Alice Munro Was Bigger than Canada

Here artists are celebrated by virtue of their nationality. Munro showed me I could escape those tropes

A photo of Alice Munro against a full red backdrop
The Walrus / Chad Hipolito / The Walrus

In high school English class, I saw no connection between literature and nation. An author’s place of origin was a trifling bit of biography that rarely seemed relevant to their work: This is Will, he writes plays, his story’s set in Denmark, but he’s from England; this is Margaret, she writes about the horrors of the feminine experience, her novel’s set in dystopian New England, but she’s from Canada. Here’s another Will, who also hails from England. He has a book about a bunch of boys trying to kill one another on an unnamed island in the Pacific. And finally, Franz, from Prague. He writes about the nightmares of bureaucracy, and his fiction isn’t really set anywhere at all.

This model made sense to me: you didn’t have to write about where you came from. I might have been consigned to live in a suburb north of Toronto, but I wasn’t duty bound to set my work there. In fact, nothing seemed like it would kill a piece of fiction faster. This felt like a fair exchange for not getting to live someplace more lively or diverse—that the borders of geography had no bearing on the contents of imagination.

Then, in undergrad, everything changed. Literature courses were carved up by the where, the when, and how those factors influenced the what. It was in this context—specifically, in a second-year survey course on Canadian literature—that I was introduced to the fiction of Alice Munro, the Nobel Prize–winning short-story writer who died this past May. But before we got to more contemporary writers, we read some of the country’s older prose, like John Franklin and John Richardson’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea and Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush. I learned about literary critic Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality”: the idea that the early Canadian cultural imagination operated from a place of cowed defensiveness when faced with “the vast unconsciousness of nature.” This isolation, Frye suggested, bred a strategic conformity: “A garrison is a closely knit and beleaguered society,” he writes, “and its moral and social values are unquestionable . . . one is either a fighter or a deserter.” The ensuing writing distills these values into tropes: a sense of isolation against a vast and fearsome outside world, a compulsion to respect law and order, a contraction of the world into a binary of us and them.

As an explanation, Frye’s garrison mentality seemed to capture much of the tedium I chafed against in the country’s literature. As an inheritance, it sounded like creative death, one that seemed even worse than any obligation to write about where you came from. You may have the freedom to set your stories wherever you want. But the parochialism and closed-mindedness you’d automatically imbibe by being born within certain borders would load up the work with tropes clunky enough to sink it.

At first blush, Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women seemed consistent with this constricting set of values. The novel-in-stories is narrated by Del Jordan, a girl in small-town rural Ontario, as she comes of age and parses the enigmas of desire and sex. Its opening sentences invoke a world that seems quaint and dully quiet, a hyperlocal populace of rule followers: “We spent days along the Wawanash River, helping Uncle Benny fish. We caught the frogs for him.” Routinized, obedient. When Uncle Benny says help, you help. Like a perfect little microcosm of the garrison mentality. Oh great, I thought, another one.

But these familiar expressions of a national sensibility are closer to a feint, a dose of the familiar before Munro upends it. The reader’s first sense that something might be off is the sudden violence of the landscape. While chasing frogs for Uncle Benny, the kids stalk the creatures along the riverbank, moving through “marshy hollows full of rattails and sword grass that left the most delicate, at first invisible, cuts on our bare legs.” I felt the sting as if the violence had been done to my own skin. Munro articulates something critical—about her novel, but also about the relationship between literature and locale—by equating local vegetation with brutality. The place you’re from, the place you may be sentenced to write about, can leave invisible wounds. For a writer who renders her setting, as Munro does, with surgical precision, the equivalence is significant. As a younger reader, I felt vindicated by it. The paragraph continues, growing more deliciously perverted—the kids don’t want the old frogs, “it was the slim young green ones, the juicy adolescents, that we were after.” If anything in this paragraph was going to ooze with sex, I didn’t expect it to be the frogs. A line break, then the final twist of the knife: by the way, Benny’s not really their uncle.

Across her oeuvre, Munro repels the idea that a national literary character, no matter how extensively it’s been discussed and codified, constrains the aesthetic aims of the work. Her writing does this by playing with the tropes of Canadiana, rendering those small, law-abiding enclaves as stifling and inhibiting—places that her desiring female protagonists are often struggling to escape. In an essay for the Toronto Star, novelist Heather O’Neill praises the unrepentant horniness of Munro’s characters, especially when they get on a train and leave their hometown for the first time. Though Munro is known for documenting small-town life, “once you really dive into the world of Alice Munro,” O’Neill writes, “you realize there is no such thing as a well-behaved young lady.”

Even more important to me than the work itself was its reception. In Canada, artists often get celebrated by virtue of their nationality and the ensuing assumption that their work therefore expresses some essential truth of that identity. Think of the Broadcasting Act, which prioritizes Canadian content with the justification that doing so automatically “reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity.” Writers—critically the ones outside of Canada—championed Munro for a different reason: her skill. When I first read her work, I was under the sway of Great National Novels, a faux genre whose most canonized practitioners, like Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, tend to be male and American. On my copy of Lives of Girls and Women, the Modern Classics edition published by Penguin Random House Canada, is a blurb by novelist Jonathan Franzen—another writer who attracts the label, whose opinions on fiction I then took as articles of faith. “Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America,” he fawns, closing with an adorably impassioned “Read Munro!”

Franzen was not the only international writer to hold Munro in exceptional regard. In his editor’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2008, Salman Rushdie prevaricates over “who exactly is an American these days,” anyway, for the purposes of the anthology. “Canadians, for example?” (That tremor you just felt was the CanLit old guard shuddering.) “Yes,” he concludes, “otherwise we would have to exclude Alice Munro, and what a foolish decision that would be.” A conferral of honorary American literariness! I could imagine no higher praise. These writers didn’t celebrate Munro because her work reflected Canadian attitudes and opinions. It was because she could do in thirty pages, a dozen times within a single volume, what it took an American man 600 pages to try and pull off even once.

This kind of recognition shifted the terms by which I understood the relationship between artistry and national identity. Munro’s work represented the possibility that rendering in excruciating detail the place you were from, and the specificity with which you knew it, didn’t relegate you to being read in a particular way or by a particular group of people. This has long been a fear of mine as a writer: that the reception of my work would be dictated by aspects of my life I didn’t choose and couldn’t change, or didn’t want to. But Munro’s canny, sly representation of place and its constraints, and the way that work was celebrated, contravened a core understanding of mine: that to be read as Canadian—to allow into your work specific markers that would identify it as such—is to limit your audience. It might, for example, get you on a CanLit syllabus, a point on the long line illustrating how the country tells the story of itself. It might get you more local spins or streams according to Canadian content regulations. But it also might cut you off from more global success.

The way Canadian literature can, at times, contract around itself—proudly, smugly, self-importantly—seemed to leave no space for the kind of work I wanted to do. But Munro’s work eased my fear and encouraged me to write more explicitly against its habits. In my mind, her work set an important precedent in how the careers of Canadian writers are perceived and expected to unfold.

Still, I struggle to this day with the label Canadian writer. It has come to feel synonymous with, or like an expression of, a sensibility that’s never quite fit the work I want to put into the world. I have an innate distrust of any set of aesthetics grounded in the inherent value of representation. But Munro offered a critical lesson in resisting inherited tropes and narratives, the reverberations of which I sense in the most exciting writing coming out of Canada today. The work can be brutal and strange. It can sexualize the frogs. One is not consigned simply to Frye’s binary of fighter and deserter. There is another way, and Alice found it.

Tajja Isen
Tajja Isen is a contributing writer for The Walrus.