Books That Made Me, Literally
I know it sounds cheesy to say, but books really have made me – they are literally there for all to see. My earliest memories linger in libraries, bookshops, and the book corner at the back of my parents’ church. They were my escape, a world that as a child I knew I needed, but at the time I didn’t have the language to explain why.
My mum always used to tell me that wherever I went, I was to remember two things, my ‘suitcase of manners’ and a book for the journey. As an adult, I’ve taken this to its logical conclusion, literally inking my favourite books, characters, and themes onto my body – and, as is inevitably the case with tattoos, there are more to be added. I’ve chosen two books here (and incidentally my first two tattoos), Matilda and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Matilda, the title character in Roald Dahl’s children’s novel published in 1988, is a character I’m extremely emotionally attached to. It tells the story of a young girl who loves books and has special mind-controlling powers that she uses against her parents and the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchball. She is often depicted as an outsider in a family that don’t understand or particularly love her, time and time again left alone and belittled for finding safety and comfort in the stories that she surrounds herself with. However, through the books that she reads, and the unconditional kindness of her teacher, Miss Honey, Matilda starts to see a way out. Like the characters in her books, she creates a world for herself, and for the reader too.
Like Matilda, Dahl offers you the chance to recognise that you can choose your own family, and reinforces that even if it feels like it at the time, you are never truly alone. I have this Quentin Blake sketch of Matilda dancing to serve as a reminder of the power that reading has, as well as the fortitude it takes to live your life honestly, openly, and truly. It’s nice to know that hidden on my ribs, Matilda dances with me, wherever I go.
My second choice is the seminal piece of lesbian fiction, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, written by Jeanette Winterson and published in 1985. When I first came out at 14, my aunt gave me her copy of this text and I read it over and over again, taking it everywhere I went, and sleeping with it hidden under my pillow. Through the lyrical nature of Winterson’s writing I felt transported to a world where (although I couldn’t vocalise it at the time) my identity suddenly made sense. Add this to the fact that the text is teeming with biblical references, I look back now and realise that I was almost destined to fall into researching contemporary biblical studies.
I recently re-read my battered, dog eared, water marked copy and had that same emotional response. The character of Jeanette is both vulnerable, but incredibly bolshie. She knows who she is and despite being ostracised and outed from her family and church community, never gives in. This strength and conviction is epitomised in my tattoo with the upside down cross and feminist symbol hidden within the orange segments. As well as telling Jeanette’s story, it is also semi-autobiographical of mine, with feminism and queer politics being at the centre of where I see myself in the world.
I am what I read. I read what I am.