‘Working from the Wound: Trauma, memory and experimental writing praxis in Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’

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This chapter examines Jeanette Winterson’s experimental writing praxis in her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Focusing on the intersection between trauma, memory and experimental narrative forms. It locates the text as a ‘limit-case autobiography’ (Gilmore 2001), which transgresses the boundaries of autobiography, historical discourse, myth and fiction. I show how the text draws on a range of narratives as a framing device for conveying Winterson’s account of her traumatic childhood experiences of abandonment, adoption and emotional neglect. Winterson’s ‘act of remembrance’ draws inter alia on personal memory, the history of working class Manchester, Greek mythology, and theories of trauma. Acknowledging the radical provisionality of memory, the text provides a version or reconstruction of events and Winterson’s shifting responses to them. In revisiting the experiences explored in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and elsewhere, Winterson presents her earlier work as a ‘cover story’; usually seen as postmodern device to foreground the artifice of fiction, the memoir reconfigures the cover story as a narrative strategy to ‘cover over’ material which is/was unspeakable. Thus, the memoir encourages us to reread Winterson’s fiction in the light of traumatic omission and textual survival strategy. As in limit-case autobiographies, the memoir has no clear-cut resolution: although Winterson is reunited with her birth mother some 50 years after her adoption, there is no unambiguous healing of wounds. Moreover, while Winterson acknowledges the power of stories to mitigate suffering, she adopts a more ambivalent model of ‘working from the wound’ in which trauma is acknowledged as an aspect of self. For her, trauma carries a double legacy as something which motivates her work but which writing can never entirely ‘heal’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen Writers and Experimental Narratives
Subtitle of host publicationEarly Modern to Contemporary
EditorsKate Aughterson, Deborah Philips
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-49651-7
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-49651-7, 978-3-030-49650-0
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2021

Publication series

NameWomen Writers and Experimental Narratives


  • women's writing
  • trauma
  • memory
  • experimental narratives
  • Jeanette Winterson


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