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The Enduring Brilliance of Alice Munro

The late author’s work is at once hyper-local and global, rendering ‘home’ beautifully complex.

Manina Jones 16 May 2024The Conversation

Manina Jones is a professor in the department of English at Western University. This article was originally published by the Conversation.

Alice Munro, who has died at the age of 92, was a storyteller devoted to representing the rich complexity of human experience, often through her nuanced exploration of southwestern Ontario history and culture.

As the 2013 Nobel Prize presentation honouring her as “the master of the contemporary short story,” put it: “It may seem like a paradox, but it is actually quite logical: what we call world literature is generally rooted in the local and individual.”

So strong are the associations between Munro and her origins in southwestern Ontario that for some, the area around Huron County came to be known as “Alice Munro Country.”

As Dennis Duffy recognizes in the 2010 book National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada, this is not just a geographical space, but a “country of mind” that developed in the writing of Munro, and also in southwestern Ontario-based contemporaries of Munro’s in the 1970s such as painters Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers and playwright James Reaney.

In my research, I am interested in how the complexity of Munro’s view of the area and Canadian writers today invite us to expand our awareness to other histories that her writing only indirectly registers and does not fully take into account. This allows for an enriched view of Canadian literature and regional sensibilities.

Revisiting narratives

Madeleine Thien’s 2017 short story "Alice Munro Country,” for example, pays homage to Munro. At the same time, it uses fiction to account for the experience of displaced people from Cambodia who settled in Huron County in the 1980s. This story advances the literary project of making diasporic narratives part of the mainstream of Canadian literature and regional belonging.

Work of the late critic, writer and literature scholar Y-Dang Troeung, who authored "Alice Munro Country and Refugee Havens," also highlights the importance of this creative activity. Troeung was born in Cambodia and migrated to Huron County as a refugee with her family.

In the 2021 collection Alice Munro Country: Essays on Her Work, critic George Elliott Clarke pursues latent “tints” of Black history in Lives of Girls and Women.

Munro’s stories often pursue complicated narratives of colonial settlement, but they only hint at vital Indigenous histories of the region: her story “Meneseteung,” for example, included in the 1990 collection Friend of My Youth, uses an Anishinaabe word for the present-day Maitland River (named for a lieutenant-governor), gesturing toward a submerged pre-colonial past beyond the story.

A wide, shallow river with a sandbank in the middle is bordered by tall grass.
The Maitland River seen near Goderich, Ontario. Photo by Margaret Bourne via Flickr, Creative commons licensed.

The Huron Tract Purchase was registered as Treaty 29, which designated four Indigenous reserves and transferred the ownership of over two million acres of land to the Crown. Huron County’s land acknowledgment now recognizes that it is located on the territories of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral peoples.

Mapping routes through space and time

No author is more sensitive than Munro to the ways time and perspective may alter understanding. As Robert Thacker shows in his definitive biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, Munro spent her career mapping routes home to southwestern Ontario through space and time, in works such as The View From Castle Rock and The Progress of Love. She carefully followed the back roads of stories, attending to often-overlooked but recognizable details, perspectives and emotions. Munro traced these paths as her stories circulated around the world.

There is a photograph, reproduced in Thacker’s book, that takes the viewer to a threshold of Munro’s literary life. It is taken before her acclaim as a Nobel Prize-winning master of the short story. Taken in a classroom at the University of Western Ontario on Feb. 17, 1950, the image shows a first-year English literature class. The young men appear in jackets and ties, women in prim sweater sets and blouses with bows at the neck, their hair in careful curls.

While the other students mostly smile and face the photographer, toward the back row, a young woman then known as Alice Laidlaw may barely be discerned. She is turned away from the camera — intentionally? — looking at a classmate seated next to her.

Could she have imagined that her own stories would be studied as great literature in university classes held here decades later?

‘New literary find’

The year the photo was taken was a pivotal moment in Laidlaw/Munro’s life. She had moved from her rural family home in Wingham, Ontario, to attend university in London, Ontario. Later in the same year, she would publish her very first short story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” in the undergraduate journal Folio. The (all male) student editors bragged that she was Folio’s new literary “find.” How right they were.

Munro attended Western from 1949-51, withdrawing after her second year to marry fellow student James Munro, relocate to British Columbia and start a family. As noted in Thacker’s book, she looked back on her Western years fondly: “being in that atmosphere, having all those books, not having to do any housework” was a unique luxury. Munro loved her time at Western, where she split her time between studying, writing creative work and working part time at the library.

After Munro’s first marriage ended, she returned to southwestern Ontario, just after she had published her third collection of short stories, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You in 1974. There she made her home with her partner geographer Gerald Fremlin (whom she had first met while at university) until his death in 2013.

Writer in residence

Munro also took up another kind of residence: she served as Western’s third writer-in-residence, after poet Margaret Avison and novelist Margaret Laurence. That program is now one of the longest continuously running programs in the country. It provides a home base to writers from all over the country with the goal of cultivating and sustaining creativity and community at the university.

In 1976, Western recognized Munro’s already remarkable literary achievements with an honorary degree, the only such honour she ever accepted, because it was from the institution she had attended as an undergraduate. It was where her career as a published writer began.

When Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013, Western asked, how can we honour Munro’s legacy? At the time, Western’s chair of English and writing studies, Bryce Traister, remarked that “it’s really possible to imagine that the next Alice Munro is sitting in one of our classes,” just as Munro had.

The Alice Munro Chair in Creativity was created to recognize the university’s mission to support creativity. While pursuing their own work, the chair participates in teaching and assumes a leadership role between the university and local creative communities.

‘Emotional sincerity and precision’

Now completing her one-year term as Alice Munro Chair, internationally recognized fiction writer Sheila Heti notes Munro was a writer who “in her life and art, that one must work with emotional sincerity and precision and concentration and depth.”

Heti approached her term as Alice Munro Chair playfully, establishing a “game lab” with students from across the university and members of the community. Together, they created a board game based on storytelling.

A university can and should be a place that generates both knowledge and creativity, both international outreach and local belonging, seriousness of intent and playfulness of spirit, renown and humility, and a willingness to revisit memory in service of an evolving understanding based on insight. In doing so, we honour Alice Munro.The Conversation  [Tyee]

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