The winner of this year’s Green Carnation Prize was Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree, a book that looks at people who are physically and socially different. Polari‘s editor was one of the five judges. Here he writes about why this book won, and how it is so powerful that it could change your life.
This Book Will Change Your Life
The Green Carnation Prize was founded in 2010, and this year I was one of its five judges. The first book I read for the prize was back in February. As the titles stacked ever higher and higher I wondered how five people possibly could, from such diverse and first-rate submissions, agree upon a winner. In August I started to read Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree. I had recently finished the shortlisted 1003 page title The Kills, by Richard House, and so the thought of a 700 page work of non-fiction about children who had fallen far from the tree – whether that meant they had been born deaf, or developed schizophrenia – made me apprehensive. Yet within the first 10 pages I knew I was reading the book that would win the 2013 prize.
Ability is the tyranny of the majority. If most people could flap their arms and fly, the inability to do so would be a disability. It’s a matter of votes, and the disabled question these majority decisions.
Far From The Tree –
Far From The Tree is about people born to conditions that are medical, such as dwarfism, or from conditions that are social, such as rape. It looks at what it means to be different for both the parent and the child, and at how identity is forged out of that difference. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity,” Solomon writes on the first page. It is this idea that makes the work unique and allows for it to transcend the individual stories and reach toward the universal. “My mother didn’t want me to be gay because she thought it wouldn’t be the happiest course for me, but equally, she didn’t like the image of herself as the mother of a gay son,” Solomon recalls of his own life. “The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter.” It is this conflict between reality and identity in the relationship between parent and child that makes for a book which resonates on an intellectual and an emotional level.
It was interesting, and wonderful, to witness what happened to each of the judges as they read the book. “To describe a book as ‘life changing’ is a grand phrase. But in this instance it is justified,” wrote Clayton Littlewood. “Chapter after chapter, the reader is drawn into the lives of parents with children who are often ignored or, in years gone by, treated with suspicion and scorn. However, the bravery and sheer determination of these families who have carved out their own cultures, and sometimes cultures within cultures, is humbling. Solomon successfully shows us that difference is life enhancing. And my life has definitely been enhanced by reading his book.”
That feeling of reading a work both life-changing and life-enhancing was felt keenly by each and every one of us. “In the way that the best literature does,” Kerry Hudson observed, “Far from The Tree gives access to different worlds and in doing so will change the way you look at things forever. It informs, inspires, moves and entertains. It is the sort of book that makes you grateful to have found it and that remains a gift for a lifetime.”
“In its celebration of diversity and the exploration of identity, Far From the Tree encompasses the values at the heart of the Green Carnation Prize,” Sarah Henshaw noted. “Monumental in every sense of the word, its research, ideas, expression and humanity demand recognition. Not for a long time has a book so moved and challenged me.”
And as Uli Lenart concluded, it was “life affirming, insightful and profoundly moving. Andrew Solomon continuously makes you reassess what you think. An opus of diversity, resilience and acceptance; Far From The Tree is a book that has the power to make the World a better place.”
In exploring categories of physical difference, and conditions that do not reflect the unforgiving mainstream, Solomon makes familiar that which is different. As the scores of stories of parents and children build they start to intersect and fold into each other. The individual struggles become universal because they are all struggles for an identity that does not always have a language, and is outside of the usual.
What makes Far From The Tree so exceptional is that it does not deal in the over-simplistic rhetoric of Nature vs. Nurture, with all its disagreeable heartlessness, but asks more fundamental questions about how we navigate our identity by finding those who are similar, who reflect that identity back and in so doing validate it. It is not an either/or process in search of causes, and the unavoidable implication that there could a social or medical fix. It looks at the human drama through which identity evolves, and the processes through which social value is assigned to differing identities.
Solomon understands the importance of that act of reflection, especially when it is a rare occurrence. It is a criticism often voiced, especially by those in the mainstream, that when minority groups pull together they are guilty of fencing themselves off in a ghetto. This argument simply assumes that the mainstream is reality rather than a social identity like any other. Solomon challenges this thinking by championing the paths to identity that different groups take. The stories he tells remove his subject from the abstract, and from the condition, the ‘disability’. The joy of a young woman at her first Dwarf convention, of being in a world filled with people who looked like her, is made tangible and its effects profound. One would have to have a heart of stone not to feel that sense of joy, the peace that comes from identification with others, and with belonging.
John Ruskin wrote, “You do not educate a man by telling him what he knew not, but by making him what he was not.” Each and every page of Far From The Tree reaches toward that goal, and is the work of a true educator. Rarely does it falter. It is not only an exceptional book. It is luminous.