The Writer Next Door
That July, I was fourteen and visiting my lifelong bestie who had moved to London, Ontario. The southwestern Ontario landscape was working its strange humid way on me. I felt hung about with sandbags, encumbered and slow and strangely panicky. It wasn’t because I was not made welcome. On the contrary, my bestie and her two sisters were sweet and accommodating; the youngest gave up her bedroom for me and moved in with her middle sister for the duration of my visit. But I couldn’t quite keep up with the pace of that household; they planned group activities and trips and took photos of the fun we were having. It was so foreign to me: all the money spent, the merrymaking, the bizarre landscape of Ontario Place. I was stunningly, sickeningly homesick. And then there was Alice.
Claiming Alice Munro as an early influence is a bit like claiming God as your co-pilot. Believe me, I know all about praising of Munro’s skill so unequivocally that there’s no room to do anything but agree or pronounce yourself a hater. But where I’m going with this has nothing to do with literary elitism or hero worship. I was sexually assaulted when I was twelve. After that, it was hard for me to be the kid I was supposed to be or the young adult I was supposed to be growing into, because the assault and the incalculable effort it took for me to be a functioning person afterward made me into an old woman almost immediately. Extreme violence is a time machine. It was hard to listen to my parents because they seemed so naïve about the evil that lurked in the world, but I needed their protection for at least six more years until I was eighteen. The term PTSD wasn’t in common use at the time, or at least it wasn’t in use in my grade seven class, and in the manner of vicious but useful irony, my slow shuffle through the world looked like adolescent angst to nearly everyone.
The summer I was staying with my bestie’s family, her mother gave me a book. I don’t know why she did it; maybe she knew that something had to be done about my sadness. The book was Dance of the Happy Shades, and she noted breezily that the author had lived next door for a while. Munro moved to London in 1974, commuting first to York University where she taught creative writing before serving as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario. My bestie’s mother was a sophisticate whose girlhood in Montreal marked her as more savvy than the other mothers I knew, so she might have read Dance of The Happy Shades. Then again, she could have bought a copy of the book because she had met the author over their shared back fence.
Though the word “Happy” in the title made me suspicious, I was hooked by the idea of the writer who had lived next door, and I started reading that night. I could not believe what I was seeing. How could this writer do it? How could she write so evocatively about what I knew so intimately but would not say, could not write down, and would never detail even in casual conversation with friends: the everyday but completely private world of outdated appliances and dirty knees and clothes that didn’t quite fit and money that was enough but never really enough and relatives’ farmhouses where I’d be sent to the cellar for a jar of beets or pickles and hear things (mice? snakes?) moving stealthily maybe around the very jar I was about to pick up. How did Alice Munro see inside my head? The book didn’t cure my sadness, though I snapped awake: what the hell was going on in this book about working-class girls that didn’t offer moralistic summaries? I remained out of tune with my bestie’s home life but now I was listening to something else: an external voice that was weirdly, unimaginably interior.
These girls in Munro’s book had their own selves in a way I hadn’t read before. They screwed up and knew humiliation and shame. They were not fake-wise or especially good or innocent, but instead they were solidly real in their puzzlements about being female in an often contemptuous vicious world. The stories also pointed out aspects of masculinity with which I was already familiar: silent exasperated fathers, aggressive boyfriends, creepy older dudes with their come-ons.
I started staring out of the window of my borrowed bedroom at the house next door, the house where Munro had lived; she was long gone, moved to Clinton, Ontario, but I stared anyway, trying to sync up the stories and the place. I re-read Dance of the Happy Shades when I got home, and a year later, I had a huge fight with my boyfriend about Lives of Girls and Women when he made the mistake of assuming he knew the content from a glance at the cover. I’ll never forget his confident know-nothingness and my responding fury. The state of being female was something I had spent most of my life ignoring, but violence had made me acutely aware that being female and ignoring it could kill me. I wasn’t much like Munro’s bold young protagonists, but Munro’s psychic landscape was undeniably mine: embarrassing aunts, sudden violence, ground-down people trapped by their own terrible hope in the capitalist crises of the mid-twentieth century. Munro was at the very start of her career; she would shortly be so lauded that it seems faintly ridiculous now to emphasize the influence of those early books. But at the time, I had never read anything like them.
When I returned to academic study as an adult, lured by feminist theory, I discovered that there was an entire course dedicated to Munro’s work, so I registered and re-read obsessively before the course began. My student colleagues were cavalier; asked why they were taking the course, they shrugged and said it fit their schedule. I was an overachieving ball of class anxiety. When my turn came to say why I had chosen the course, I did not know how to lie or be casual; I said, “I’ve been reading Munro for twenty years.” I saw the professor’s face brighten at the same time as everyone else rolled their eyes.
Everything about Munro – and about me as a reader – is too much: her bazillion awards, her international reputation, the critical footprint made by her many books. My background isn’t that different from any artist who has had their life shaped by violence and its lived contradictions. Reading Munro made me resilient; her observations about injustice and possibility and time allowed me to recognize myself without fear or apology. This took a long time to develop, and when I was seventeen, I thought a lot about Del’s insight at the end of Lives of Girls and Women: “The future could be furnished without love or scholarships.” I thought of this even when I was surrounded by love and scholarships: I knew how quickly things could change.
Munro’s early stories feature women and girls who are recognizably classed in their attitudes and embarrassments: always working-class, always small-town, always aware that there is something they are missing. When I was a younger reader, I liked Munro’s girls and young women because they were enraged by mannerisms and expressions the way I was, because they were as suspicious of people’s motives as I was, because they were whole people trapped in the bodies of minors, and because they suspected the political truth about female oppression but couldn’t quite articulate it, just as I could not. I also liked the way Munro’s young heroines articulated their small revelations without implying that their insight would change their circumstances. I liked how they never hesitated to turn their exacting gazes on older women who acted, by blood or by circumstance, as guides.
Stopped at an intersection in Stratford, on the way to see Seana McKenna in The Matchmaker in July 2012, my mother in the passenger seat of my car, I watched Alice Munro cross the street in front of us. She leaned on a younger woman’s arm, and she looked frail, the way my mother was starting to look. I almost didn’t say anything, but finally settled for a brief declaration of the miraculous. “That’s Alice Munro,” I said, with a casualness I didn’t feel. My mother craned her neck to see. Together we observed Munro’s slow progress across the road. I had nothing else to say. My mother had only three years to live, but we didn’t know that then. My father had been dead for eight years, and my bestie’s mother who gave me the book had died of cancer twenty years before. My abuser, the last I heard, is still alive. I’m clumsy with a narrative stutter the way Munro’s writing never is. I don’t want to belabour the point: I’m just not able to leave it as is.
This essay is an excerpt from Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City, appearing from Wolsak and Wynn in May 2018.