I’ve never been anywhere as hot as Kolkata in July.

It’s not just heat. It’s the moisture that fills the air and your lungs, that weighs down on your shoulders, that keeps you from every drying off. You go from being wet from the shower to being wet from sweat, without ever drying out. Baby powder accomplishes nothing. You carry a sweat rag to dab at your face and neck, which shine slick and red from the 100 degrees and 90% humidity of every damn day.

I was seventeen the first time I went to the city. I wore long denim skirts and oversized t-shirts, because it was 2000 and I was a teenage missionary. This was summer #4 of 5 total summers “in the field,” but I was starting to grow out of it. Traveling under the strict rules of a youth-based missions organization was smothering me. I was questioning everything and trying to figure out why the things I’d been taught by the leaders of my previous three trips were not necessarily lining up with the way life really was. I was pushing the envelope and getting interested in things that were supposed to be off limits–good movies, good music, good literature.

One afternoon, after volunteering all morning in the heat, my teammates and I went for a walk and ended up in the Oxford Bookstore. Which is air conditioned. And full of books.

It was like walking into heaven. (But don’t say that out loud because someone on the team probably doesn’t think it’s appropriate to speak flippantly about heaven…probably the same guy who swears he sees demons sitting at the foot of his bed in the night.)

I browsed the shelves, looking for something to buy.  I knew from my summers as a teen missionary that I was supposed to be reading CS Lewis and allegories like Rick Joyner’s the Final Quest. Not mainstream literature that could be categorized as “worldly.” I wanted something else, though. I didn’t want something that could be shelved in a Christian bookstore. I wanted something written by a voice outside of my own community.

The book that caught my eye was a little novel called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

I’d never heard of her or the book. The back read: “Innovative in style, its humour by turns punchy and tender, Oranges are not the only fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession. It’s a love story too.”

The first page of the story featured this list about the people that the mother of the main character believed were friends and enemies:

Enemies were:

  • The Devil (in his many forms)
  • Next Door
  • Sex (in its many forms)
  • Slugs

Friends were:

  • God
  • Our dog
  • Auntie Madge
  • The Novels of Charlotte Bronte
  • Slug pellets

I bought the book immediately for 280 rupees.

Then I took it home to Indiana and put it on my bookshelf, where it sat for years.

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***

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit sat there. Waiting. Waiting for me to be ready for it.

I went to a Christian college and felt equal parts comfortable and uncomfortable by the environment there.

Things that comforted me: my professors, my brother, a small community of friends who loved good movies and books, and an environment where it was relatively safe to ask questions about the status quo.

Things that made me uncomfortable: professors who prayed at the start of class, sermons about how The Passion of the Christ was the most important evangelistic tool OF ALL TIME, statements about the importance of modesty, constant questions about what it was like to be Ray Boltz‘s daughter.

At the time, I was still pretty conservative. I believed that homosexuality was a sin, didn’t think that anyone should have sex outside of marriage, would have supported the drug testing of welfare recipients, identified as pro-life, etc.

In that community, I was also a little bit on the liberal side: I didn’t necessarily think that homosexuality was a choice, recognized that some people did have sex outside of marriage and were just fine, liked to swear, didn’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

One day, I finally got around to picking up Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and read the whole thing. I consumed that book. Breathed it. Cried into its pages. I’d had no idea that it was an LGBT novel and that I was going to read a love story between two young women. When I read it, I understood it. It felt exactly like the love I longed for from a man. It was exactly the same. The same, the same, the same.

How wrong I had been to think that the love between two women had to be sin simply because they were women. I had read the writings of other gay authors and listened to the music of gay musicians–Oscar Wilde, Rufus Wainwright, Tennessee Williams–but none of them had shown me what the words of a young lesbian writer was able to.

A few months later, my dad came out of the closet to our family. Of course I wasn’t ready. But I was also ready.

***

A week ago, Jeanette Winterson was scheduled to converse on stage with Alison Bechdel. Both of these women, who were born just months apart, published memoirs last year that focused on their mothers. My friends and I were excited as we found our seats and I got out my notebook, ready to keep track of the interesting things they said.

When they announced from the stage that the day’s snowstorm had prevented Bechdel from arriving, some people left. They didn’t care about Winterson. I was disappointed, of course, that I wouldn’t have the chance to hear from her, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to hear what Jeanette had to say.

She was phenomenal.

I said to my friend Ambre afterward that it was the best sermon I’d heard in years. Another friend said it was a true religious experience.

I can’t summarize what she said. I found myself wishing that someone was recording it so that I could share it with my students and my friends. She read from her latest book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? That one didn’t sit on my shelves for years–I bought it as soon as it came out and read it immediately. She talked about the importance of reading as a creative act, not a luxury for the elite and artistic. She preached at those of us in that auditorium that we should not accept the lie that reading is something we just do sometimes. On the contrary, it should be what we require ourselves to do.

Why do you think people ban books, she asked. It’s not because of the content. It’s because there is no way to know or control what is happening in the mind of the reader. What a terrifying prospect for those who want control over other people!

Reading changes lives, she said.

I thought about Oranges and the way it changed my life, and I agreed with her.

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***

She signed books after her talk.

I waited in line with a newly purchased copy of Written on the Body, which I haven’t yet read. My friend Larry stood with me, and I told him the story of Oranges. “That book was waiting for me,” I said.

It is inherently awkward to stand in line to meet someone, but sometimes it’s worth the weirdness. This was one of those times.

“I bought Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit when I was a seventeen-year-old missionary in India,” I said. And then I told her my story.

How kind she was to look me in the eyes and listen to my story in the brief, truncated version that I shared with her. I ended with this: “I teach at a Christian university now, and I try to help my students have their eyes opened like I did. If there was a chance for me to open my eyes as a twenty-year-old, then there is a chance for my students to change, too.”

I don’t mean that I have some particular issue in mind that I want them to change their minds about. I just want them to have the experience that I did: the experience of knowing, thanks to someone else’s words, that the world is not the way you thought it was.

Winterson was kind to me. She told me that she has a lot of affection for religious people, as long as they are not giving into dogma. That means she said it better than I did, of course: I want my students to be free from dogma.

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