the justice, the “working very well for them” in that?

Being so young in 2005, I had no idea there was any kind of neglect that could have been prevented. But in reading Citizen there was so much that read like white authorities washing their hands of the situation. “And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn’t safe to be there,” (84) sounds like a quick interchange between a CNN reporter and someone in the background. There’s the privileged expectation of the outside reporter–buses should be there–and the underprivileged truth–government pulls out and leaves the people to fend for themselves. And then there’s a lack of followup: “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.” (84). Hearing that I also think, what privileged audience wants to hear that people’s stories haven’t been finished or resolved yet? What government wants to admit their failings and broadcast it? “we are drowning here / still in the difficulty / as if the faces in the images hold all the consequences” (85) These lines of poetry, protruding from a mostly prose text, uses the white space to create the pause, to not brush over the fact of the present term “still” when talking about the difficulty. And “the images,” the victims, are framed for their lack of resources to save face for the white authorities.

Before the section closes there is a part that repeats itself a couple times, something between prose and poetry: “He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come. He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.” (85-86) The speaker personifies the water, preying on the vulnerable, the people it’s easier for other people to forget about. But more than anything is that last sentence: “As if then and now were not the same moment.” This is loudest cry to recognize that while slavery is in the past, while the Civil Rights Movement is in the past, while Katrina is in the past, the failure of our government, our country to maintain justice is the same. It may look different, the waters may have dried up, but the privileged people are as comfortable being ignorant and/or apathetic towards the those they’d rather not think about.

While the criticism of the differing views of classes and the failure of the government’s relief of Katrina’s destruction are more distinct entities to blame, I see Citizen giving the common American citizen their due. First we have a voice from someone more closely affected, most likely a citizen of Texas: “What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas” (84) compared to a victim’s account later down the page: “It’s awful, she said, to go back home to find your own dead child. It’s really sad.” I hear that last sentence and there is no way to imagine the pain in the mother’s face, but I can hear her heaving sobs. And yet, this Texan thinks it is “scary” that people might come to where she’s at and not want to go back home. She takes no time to empathize, to wonder what they might be coming home to, like that mother did. Instead she thinks about her own convenience and what else? Her own safety? Whether the “they” she refers to are underprivileged people or people of color–or, good heavens, both–there is a clear separation of herself from them…from hurricane survivors! Why not open your doors? Why not provide real relief?

From here I read the reactions of the apathetic privileged citizens through the descriptions of the media. “Then his aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate” (85). I read this as someone watching too many violence or horror films and how people become desensitized. That the news is carried through a medium that also feeds the consumer entertainment, the coverage on Katrina grows into a spectacle that becomes less and less important the further you live from it. What can it affect you? If anything, it should be affecting the head, the heart, the human soul. Not only class but geographical distance becomes a privilege and the reality of the crisis becomes foggy as fact looks more like fiction. And then the media turns fact and fiction on its head: “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place.” (83) “… and the fiction of the facts assumes randomness and indeterminacy.” (85) Citizen repeats this phrase “the fiction of the facts,” calling out the authorities covering for each other, to blind the people, to keep them ignorant and apathetic, to not dig too deep into the chaos of Katrina, to keep the classes apart and disconnected. They may try to wash their hands of it, but Rankine won’t let their hands ever completely dry. The residue of what was left undone remains.

 

A Citizen’s Social Class

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is woven together with numerous social factors intersecting: race, status, gender, age, geography, and specific events in history. While some pages read high with tension between people, reading it through for me has felt more like an individual experience. And all of the tension is building up in one person. Sometimes that person is me. Sometimes that person is who I’ve stepped into shoes with. Sometimes that person is someone I view from a distance, from across the page, because I feel I have no right to feel what they feel and see what they see. But the tension builds between two shoulders, belonging to the same body.

While having a certain degree of privilege, I have felt what it is to go without. And nothing increases going without like the stark reality of money, or lack thereof. But in comes the world and so factors of class aren’t just based on how much you have and how much you don’t. It’s called socio-economic status for a reason.

Looking through Citizen with this in mind–a Marxist theory lens, if we’re being technical–there are signs not only of race privilege but also economic privilege. Near the beginning there is a passage that gives no specific mention of race or dollar amounts but the reality of social class is evident: “You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences implicitly with ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’ You and your friend decided that ‘yes, and’ attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes…” (8). Where race and class intersect, it can spiral to a fierce reality that the majority of middle and upper class white populations cannot comprehend as they continue to bellow this pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-I-did-it ideology.

Though no specifics of the Trayvon Martin case are given in the two pages of prose poetry dedicated in memory of him within Citizen, in reading it I cannot forget than he was killed while on the phone in a white gated community. Maybe his murderer would have acted similarly no matter where they were, but I feel that there is specific aggression towards an “other” when in the presence of wealth. And why must it be assumed that the wealthy are in more need of protection than those with any amount that is less than? The repetition in “these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart–” (89) in that sentence and throughout the whole passage there is an enlargement of the scope of not just familiarity and love but deep connection, foundation, community, worth. These people are worthy, separately and as a whole, but Citizen shows again and again how society’s skewed perception turns this truth on its head and leads to things like Martin’s murderer being acquitted.

But hardly anywhere in the text did I feel the weight of class and poverty as much as I did in the passage on Hurricane Katrina. On page 85, several voices speak: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them. / You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black. / Have you seen their faces?” Underprivileged anyway? Working well for them? I feel a hit to the gut as I stared at the thin, black letters in a sea of white space, trying to imagine such apathy.

This book is to point out those white “anyways” and the double interpretations of what “some-white-one” is really getting chills from: the poverty or the blackness? This book is for that last line: “Have you seen their faces?” I read it as a call to lift up what has been dehumanized. I read it as an equalizer: I have a face and you have a face, so look your sister in the eye. I read it as an individual empowerment, because no two faces are exactly alike. As the tension builds inside of us because of the ways the world presses on us, we are each made to stand, no matter how we are painted by social factors like wealth and poverty.

 

Privilege Blinders: a reading of Rankine’s “Citizen”

As an introvert, I like to think of myself as someone who sees more than other people do–and by “other people” I mean the extroverts. As a white person, however, it is books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that make me question how much I actually see. And while the early years of college filled me with white guilt after coming from a very white hometown, I see it more now of my blindness being more attributed to privilege than any sort of willful looking-the-other-way.

Still, despite my privilege I do count myself as someone who sees people, unlike the man on page 77 of Citizen, “The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised. / Oh my God, I didn’t see you. / You must be in a hurry, you offer. / No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.” What struck me most on reading this was the man’s ignorance of his not seeing her as equally–or more–rude as cutting in front of her would be. He confirms her invisibility. And I have seen that. I have been that cashier.

Shortly after this short account is given, the book transitions into a series of prose-poems that are titled after the dates and names of black men involved in controversial crime. Out of the five specific cases, only one involves a white victim, and the white victim wasn’t killed. How close is this ratio to actual statistics? How opposite is this ratio to the white people who assume danger and shudder when their kind is doing most of the shooting?

We have talked about literature giving us knowledge. This book of poetry and essays gives that knowledge; the kind that drags you further out of the hole of ignorance that you have either dug yourself into or were born inside. And not wanting to slip any further back, I googled each of these five dates and the names of the victims, because I didn’t know any of them. And I read the descriptions of the crimes, the timelines of the cases, and the sentences of those accused or acquitted before reading the poetry. I have often prided myself over the fact that I do not have a television in order to have seen the news. But what does it mean when I recognize the name “Ferguson” but none of the ones in this book?

Amidst these entries is a personal account much like the short snippets earlier in the book. Throughout Citizen I had grown accustomed to the second person address and the “you” more often than not identifying as the voice of an anonymous black person. In “Stop-and-Frisk” it begins with an “I” and the “I” voice is pulled over and the “I” voice is told to get out of the car and keep his hands in sight. And here and there are the words, “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” And I don’t know why but it wasn’t until this section’s second page that I realized I had been reading it wrong. I thought the “I” was a white man who had injured or killed the “you” innocent black man thinking the “you” was a criminal, thereby the “I” taking the law into his own hands. I thought the police had pulled over the right person.

When I realized my mistake I went back and read it over, now realizing that the “I” and the “you” are the same–the “you” being the man reflecting to himself. And I read with disgust as the man who was just driving home from work was pulled over, dragged away, and made to walk home from the station. I am by no means completely ignorant of this kind of thing happening, but privilege hides its frequency from me. What can I do to truly see? I cannot scrub this privilege off myself but I have no wish to be blind. What can I do besides simply finishing the rest of this book? As of yet, I don’t know.