This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 11.
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You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites, to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
In this episode, Jeanette Winterson chose Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and Nafiza Azad chose Migritude by Shailja Patel.
Born in Manchester, England, Jeanette Winterson is the author of more than twenty books, including the national bestseller Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and The Passion. She has won many prizes including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the Stonewall Award. Her latest novel, Frankissstein, is an audacious love story that weaves together disparate lives into an exploration of transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and queer love.
My name is Jeanette Winterson and my recommended book is Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
Orlando starts in the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England in the 1560s and it runs right through until the 20th century until 1928. And, it does that because it’s a very early time travel novel and it’s also the first trans novel. Orlando starts out as a young nobleman and ends up as a young woman in the 20th century. So, it’s doing two new things at once.
I didn’t read Orlando for the first time when I was a student because although I did an English degree at Oxford University, which is one of the best degree courses in the world. At that time, in the eighties we were told that there were only four great women writers anywhere ever in the entire world. This was a course from Beowulf to Sam Beckett, and those writers were George Eliot, Jane Austen, and two of the Brontes, Charlotte and Emily. You could do Virginia Woolf, but only as a special paper if you applied. So, although I’d read some of her books, I hadn’t read Orlando because also at that time in the 80s, it was seen as a sort of a romp and not one of her more serious or important works like Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse or The Waves.
And, it was only a couple of years later when I was reading everything by Woolf again. This is when I was about 24 and I wanted to write my own first book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and women in particular need ancestors. We need to be able to find women who were there before us. If you’re a guy and you’re starting out and you want to write, you can go anywhere. You can find anybody. They’re all there. And, for women it’s harder, you know? And, that’s why women have always been doing some fancy footwork and being able to identify both with male writers, male characters, male literature, we’re very good at that because we were brought up on it. It’s changing now, but only just. So, there I was reading everything again and I came to Orlando and I thought “This is fantastic.”
I think the thing with Virginia Woolf is not only is it language superb and her understanding of structure, but she’s a brave writer and in Orlando she was a brave writer and a playful writer. Have to remember this is published in 1928 so it’s a book doing something, which wasn’t that easy, not doing something, which as a character who changes gender, a character whose love affairs are with women as well as men. And, it is the same year that Radclyffe Hall’s truly terrible book, The Well of Loneliness was published. Which is enough to make anybody thinking of sleeping with a woman, either just slit their throat or just go and marry the first guy. But, the point is, this is the same year and while Radclyffe Hall’s book about miserable lesbian love affair and someone who calls herself an invert, I used to think that meant you had sex upside down when I first read it. I thought “What is an invert? Why are they having sex upside down?”
Anyway, you read that and you just think, “No, no, no.” And, it was banned, totally banned. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, not only was a critical hit, but also became an in an instant bestseller. So, she was able to just smuggle this stuff across and now everybody looked at its wit, its charm, and because it was actually a love letter to the person she was having an affair with at the time, Vita Sackville-West, she even has photographs in it, but some of which were Vita dressed up as a boy. And, these were real photographs. And, yet everybody thought, “Oh wow this is so brilliant. So clever, so fun.” And, they didn’t think “We must immediately ban it.” As they did with the Well of Loneliness. So, it was a real lesson in doing something, which was subversive, different, challenging, but which also attracted mainstream readership.
I’ve never thought that anything that’s different should live in a niche or just have a few crazy readers somewhere. I’ve always thought that if you’re going to write, you should write for everybody. You should go for the big one and just say, “Look, this is about you even though it may not be about you.” We don’t just want to read books about ourselves, surely. Every woman knows that because we spend our entire lives reading books, not about ourselves because they’re written by men. So, what I really think is that all showed me how, how generous you can be, how far reaching, how risk taking. And, that was a great propellant for someone starting out as a writer.
There’s a hilarious moment when we’re passing through time and Orlando is a woman. Of course on waking up as a woman, as a woman, she’s a second class citizen. So, all her property is immediately sequestered and all her rights and privileges go to her first male relative. The book is highly political. We shouldn’t forget that. It’s about the status of women and how ridiculous it is that the privilege property depend on having a dick or not. Which is really all that happens, because Orlando suddenly doesn’t have one.
And, of course she keeps her name all the way through. She’s known as the Lady Orlando again without comment, which is hilarious. But so here she is as Orlando, a woman. And, she’s driving home at night with the famous poet and critic Alexander Pope. And, as they go along the streets are pretty dark and when it’s dark she sits there listening to him, talking about how great he is and how great men are in general. And, then every so often they come under a street light and she looks at him and she thinks, “Why am I listening to you? You’re such a jerk. I can’t believe it. Look, you’re totally inadequate species of personhood, let alone manhood and I have to listen to you.” And, then they go into the dark again and she just hears your sonorous voice and she lulls herself back into the beliefs that she knows she’s supposed to hold.
And, this happens several times and each one becomes an increasingly manic and funny because Woolf is a really good comic writer and a lot of people forget that. Or it’s not taught. People have been taught Woolf but they’ve never read Orlando. They don’t get that wit and comic timing that Woolf is so good at. And, you know that situation, we’ve all known it, haven’t we? Because, the patriarchy is everywhere. We just get lulled along into thinking “Yes, yes, you’re right. You’re so great.” And, then we have a kind of flash a lightening. We think, “What? You’re just an idiot. Why am I listening to you?”
I love Orlando. It’s, I wouldn’t, I don’t even want to think, talk about it as it is it my favorite? Because, I keep going back to her books. She’s just a great companion to go on the journey with, whatever she’s writing. Whether it’s her essays or letters, her nonfiction, her fiction. She has a wonderful mind and of course, great writers don’t die. They just go on living with us and they’re available whenever we need them to be available, which is convenient. But, if nobody’s read Woolf, it’s the book. I always say to them, “Look, read this first because it will surprise you and you’ll love it and you’ll get to hear her voice the way she uses language, but you’ll also have a very good time.”
I have a beautiful copy of Orlando. I’ve got a first edition from the Hogarth press in 1928 and it’s signed by Virginia Woolf in purple ink. In fact, I have it with me on this trip because there’s some guys want to make Orlando into a television series. So, when I met them in Los Angeles, I thought I would take this copy because it’s impressive. So, it is very impressive. So, she is with me now and it’s the kind of book that I will just pick up and dip into for fun and for pleasure.
The thing with novels is that when you’ve read them once, you don’t have to read them all the way through again, but you can just jump in and out. I mean, the trouble is we often treat prose as though it has to go from A to Zed and it doesn’t, you can then enjoy yourself in there and just swim around wherever you like. And, that’s what I do. I sometimes just take it down off the shelf and read a little bit and remember how good it is.
That was Jeanette Winterson, recommending Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Her novel Frankissstein, published by Grove Press, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at wintersonworld, that’s w i n t e r s o n w o r l d.
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Nafiza Azad is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in BC, Canada, where she reads too many books, watches too many Kdramas and writes stories about girls taking over the world. Her debut YA fantasy, THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME, was released by Scholastic in 2019. Set in a city along the Silk Road that is a refuge for those of all faiths, it follows a young woman threatened by the war between two clans of powerful djinn.
My name is Nafiza Azad and the book I’m recommending is a collection of poetry called Migritude by Shailja Patel.
The title is very much in tune with what the poetry is about. I would classify this poetry as activist poetry, and it is full of migration. The theme is migration, and specifically from the immigrants perspective. So it’s about, lots of stuff but mostly about immigration, and how the immigrant experience colors a lot of lives. For example, what’s happened in Kenya and just basically every little thing that an immigrant goes through.
I actually read an excerpt of it in a review somewhere on the internet, and then I was so struck by the excerpt that I felt I had to have it, and isn’t really readily available. You can’t just go in a store, any bookstore, and find it. You have to order it, the set. I got mine from Book Depository because that was the only place I could find it at. I bought it and I read it all in one day, and cried a lot and it was amazing.
It’s very on the nose, the poetry just keeps you on your toes and thinking.
I had never read anything like this before, and it was just sort of electrifying when you read. The history that we are taught is dry in terms of the perspectives we see with the, the effects, it’s difficult to put the people in here, but in poetry the history comes alive.
I do tend to read a lot of poetry because I guess it’s, It’s my dark days as a British literature graduate of BA. I have a BA in English literature. So a lot of times I was forced to read these really famous canonical poets, and I was so annoyed by that, the British poets that everyone loves and I couldn’t really stand because they talked about things that I couldn’t empathize with. Having too much money. So once I got a chance, I feel like I like modern poetry better than the whole classical poetry, because while I have read the foundational stuff that every student of literature is forced to read, I’d never really got into it. And then I came across modern poets like Fatima Asghar and Shailja Patel. The idea that I could read people who looked like me and writing stuff that was pertinent to me in poetry, that was amazing. It’s similarly when you come across books that talk about familiar experiences and see reflections of yourself in poetry as well as in literature. It’s a grand feeling.
I used to be able to read without any thought when I was just simply a writer without being published. But once I became published, reading actually became more difficult because you cannot shut up the author brain. Every time you’re reading, you’re saying, “Oh, this person did it like this. Maybe I should try it.” And then somehow block to getting sunk into the story. But, as I said, with poetry, because it’s not the medium in which I regularly write, I can sink into. I will pause and just to marvel at a verse or as a particular symbol or imagery, but not to the extent that, I wish I could have done that. So yeah, it’s much easier to sink into poetry compared to a novel, especially when you are drafting your own work.
I think Migritude was very formative for The Candle and the Flame. While The Candle and the Flame is, I would say, a bit utopian in terms of its portrayal of immigrants and migration. What I read in the Migritude was so completely opposite, that I wanted to create somewhere that would be vastly different, and contradict the usual experience.
For example, I can tell you how reading poetry directly influenced The Candle and the Flame. There’s this poem in here it talks about languages. And in The Candle and the Flame I use many different languages, because I feel like languages are a wonderful way of expressing diversity without actually saying the color of his skin, or just talking explicitly.
So the presence of languages just automatically leaves a message, I think, that they’re more than one type of people here. So there’s this poem in Migritude called Dreaming in Gujarati and I will read this except, it says,
my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains –
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic,
salty-rich as saag paneer
coastal Kiswahili laced with Arabic.
He speaks Gujarati,
solid ancestral pride.
five different worlds.
before white men
who think their flat, cold spiky words
make the only reality.”
When I read this, I’ve felt it’s true that, culturally, if a person doesn’t speak English, we do tend to look down on them as somehow lacking. Even without considering how many different languages they might know, excluding English.
So this is one of the ways in which poetry has influenced me. It’s because with poetry you cannot have any extraneous words, so you have to get to the point within the number of words given. But it’s not succint or staccato. There’s a certain music to the verses. So I feel like you’ll find that too in my novels or writing. At least I’m trying, it’s always an ongoing process not to talk about everything else except the plot.
I feel like because this is not the kind of poetry that your teachers sadly would teach, this could be an act of rebellion against what the mainstream would have you believe. This would be the kind of thing to be do when you want to get angry, or wanting to feel really keenly. And, even if you do not read poetry, a lot of times it feels like prose as shaped as poetry and, in a way, it’s easier to take in this kind of these kinds of information in the poetry form, compared to when it’s just simply prose. So, I would recommend this to people who want to challenge their views and who want to take a peek into what it’s like to be an immigrant and, who are definitely ready for varying perspectives.
There’s this poem in here called Eater of Death. And it’s based on the true story of Bibi Sardar, whose husband and seven children were killed at breakfast by U.S. air strikes on October 20, 2001. So, this is not an easy collection to read, and it’s not something you would read in one sitting. You’d have to read a poem and then just digest it. But I feel like it will change your worldview, and it will make you think in ways you’ve never thought before, and from perspectives you’ve probably never considered before. So yeah, it would be an act of rebellion. It would be an act of ownership, reclaiming narratives that others might have taken over. I hope I’ve sold it! It’s really great, I’ve just given the surface, she actually use to perform a lot of these poems along with the she inherited from her mom. So it was an actual performance and I am so sad that I will never get to see it, because she no longer does it, but it’s electrifying is the word!
That was Nafiza Azad, recommending Migritude by Shailja Patel. Her debut novel The Candle and the Flame, published by Scholastic, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at nafizaA, that’s n a f i z a a.
Many thanks to Jeanette Winterson and Nafiza Azad for joining us and sharing some favorites.
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