Jeanette Winterson: “I believe in human beings, even though they have done some terrible things”

In light of her latest book, we talk with the English author about some of the most important challenges of today: the climate crisis, Brexit, and the rise of the extreme right.

In the late 20th century, Jeanette Winterson forged a path in the literary world with books such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body and The Passion, titles which would attract a cult following and would crown her as a leading author for the queer community. In the 21st, the pace and quality did not lessen: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? was chosen as one of the best 50 books of this century by The Guardian, and Frankissstein, her latest work, is an explosive cocktail where artificial intelligence, transfeminism, the monster(s) of Mary Shelley and post-Brexit dystopia converge in an audacious and romantic science-fiction novel. To coincide with its publication, Jeanette Winterson visited the CCCB to take part in the debating series The Words We Don’t Yet Have, in parallel to the exhibition “Feminisms!

When you think about Frankenstein, what do you think about? I think about a VHS tape with the 1931 film, interrupted by commercials. In a black case decorated with a cutting from the television section of the newspaper. Carried away by the image of a bruised Boris Karloff with screws in his neck, even before seeing Frankenstein, I used to dream about it. Because thinking about Frankenstein means thinking about a murmur that is born in the living room of your parents’ house when you are already in bed, and that drifts down the corridor, leading you to intuit lightning strikes and cries through a half-open door.  What if someone hit that door with a battering ram? “Frankenstein is a story that was waiting to be read by our generation,” she tells me. “Mary Shelley wrote it thinking of us: the first human beings that will have to share the planet with non-biological life forms. Frankenstein is no longer science-fiction: it is here and it is now. The only difference between this story and our present, however, is that we have substituted the profanation of graves with the programming of codes in a binary system of zeros and ones”.

She is Jeanette Winterson (Manchester, 1959), and portraying the author of Frankissstein using just the 40 minutes of private time that we shared would be unfair. It seems necessary to dig up, exhume, re-stitch: Jeanette Winterson is herself when entering the press room of the CCCB and standing there smiling, without any de rigeur photo-call or prior indication, in front of the journalists so that they could take as many photos as they liked; Jeanette Winterson is herself when responding to the questions of Xavier Graset live, with a pin saying Llibertat preses polítiques (Freedom to political prisoners, yes, in the female). Jeanette Winterson is herself when bursting with Bel Olid into the lecture hall with arms raised and fists clenched, triumphant. I see her, and that phrase comes back to me from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her autobiography: “For a woman, a working-class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics.” I read it, and I note down a question that I will ask her some days later: What would you say to a working-class girl who wants to be a writer?

“You have to write. There is no alternative: just sit down and do it. And you do it, and you continue doing it. It’s a question of practice, the writing thing, and one of the good things that the Internet has given us is that you can find many platforms where your voice can he heard; it is no longer necessary to follow the traditional routes towards publication in that newspaper or that magazine. Now there are many ways to find a space in which to write, and look: the Internet is full of ridiculous people who call themselves influencers, but they influence nothing, they are absolute idiots. Therefore, if you have something to say, just say it”, Winterson answers. “And don’t waste time acting like an idiot”. This is my second favourite outburst from the author. She said the first at a press conference: “I hate Airbnb. I hate it. It can fuck off and die. The sharing economy is shit. It’s simple: do you like your local bookshop? Buy the books there, not in Amazon”. I listen to her, and I note down a question that I will put to her days later: As the author of The Passion, what is your opinion of the touristification of Venice?

“Do you know that, when I wrote The Passion, I hadn’t yet visited Venice?”, she admits regarding a splendid book in which, in the year 1987, Winterson made the city in the north of Italy another one of her characters. “Venice is an imagined city: it doesn’t matter much if you have been there or not. Since the publication of The Passion I have been there many times, and I love it, but I don’t think I will return. What do I think about touristification? The whole world has gone mad, because everyone wants to go everywhere to see things that are not real. The same thing has happened in Barcelona: a place that used to be authentic ends up turned into Disneyland. It is often better to read a book about a city than to visit a place that seems to be something it is not”, she sentences. The latest journey that the British writer is proposing to us? She makes a stop at Genoa: “I wanted to re-imagine Mary Shelley’s Genoese phase, the years that inspired her to write her masterwork, and combine it with the present time”, explains Winterson of her last novel. “Lord Byron, for example, reappears in Frankissstein as a manufacturer of sexual robots”.

“When it came to reviving Mary Shelley, and taking into account her obsession with new forms of life, I decided to make her a trans character: two bodies, two lives, a self-produced body”, she adds. “It was an opportunity to create a trans character that was positive, in the same way that with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit I created a gay one. That was back in 1985; back then it was difficult to find gay main characters who were not just a mish-mash of clichés. Just as now it is not very common to find good trans characters in modern fiction, I told myself: now’s the time to start including them. We have to make the trans thing a new normality”. On how to do it from the narrow, cisgender cosmovision, later we will invoke Orlando: “Virginia Woolf was a hetero woman and she wrote this marvellous, exciting, fun novel with the first trans character in fiction as its main character. In that same year, 1928, lesbian author Radclyffe Hall published the horrid The Well of Loneliness, about a woman who loves another woman. It is one of those books that make you want to commit suicide”.

Jeanette Winterson. Conversation with Bel Olid | CCCB
Jeanette Winterson. Conversation with Bel Olid | CCCB

We don’t want to talk about books that make us want to commit suicide. Tell us about one, the last one, that has made you cry: “H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. It’s a beautiful book that revolves around subjects such as grief, life, death and, of course, the training of birds of prey. Poetry, and I read poetry day after day, always makes me cry, it reaches me, direct to the heart. Discovering T.S. Eliot at the age of 16 made me understand that language is very much more than mere information or simple data. Language functions at the same level as music: it generates an instantaneous emotive response within us. I refuse to think that human beings invented it solely to transmit information to each other. I think that we invented language to be able to talk about complex and striking things; to be able to talk about the world as it is”. Or about how it will become: “Humans will be like decayed gentry”, Frankissstein augurs. “We’ll have some nice clothes and a lot of stories. We’ll be a fading aristocracy. We’ll be Blanche Dubois in a moth-eaten silk dress. We’ll be Marie Antoinette with no cake.”

“In reality I’m optimistic by nature”, Winterson contradicts herself. “I believe in human beings, even though they have done some terrible things; we always come out on top at the last minute. And we will probably do it again. But, when I look at History, I realise that every invention of ours ends up being used in the worst possible way. What will we do with artificial intelligence, for example?”, Winterson asks herself, on one of the central themes in Frankissstein. “Will we use this AI to do good or, instead, will we generate a new problem?”. When you think of Frankenstein, what do you think of? Because we are back to Frankenstein: “In Mary Shelley’s book we find many lessons about what it means to create a new form of life without taking responsibility for it. Victor Frankenstein’s monster escapes his control, he becomes malicious, savage, a murderer. And he does so for a reason: because he feels that he has been abandoned, that he has been denied love, that he is isolated from the rest of society… They don’t even give him a name! What way of treating a poor creature is that?! How can they deny him an education?”

“Education was very important for Mary Shelley”, concludes Winterson. “In her day, women did not receive schooling. Shelley did not receive any; she read all the time, but she never went to school, because supposedly women didn’t go to school. The narrative decision that she takes in the novel, of exposing the monster to a lack of education, is an allegory of what happens when you make ignorance an imposition. Or even worse: when education is conceived as something that always has to become utilitarian. Something which, as an individual, will be useful to you in life. As if wanting to say: choose a career in sciences or engineering, go to work, produce and, above all, don’t think. The view that Mary Shelley had of education was, however, much more elastic: she believed that we need to cultivate minds that are as capable as they are critical. It is exactly that which the monster in her book is missing. I would also like to have a world where people have the right to an education in the broadest and most intrinsic sense of the word. Frankenstein is a warning of what happens when you leave education in the hands of the right”.

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Jeanette Winterson: “I believe in human beings, even though they have done some terrible things”