by Rina Brundu. Janice Weizman was born in Canada and has lived in Israel for the past 30 years. She is the author of The Wayward Moon, a historical novel set in the 9th century Middle East, which came out in 2012 with Yotzeret Publishing. The novel won both a gold medal in the Independent Publisher awards, and a second gold medal in the Midwest Book Awards. Her writing has appeared in Lilith, Jewish Fiction, The Jerusalem Report, and other publications. She is the founder and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, an online literary journal affiliated with Bar-Ilan university.
Given her distinct cultural background, I have taken some time to ask Janice a few questions about Alice Munro the Nobel Prize in Literature 2013.
Q. Janice, you are a writer, and you have grown up in the same Canadian province of Ontario where the 2013 Literary Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro was born and lives. In your opinion, given the strong regional focus in Munro’s writing, which sociological elements – perhaps typical traits of the people who inhabit those beautiful parts of the world – have helped her out to shape such an impressive style of writing? And which natural elements, if any?
A. It’s true that Alice Munro’s writing is very much shaped by the landscape of the small towns of Ontario, and by the people who live in them. It is a region where the landscape is not very dramatic and not much of “consequence” happens. Relative to other parts of the world, life there is peaceful, quiet, stable, and the people are conservative in their outlook and desires. As in small towns everywhere, people watch and gossip, and they are often critical and judgemental. Munro grew up in the 1930’s and the small Ontario towns that she writes about were hit hard by the Depression. The hardship and lack of hope often made people bitter and small minded and cynical, and I think that reality shaped her desire to explore people’s behaviour and motives through writing fiction.
I once read an interview with Alice Munro where she explained that when she was growing up, she came from a culture where ambition was frowned upon and you were considered a snob if you put too much effort into doing well at school, or doing something creative, or drawing any special attention to yourself. I think that this is felt strongly in much of Munro’s work. Her characters, and particularly the women in her early stories, constantly experience tension between how others see them and their inner experience. They are constantly aware of how they are perceived and judged by others. Her later stories often depict women who want to break free of the roles they have been taught to play. Her characters deliberate about leaving marriages, lovers, or their own community in an effort to find their true selves. I think that Munro’s interest in these themes stems from dilemmas that played out in her own life.
Q. The first successful literary works of Mrs Munro date back to 1968. From that time onwards, was there any recognition of her achievements among her own people? Do you have any special memories or stories that you could tell and which could help us out to better understand such an important aspect of her personal and artistic life?
A. Alice Munro has been an important name in the Canadian literary community since she won the Governor General’s award, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 1968. She continued to win many other literary awards, and in time, her work became familiar to many. Yet for a long time, many considered her writing to be dull and too “domestic”, and some critics belittled her work as quaint stories written by a housewife.
I think that today, Canadians understand that her writing is about them, their lives, their values, their environments. Her characters and the dilemmas they face echo the nature of life in Canada. Her modesty, humility and unpretentiousness express what is authentic and refreshing about Canada, and I think that she gives Canadians reason to be proud of who they are.
Q. I have read a few short-stories written by Mrs Munro and I have been positively impressed by the special fictional universe she managed to create. “Walker Brothers Cowboy”, a short-story from the collection “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968), kept me thinking for a while: where does “evil”, “real evil” (i.e. an element which committed-writing cannot exist without), hides in those delicate portraits of common-people, common-lives that Mrs Munro manages to bring to life in such a powerful manner?
A. I’m not sure I understood the question. Do you mean that there doesn’t seem to be evil in her characters? If that’s what you meant, it is a really interesting comment. I think that for Alice Munro, people aren’t “evil”. Rather, they can be motivated by jealousy, anger, small-mindedness, selfishness, or sometimes, various forms of sadism. Munro sees these traits as part of human nature, something this is present in most relationships. In her writing, she explores why people behave the way they do, and what motivates the choices that they make.
Regarding the social environment that Munro is writing out of, I mentioned before that Canada is a place that is, relatively speaking, safe, prosperous, free and comfortable. “Decent,” considerate, behaviour is a social value. Canadians are known for being polite and well behaved, and this is not a co-incidence, because Canadian society places a high value on being liberal but also moderate and fair. This is the Munro’s cultural setting, and when non-Canadians read her, it may seem that her characters lack evil impulses. I think the question of “evil” in the classic sense isn’t all that relevant for her. Rather, she is interested in how ugly interior impulses can play out in powerful, life-changing ways, even in very ordinary lives.
Q. What heritage will the works of Mrs Munro leave to the far-away province of Ontario, to its people and to us all common citizens of the world?
Munro’s work, and the recognition it has received is extremely meaningful to all Canadians. Canada is a relatively “new” country – it only achieved independence from Britain in 1867. Because for most of its history it was made up of people from the same cultural background as the US and Britain (except, of course, for the French province of Quebec), it has been a challenge for Canadians to develop their own unique identity. Like all art, Munro’s stories hold a mirror up to her society. They frame Canadian experience, landscape and values in a way which enables reflection and perspective. In that sense, her work has contributed a great deal to the way that Canadians see themselves.
Munro’s work is often compared to Chekov’s, because like him, Munro writes short stories about “ordinary” people in the midst of “ordinary” lives, yet manages to portray the drama that is present in even the most mundane existence. She writes about our struggle to realize ourselves, to find meaning, to make sense of our lives and to make our presence felt in the world. These are themes that speak to readers everywhere.
Thank you very much Janice for this extraordinary interview!
Alice Munro Facts (from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2013/munro-facts.html).
Born: 10 July 1931, Wingham, Canada
Residence at the time of the award: Canada
Prize motivation: “master of the contemporary short story”
Visit also The Ilanot Review.
Featured image, Alice Munro.