Traister: Celebrating the small, unimportant things that matter

By Bryce Traister
October 16, 2013

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MenroIllustration by Frank Neufeld

Even before the Nobel came calling, Alice Munro could hardly have been called Western’s ‘best kept secret.’

For two years, she was a student here, a scholarship winner from Huron County and an English major of all things, before leaving university to get married and start a family. This is what many women from southwestern Ontario – and everywhere else, for that matter – did back in the 1950s, even when there wasn’t enough money for university degrees, as was the case for Ms. Munro.

Following some of her early successes — Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and the iconic Lives of Girls and Women (1971) — she returned to Western in 1974-75 as the writer-in-residence. Back then, there was a feeling it might “be rather nice for the university to bring back someone who went here very briefly and has since managed to build up quite a reputation as a writer of fiction.”

That was 1973. A few years later, Western conferred an honorary doctorate on her.

Today, Ms. Munro, the 2013 Nobel Laureate in Literature, is both Western’s first Nobel winner and the oldest living alumna of Western’s writer-in-residence program. At 40 this year, Western’s writer-in-residence program, hosted by the Department of English and Writing Studies, is the longest running university program of its kind in Canada.

This past summer, we invited Ms. Munro to be part of an event we’re having next month to celebrate this milestone. In this day and age, we tend to send invitations over email, as facebook notifications or via webpages. But this was Alice Munro, and an e-invite would not do. So, against the better of advice of folks who have encountered my penmanship, I handwrote an invitation and mailed it to her southwestern Ontario address.

She called a few days later. “Alice Munro called,” went the message I found on my desk when I returned from a coffee run. “She can’t make the gala, but wanted to thank you for inviting her.”

It’s not every day that a department head’s party invitation is declined by Alice Munro. The whole thing seemed, and still seems to me in the wake of the excitement over her Nobel recognition, so right, so appropriate to both her reputation and achievement. Anyone who listened to that now famous phone interview last week heard the humility, credible even in the face of the staggering achievement.

“I just want to thank you very much,” was the first thing she said. “This is a wonderful thing for me, and a wonderful thing for the short story.” Her lingering surprise and unfeigned joy found expression as gratitude, and as hope her recognition would lead to greater interest worldwide interest in the short story and in Canadian writing and writers.

In January of this year, Western’s Department of English officially merged with the Program in Writing, Rhetoric and Professional Communication to become the Department of English and Writing Studies. We undertook this for a number of reasons, one of which was to celebrate the creation of a new Honors Specialization in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature, which began in Fall 2012.

(I’ve already started calling it the ’Munro degree’ in my head.)

Not only does the degree, through something like happenstance, reflect the course of study Ms. Munro began back in the early 1950s, but also it may be the case that a future winner of the Nobel, or the Governor-General’s, or the National Book Award, or the Giller Prize (Ms. Munro has won them all) is sitting today in Larry Garber’s Creative Writing Workshop, or Terence Green’s Writing Short Fiction course.

One gets the feeling that Ms Munro is perfectly happy letting the rest of us make a big deal about her achievement. It’s kind of what we do in arts and humanities departments after all. We celebrate and think critically about literature and art, and how these things might be said to matter in today’s world. She is now on the same list as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus and William Faulkner.

And Toni Morrison. Ms. Munro was quite rightly appalled at how few women — 13 out of 106 — have received this recognition.

In the case of Munro, there’s something very satisfying about Nobel’s recognition of a body of work almost entirely comprised of a ’secondary’ genre (the short-story), largely written about ordinary people (housewives, farmers, librarians) and written by a woman from a distinctly un-famous part of the world. As it turns out, these small and unimportant things somehow matter. But don’t take it from me.

Read any story by this unparalleled master of fiction writing, and you will see for yourself.

Western professor Bryce Traister is the chair of the Department of English and Writing Studies.























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