Books By The Book Interview literature Singapore

By The Book: An Interview with Jeanette Winterson, author of ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, ‘Frankissstein’ and ’12 Bytes’ (Singapore Writers’ Festival 2022)

Jeanette Winterson is constantly upgrading. Snagging her claim to fame with her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (which she penned at just 25 years old), Winterson has gone on to write thirteen novels for adults, two collections of short stories, as well as children’s books, non-fiction and screenplays. Her latest work, 12 Bytes, sees the acclaimed author dive deeper into her latest pet topic of choice – technology. Exploring AI and transhumanism, Winterson draws on years of research into artificial intelligence ask challenging questions about humanity, art, religion and the way we live and love.

Arriving in Singapore as part of the 2023 Singapore Writers’ Festival, Winterson will be featured in three programmes this weekend, where she promises an intimate conversation and discussion about the future, and how to live, as she reflects on the power of imagination bearing fruit, artificial intelligence, and where we could be going next. We spoke to Winterson about her constantly changing style, her views of the world, and her plans while in Singapore. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: Your topics and issues of interest have evolved immensely over the years, and with Frankissstein and 12 Bytes, we seem to have entered an era of interest in AI and transhumanism. How did that interest begin, and why did you decide to write entire books on the topic?

Jeanette Winterson: The biggest changes to the way we live will come from 2 directions: Climate breakdown, and artificial intelligence. It’s been happening for some years, and as the buzzword of our era is acceleration, it is going to happen faster and faster.

The whole question of future-tech will be irrelevant if we go on destabilising the planet – we won’t be merging into a transhuman, bio-engineered future, where we can live longer, healthier lives; we will be fighting each other for basic survival.

World leaders are stupid. Greta Thunberg is right about that. We need global consensus to tackle climate change. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder.

But if we manage to avoid disaster, we will be living an AI-enchanced world, and inside AI-enhanced bodies. I welcome this. Homo sapiens needs an update. 300,000 years of our present condition is enough – and for the first time in human history, we don’t have to wait for Mother Nature to evolve us further – we can do it ourselves. This will be decisive. Our future is not biological – it is electrical – Mary Shelley had a vision of this when she wrote Frankenstein. There is no need to run a substrate made of meat.

Of course I find this exciting, and that is why I started to explore it in the novel, Frankisstein, and then I wanted to go further, and I needed the non-fiction essay form to that, I wanted to write something that would inform and interest the general reader who is curious. Most AI and tech books are exactly like AI – narrow goal tools that do one job or tell one story. I wanted a bigger picture, bringing in history, religion, art, politics, as well as the story of how we got to the place where we are, just in tech terms.

Bakchormeeboy: As a writer, you’ve received your fair share of criticism amidst the praise. Has there been any criticism or backlash regarding your recent work? Do you pay attention to it, or choose to ignore what people say?

Jeanette: Any writer doing their own work in their own way will divide opinion. I don’t mind anyone deciding my work is not for them – there’s plenty of other stuff out there! What I don’t like is when there is a hidden agenda. The world has changed for the better now, but working-class women, working-class gay women, were not allowed to say ‘What I am doing is literature’. At the same time, refusing to focus on a hero or anti-hero – a MALE – wasn’t the done thing when I started out. And if the heroine was the focus, there had to be a love interest – as in Jane Eyre or Madam Bovery – that’s what the classics of literature are about – MEN, and women in brackets wrapped around the men. Virginia Woolf wasn’t taught on my Oxford University English degree in the 1980s. She was considered ’slight’.

Just think about for a second!

I have never been afraid to foreground queer affections of all kinds – and when I started out the promotion of homosexuality in places of education was illegal. You couldn’t read books that even mentioned gay, let alone said it’s fine to be gay. So I have travelled through big changes in time – and I have been part of the changes I want to see.

I have been successful for nearly 40 years – that gives me power and a platform – but it also irritates some people, including women, and there’s nothing I can do about that! I don’t care. I made a life and I have done some good in the world.

Bakchormeeboy: Queer-ness has never quite left your work, whether in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, or Frankissstein. While you’re not outrightly an activist, your work has always been overtly feminist and possessed strong social commentary. How do you see the representation and perception of queerness changing in the world, especially considering how diverse the concept of queerness remains today?

Jeanette: As above, the world has improved for women and for queer – not everywhere – I don’t want to be in Saudi Arabia or parts of Africa, or in Putin’s ugly version of Russia, but progress has been made. HOWEVER, the United States of America is now a threat to women and a threat to queers. If the Republicans take back power, it’s not going to be pretty. I always thought that when important battles were won, they were done. Now I know that isn’t true. We have to go on standing up for human rights, equality under the law to live and to love.

Bakchormeeboy: Singapore has often been touted as a future-looking city, with our focus on tech or sci-fi looking marvels like the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay. In your short time here, is there any aspect of the city that you’d like to explore more of or find out about from locals?

Jeanette: I have been to Singapore – and I am so looking forward to going to the Gardens by the Bay. I always visit the Botanic Gardens when I am Singapore. It calms me down and gives me energy. I love Gardens by the Bay and the Supertrees. When I arrive I am open to all suggestions, but the festival is keeping me busy!

Bakchormeeboy: Coming back to this year’s festival theme of “If”, what is one aspect of the world you imagine a feasible and hopeful future for?

Jeanette: Oh I so hope there is a future for our children, for young people. That is what matters. It is feasible, but it isn’t certain. All generations should work together for a planet, for a society, where young people can live sustainably, travel freely, not feel afraid, not feel hopeless. Most people don’t want to be millionaires; most people want a decent home, a nice neighbourhood, clean air, clean water, good food, education, a job that means they don’t lie awake at night worrying about bills, and a job that has some meaning. Those aims are modest. And the seem less attainable than living on Mars. We need to ask basic questions – and if we do, in the spirit of humility and cooperation, then we can save out planet and have a future that is more than a miserable continuation of the present.

Jeanette Winterson will be featured as part of the programmes Festival Gala: It’s The Cliches That Cause The Trouble, Jeanette Winterson: If We Can Imagine It and In A Tiny Room With: Jeanette Winterson.

Singapore Writers’ Festival 2022 – IF (JIKA, 若, எனில்) runs from 4th to 20th November 2022. Tickets and full programme lineup available here

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