Alice Munro was 37 when her first collection of short stories was published. In the seventies, her acclamation started outside of Canada. Her moving short stories with their distinct effortless style are focused on her native Huron county in South Western Ontario. She studied English and journalism at the University of Western Ontario.
The frolicking waves of the Great Lakes in Canada had extra ripples on that very special day, October 10, 2013. As a Bangladeshi Canadian, I felt extremely proud as the Swedish Academy announced that the Canadian author Alice Munro had become the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.Close competitors were the Romanian novelist Mircea Cartarescu, Norwegian dramatist John Fosse and Russian documentary writer Svetlana Alexierich.When contacted by the Canadian Press, a surprised Alice Munro said “I knew I was in the running, yes, but I never thought I would win”.
That day after work I went to my favourite bookstore, Chapters, located on Rathburn Road in Mississauga, but the usual strong aroma of Starbucks' coffee tucked snuggly on one side of the store did not distract my attention as it usually did. I went straight to the “Best Sellers” fiction section. The pretty salesgirl also had an extra bounce in her footsteps, like me, as she handed me the last copy of “Dear Life”, Munro's National Bestseller in Canada. I heaved a sigh of relief. I am not a Kindle person, and I prefer the touch and smell of a good book in my hands.
Munro narrates in her own unique style of lucid honesty and sincerity, using simple expressions, spot-on vocabulary, and basic phrases for expressing everyday thoughts and mundane incidents around the lives of ordinary Canadians. She eloquently highlights the many complex emotions of human relationships, mysteries, happiness, depression, desperation and enchantments of dear life with accessibly beautiful linguistics. If you read any of her short stories, you will most certainly find that you will never require the assistance of a dictionary. The jigsaw of words she uses to help readers comprehend the intriguing mysteries of universal human life, embedded into the backdrop of a Canada many readers know nothing about, have eventually struck gold. The Nobel Prize win was “totally unexpected for me”, says Munro. The boundless horizon opened up to her magical writings. She had reached out for the shimmering sapphire blue of the Great Lakes of Ontario. But she landed beyond the blue, past the distant horizon.
Thirty-one years of living in Canada have taught me to find a proper balance between East and West. As a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer, my ecstasy knew no bounds as I walked into my workplace that day. My writing critics say that my poems and short stories are full of nostalgia and love for Bangladesh. Every time I eat apple fritters I think of Bangladeshi “roshogollas” and every time I see the deep blue frothing waves of Lake Ontario, my inward eyes see the Bay of Bengal. Yet today I am proud to be a Canadian, as proud as I was to be a Bangladeshi when Tagore, Yunus, Amartya Sen and Mother Teresa received their Nobel Prizes.
Alice Munro was born in 1931 to a farming family of Scottish and Irish origins in rural Huron County, Ontario. She published her first collection of stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades” in 1968 and last year, her 14th book, “Dear Life”, came out with a big bang and became a Canadian national bestseller. The New York Times Book Review commented about her, “One of the great short story writers, not just of our time, but of any time.”
Britain's “The Independent” says, “This Canadian Chekhov has won both critical reverence and the loyalty of fans across the world for stories that can encapsulate a life within a dozen pages, and for a tender but unsparing gaze on the ordinary events that assume great dimensions in all our lives”. Eminent Canadian writer Margaret Atwood says about Munro, “She writes about the difficulties faced by people who are bigger or smaller than they are expected to be when her protagonists look back.” The Independent aptly summarizes by saying that her Nobel accolade counts as a victory for women authors, for Canadian literature and the often marginalised art of the short story.
At the age of 82, Munro herself says, “What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every small pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together radiant, everlasting.” Upon hearing of her Nobel Prize, she smiled and said, “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you'd got a novel written.”
Her short story collections include: Dear Life, Too Much Happiness, The View from Castle Rock, Runaway, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” The Love of a Good Woman, Selected Stories, Open Secrets, Friend of My Youth, The Progress of Love, The Moons of Jupiter, Who Do You Think You Are?, Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, Lives of Girls and Women, and Dance of the Happy Shades.
“I wait for material to turn up and it always turns up”, says Munro, whose stories always centre around life and living in Canada. The Swedish Academy praised her, “Finely tuned story-telling, which is characterised by clarity and psychological realism.” She joins Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Harold Pinter, Jose Saramago, Nadine Godimer, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison and the late Seamus Heaney in being given the accolade since 1901.
She has passed through phases of working as a waitress, tobacco picker and a library clerk. She is still operating “Munro's Books,” a quant bookstore in Victoria of West Vancouver. And yes, like many young writers, her collection of short stories was once rejected by publishers. Yet her ordinary stories about ordinary life eventually became extraordinary.
Unlocking doors to the world's imagination, creating stories which have the unique quality of being universal in their resonance, critical acclaim and public appreciation were hers in Canada, even before the Nobel Prize.
Rummana Chowdhury, poet-fiction writer, lives in Toronto, Canada