It was a game, fitting bone on bone. I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same.

Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh. To remember you, it’s my own body I touch. Thus she was, here and here. The physical memory blunders through the doors the mind has tried to seal. A skeleton key to Bluebeard’s chamber. The bloody key that unlocks pain. Wisdom says forget, the body howls. Thus she was, here and here.’

– Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body


It is a rare classroom of students to whom I do not read this passage. Just beyond the halfway point of Jeanette Winterson’s otherwise unchaptered novel, Written on the Body, she diverts the narrative into a series of passages under headings such as ‘The Skeleton’ and ‘The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body’. This excerpt appears in a short ode to the clavicle. ‘You have a dress with a décolletage to emphasize your breasts,’ the ungendered narrator reminds her lover, Louise, a married woman, and the object of an obsession that drives the entire novel. ‘I suppose the cleavage is the proper focus but what I wanted to do was fasten the index finger and thumb at the bolts of your collar bone, push out, spreading the web of my hand until it caught against your throat. You asked me if I wanted to strangle you. No, I wanted to fit you, not just in the obvious ways, but in so many indentations.’

I do not read the passage because I, too, have written a book about an obsession with a married woman, about the body as a palette, a metaphor, a dinner plate we fill and refill with our insatiable hungers. Believe it or not, I have realized this similarity only just now, as I write this. Such is the way of influences, I suppose. They imprint themselves on our consciousness as light does a photograph, or trauma the psyche, then slowly seep into us, syncopate with our hearts’ beating like a disease or an incessant prayer. They become the blueprints from which we map our own works of art, our own narratives, our own heartbreaks. No, I read the passage because my students, like all beginning writers, trade heavily in cliché. Because even by their tender ages, I feel safe to assume that many of them have already loved a clavicle, have mistaken it for their own precious corner. Similarly, the shoulder blade, which also gets a treatment in this section of Winterson’s book.

You are not the first person to claim the clavicle, I tell them. You cannot just drop a bloody key into your novel about love. I forbid you from ‘unlocking pain.’ In fact, do not use the word pain, ever. Or soul, or love, or roses. Until you can do what Jeanette Winterson does with clichés, these words are forbidden. I read it because I want them to understand what I understood, before I could name it, at fifteen, when I first read this book. I was in love for the first time and I had never heard of Jeanette Winterson, who once said, ‘I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.’ I drank the book in a single breathless draw, curled in a corner of my small town’s library. I understood that it was possible to write the madness of love, to strike the right words together and burn up the page. That I did not have to sacrifice my intellect to that fire. A writer could be a lover and a philosopher, an intellectual and a storyteller, could invert clichés and allusions, could interrupt her book with an ode to the eyeball, the cunt, or the clavicle, and not collapse it. A woman writer could do all of this. And I will, I thought. I will.

Best Book of 1991: Mao II by Don DeLillo
The Binoculars of Jah