“You need a label. But I’m not a piece of furniture with the price on the back.”
(Jeanette Winterson, The Powerbook , 65).
A facet at the heart of Jeanette Winterson’s The Powerbook is the freedom that comes when no identity is present, when identity is not something to construct, but something to release and be free from. Second and third-wave identity variants have often clung to identity politics and lifestyle as a way to validate that which society does not: from the adamant insistence of being called by one’s chosen or given name, rather than a pronoun, to the overly polite and discretionary question of which pronoun to use when addressing or referring to a genderqueer. Identity politics is a living, breathing experience: it is deeply personal, confrontingly political, and tenderly profound. Communities and subcultures of identity give many gender and sexual variants the support and safety of a chosen family and, while absolutely imperative, the housing of the home can also become constraining and limiting if and when hard switching of identities are sought.
The legendary mother of Queer Theory Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would often encourage my young thirty-something identity, which was quite fixed with labels and idealistically driven, to take my writing, this writing, to spaces outside of identity. My identity? Our marginal identities? Yes, she would say. Many years of living, learning, and spiritual study later, I now know what my former Buddhist-leaning academic advisor was guiding me to. I now experience structures and housings based on identity to easily slip into and become prone to meaning making that does not serve to lead to limitations and confinement. They become traps to a life of spirit, a life of creating and being at the joyful and powerful source of causing and experiencing real freedom now—not in opposition or protest to something as my activist self once thought necessary, but as an act of authentic creation, a life that practices nonattachment and seeks, as she always had, the interconnection between all sentient beings.
Without identity we are able to “see through the disguise” because the armor of identity is taken off (The Powerbook, 74). Winterson writes “I’ve been looking for us both all my life” (The Powerbook, 74), implying much more than a singular, external, separate other, but a seeking of unity and supportive co-existence. Without identity, our connection actually becomes much more real and attainable. We can stop looking; we can start be-ing.
And so we can turn to Jeanette Winterson’s invitation to consider the freedom that comes in a world of choosing freedom from identity. She writes: “there are nights when I’d prefer nothing at all. A structure without cladding. As you get older, the open spaces start to close up … you keep the form and the habit of what you have, but gradually you empty it of meaning.” (The Powerbook, 44-45). Rather than base the present and future on an already existing inherited, unyielding, or fixed cladding, by clearing the space and coming from nothing one can choose to create a new, inspiring be-ing.
To get to no-thing, yet remaining with the familiar form of body, what is can be stripped like an old, outworn coat to a “structure without cladding”; removing the outworn layers, and the significance and meaning attached to them like layers of lint, is the access. Beginner’s mind and the notion of impermanence can guide such a freedom: it becomes a place to stand in, and from there, choosing that which serves to inspire and feed grounds and leads, rather than any set dogma, point of view, affiliation, social conditioning and/or structure. Winterson (as well as Buddhist texts) refers to this location as a “middle ground” (The Powerbook, 47).
Winterson’s characters are written as “happy…with the lightness of being in a foreign city and the relief from identity it brings,” alerts us to the freedom, lightness, peace of mind that we receive and can give if we release ourselves and others of fixed ways of thinking, being, and construction. But it takes something. And that something is often much more than the geographical shift that affords one the freedom to step out of the past of what has been and the limitations of who one knows and constructs themselves to be. It takes rewriting the book, asserts Winterson, and “sometimes a letter at a time is all we can do” (The Powerbook, 90).
If the only point of view we can ever know is our own mind’s thoughts and creations, the stories we construct, then the people who morph in and out of the roles we assign them, including ourselves, might experience new heights of freedom and connection if we release our attachment to our thoughts. Our version of reality is just a version, yet it occurs as what is real, what is really happening. Winterson’s world weaves her story “trying to collide the real and the imaginary worlds, trying to be sure which is which. The more I write, the more I discover that the partition between real and invented is as thin as a wall in a cheap hotel room … as soon as I reckon I know the geography of what isn’t and what is, a chair scrapes in the room beyond the wall and a woman’s voice says, ‘You don’t understand do you?’” (The Powerbook, 108).
“Nothing is fixed. These are images that time changes and that change time, just as the sun and the rain play on the surface of things.”
(Jeanette Winterson, The Powerbook, 52).
Worlds upon worlds of experiences that feed into this narrator’s life point to seeking a switchable, identity-free life. Winterson’s character writes of her own overarching narrative:
I talk to people whose identity I cannot prove. I disappear into a web of co-ordinates that we say will change the world. What world? Which world? It used to be that the real and the invented were parallel lines that never met. Then we discovered that space is curved, and in curved space parallel lines always meet. The mind is a curved space. What we experience, what we invent, track by track running together, then running into one, the brake lever released. (The Powerbook, 108-09).
Readers will begin to notice where the mind collapses story and reality, where this character disappears and feels an outsider, where she creates like an exile, ever seeking to be part of yet staying “on the run” (The Powerbook, 185). She is in a constant state of being open to redrawing, revision, and rewriting. Switching to free up identity and allow for multiple points of view, ways of being, and existences to occupy the narrator’s journey drive this novel; indeed, they can serve to mirror our own lives and that of humanity.
We come to know multiple roles and characters, with shifting, ever-malleable identities, sexualities, and genders throughout the novel, throughout a life, perhaps experiencing and playing with many s/witchy magical realism spaces in a day. Each variancy, each switch, is authentic and worthy of celebration and acceptance rather than occurring as occasions to question, compare, tolerate, and/or doubt. Each variancy and switch is able to be created in a present, now phenomenon of momentariness while also existing in the space of play and s/witchy magic. This play, this ability to dwell and switch between multiple variancies is, most especially, what the switch excels at, seeks to embody and celebrate!
Accepting herself as that which is not solid or fixed, but mutable and open to switchability, she affirms: “nothing is fixed. These are images that time changes and that change time, just as the sun and the rain play on the surface of things” (The Powerbook, 52). How simple to create ourselves as effortlessly and changeable as rain drops! Rain drops playing! Seeking, exploring, finding solace in comparable forces of nature like the sun and rain, which radiate unpredictable and complex beauty at the micro and macro level just like the human body, the narrator stretches out her mind in order to free it: “my mind reached forward into the unlimited space it can occupy when I loose it from its kennel” (The Powerbook, 52). A willfulness, and a willingness, exists here and a possibility: it’s a space she “can” occupy, not one that is given up easily by her surrounding environment perhaps. Society, like the mind, can be such a prison, a “kennel” keeping the dogs confined to that which the dog never agreed to or created.
“Sometimes we need a different ending.”
(Jeanette Winterson, The Powerbook, 63).
For this narrator, to be free from the prison of the mind involves many moves and shifts, one of which is moving to another location, somewhere “foreign.” This geographical shift away from the familiar and known allows the narrator to take steps on a new path, one with more openings, more possibilities, and more play. The escape, or switch, known as a “geographical cure”; is a current running through The Powerbook as our narrator echoes many gender variants who have lived many lives, switching their identity many times, the reality of them occurring “like another life” (The Powerbook, 59).
Lives and identities seem very removed “until I remember it was my life, like a letter you turn up in your own handwriting, hardly believing what it says” (The Powerbook, 59). Winterson’s metaphor of rain is resonant: as rain is formed from recycling the Earth’s rivers, lakes, oceans, and seas, human beings are likewise called to reform ourselves by way of recycling that which already exists but is in need of transformation to serve us better. As the play of the raindrop that emerges from a cloud as a droplet is enlarged by moisture from the surrounding air and then coalesces with other raindrops as it descends to take its form, this narrator, like all of humanity, needs a surrounding community with which to coalesce and form an altered, new self. Winterson explains that:
in those other worlds events may track our own, but the ending will be different. Sometimes we need a different ending. I can’t take my body through space and time, but I can send my mind, and use the stories, written and unwritten, to tumble me out in a place not yet existing—my future. (The Powerbook, 63) And it’s the invented choice of futures that Winterson concerns herself with. The stories are simply “maps. Maps of journeys that have been made and might have been made” (The Powerbook, 63).
The invented points of view and familiar stories, fed over years, add layers of accumulated weight to a life; the “story on story, map on map … warns me of the weight of accumulation,” writes Winterson’s narrator (The Powerbook, 64). “The other worlds I can reach need to keep their lightness and their speed of light” she writes, for “what I carry back from those worlds to my world is another chance” (The Powerbook, 64). A lightness, another chance, increased possibilities free from a confining past or identity is sought. Those who want to limit or box in the narrator are confronted with an unstoppable urgency in being free: “you want to explain me to yourself” the narrator says to her lover “You’re not sure, so you need a label. But I’m not a piece of furniture with the price on the back” (The Powerbook, 65). As with my other authors, Winterson’s writing is concerned with the existential questing of “more life into a time without boundaries” (The Powerbook, 53).
A life, a time, without boundaries, a book, a life, rewritten with each turn of the wheel is adventurous and courageous, it is also filled with uncertainty and trust. Winterson shows that love, romantic for some, global for all, is at the heart of a life of exploration and seeking, and it is this searching and seeking that her character is led by:
Only the impossible is worth the effort. What we seek is love itself, revealed now and again in human form, but pushing us beyond our humanity into animal instinct and god-like success. The love … has a wildness in it …human love … is an encampment on the edge of the wilderness … the wilderness is not tamed. It waits—beautiful and terrible—beyond the reach of the campfire. Now and again someone gets up to leave, forced to read the map of themselves, hoping that the treasure is really there … I do not know if what I hear is an answer or an echo. Perhaps I will hear nothing. It doesn’t matter. The journey must be made. (The Powerbook, 91)
While there are many readings, switches, and shifts in the speaking of The Powerbook’s narrator, what is consistent is the overarching theme given to each vignette, chapter, and story weaver. Even in fluctuating time and space narrative we are invited into the world and voice of characters who writes stories that are predominantly centered around boundaries and desire (The Powerbook, 40) and what it means to be open, to love, and to be on the journey of a life. The raw vulnerability that comes from the tender openness of revealing oneself through one’s surroundings is what gives an extraordinary context and power to The Powerbook.