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Liked Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Then read Robert Chafe's Two-Man Tent

Short story writer Eva Crocker draws connections between two distinct writers.
The Next Chapter columnist Eva Crocker is the author of Barrelling Forward. (Breakwater Books/Alex Noel/Vintage Canada)

Jeanette Winterson became an immediate literary star with the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1985. She was raised in a Pentecostal family in Manchester, England, and came out as a lesbian when she was 16 years old. She later wrote a memoir titled Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

If you enjoyed Winterson's memoir, The Next Chapter columnist Eva Crocker thinks you should read Two-Man Tent by Robert Chafe. 

Forbidden fiction

"Jeanette Winterson was adopted by a woman who was deeply religious. She was a very stern mother and one of the things that was not allowed in their home was novels. She had this great line, 'The trouble with books is you don't know what's in them until it's too late.' As a book lover, Jeanette ignored that warning and snuck tons of books into the house.

"A big part of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is about her relationship with her mother. The title refers to what her mother said to her when she came out. Her mother was ashamed of the house that they lived in; they didn't have the same means as other people. It helps Jeanette recognize how much she doesn't want to be tied down by shame like her mother. She wants to choose happiness."

Linked by loneliness

"Robert Chafe's Two-Man Tent is a structurally interesting short story collection. The stories are woven around chat logs from a real conversation with a man in California. Some anecdotes from the chats appear in the short stories and you find yourself trying to work out how much of this is true and how much of it is fiction. The short stories are mostly based in Newfoundland and they are not connected in terms of the characters. But the stories and the chat log are connected thematically in that they're about loneliness. Robert and this man are dealing with the geographic distance between them and their different political views. You can see the chemistry between them on the page and you desperately want it to work out, even though you can see that their politics are opposed."

True to life's stories

"Both books explore the genre of autobiography in a way that acknowledges truth and fiction might be more ambiguous than it seems. They're both about being queer, although Two-Man Tent is about being in a different time and stage of coming to terms with your sexuality. As a writer, it was exciting to see things from Robert's real life appearing in the chats and things in the chats appearing in the short stories. Jeanette plays with that as well. She points out which parts of her life she's put in her fiction and those that she's left out. Although Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is an autobiography, in places she exaggerates and is not afraid to stretch the truth —  for the sake of the story. "  

Eva Crocker's comments have been edited and condensed.

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