Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 24, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Despite receiving the Giller Prize (twice), the Governor General’s Award (three times), the Man Booker International Prize, the Trillium Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, the O. Henry Award, the Marian Engle Award, and countless others, Alice Munro has been the victim of censorship in her native country, most frequently for her 1971 classic, Lives of Girls and Women. In 1979, the Huron County school board demanded that Munro’s book be removed from the reading lists for Grade 12 and 13 students. In their book Interpreting Censorship in Canada, Allan C. Hutchinson and Klaus Petersen write, “The Catholic Women’s League in the town of Knightsbridge, Huron County, was concerned about ‘gutter talk and blasphemy'” in the book. In 1982, parents in Toronto petitioned to have the collection stricken from the high school curriculum for its “language and philosophy.” Lives of Girls and Women has faced similar attacks across the country since its publication.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Munro is a feminist writer, but her feminism is subversive, and makes many readers uncomfortable in the way it questions the established social order, particularly where matters of sexuality are concerned. In her essay “Reading Female Sexual Desire in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women,” Sue Thomas writes:

To adapt Del’s real­ization of a mature aesthetic, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” there are discordant cracks in the “linoleum” of Del’s account of her sexual desire for Garnet French. The “linoleum” of Del’s representations of self and oth­ers is, on one level, the familiar pattern of intelligibility that domesticates the “deep caves” … of personality and character, facilitating a durable sense of identity and structuring interaction with others. The cracks in the linoleum of Del’s representations of her sexual desire – signaled by Munro through allusion, metaphor, and the surfacing of the uncanny – expose “deep caves” of ambiguity and complexity in Del’s sexuality and her relationship with her mother.

Female sexuality – especially when tinged with “ambiguity and complexity” – makes many readers uncomfortable. The persistent challenges to this suite of stories testify to Munro’s determination to confront this ambiguity and complexity in a direct and unsentimental way.

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From “Princess Ida”:

The older brother sometimes brought her candy, from Town. He shaved at the kitchen table, a mirror propped against the lamp. He was vain, she thought, he had a moustache, and he got letters from girls which he never answered, but left lying around where anybody could read them. My mother appeared to hold this against him. “I have no illusions about him,” she said, “though I guess he was no different from most.” He lived in New Westminster now, and worked on a ferryboat. The other brother lived in the States. At Christmas they sent cards, and she sent cards to them. They never wrote letters, nor did she.

It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.

What with? But my mother would never go beyond that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood. So I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother a fat Indian yelped and pranced about her. But she had escaped, after all, unscalped, unburnt. Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.

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