These are some books that I have read lately that have struck me. All of these writers write about women who are out of the normal lives that women were or are expected to lead. Two of them write about women who have left Canada to live in other countries. They resonated with me for that reason.
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most famous writers. I had to read her for a canlit class many years ago at university, which kind of made me not like to read her books. However, I was given a whole lot of them and so far have finished one called The Tent. In some of the stories, the girl is in another place and some of the stories are pretty fantastical. This collection was printed about ten years ago, when Atwood was older (and of course she is even older now!), so I could relate more to them now. The stories go in all directions, often starting with something rather mundane and going off in all directions at once, as Stephen Leacock once wrote. One thing she wrote that struck me was this:
–I only want to be like everyone else, I said.
–You’re not, though, was what he told me. You’re not like them.
Mavis Gallant is another famous Canadian writer, though I don’t think I had read anything by her before. A collection of her short stories called Home Truths came my way recently. These stories were published from 1956 to 1981. Often the protagonist is a woman who is in another country. At the same time, like Atwood’s book, they refer back to ‘home’ in Canada, the nature and the mores of the time. Gallant was from Montreal, but lived most of her life in France. Her family was English-Canadian, which set them apart from the French Quebecois. And she grew up in my parents’ generation, when people were more socially separated. Many of her characters have come out of these social situations, but they take on their own character because they are in another place and time, struggling to be free but still tethered to where they came from.
Belonging Home Away from Home is actually a memoir by Isabel Huggan. Surprisingly, I found it in Dallas Texas. She, like Atwood, is from Ontario. Unlike Atwood, she has spent most of her adult life in other countries, following her husband as he was posted to Kenya or the Philippines or France. They ended up retiring in France. She wrote about dealing with the language and the cultural ways there, as she had when she was living in other countries. She taught creative writing, so her writing is quite lyrical. I was struck by her returns ‘home’ to a small town called Elmira. It was home but not home. In France, she and her husband are obviously foreign, but they are also accepted by the locals in their village. I had experienced that in my ‘village’ of Galata in Istanbul as I too struggled with the language and the culture. Even though we foreigners were obviously not from there, we became one of the locals, different but accepted.
One thing that I noted was her attachment to little things– a shell, a stone, a small handmade article, for example– that she had carried with her to all these many places. I have done the same. Silly things that have no meaning to anyone else.
Any of these books on its own is interesting, but it was quite different to read them all in a row. It makes me feel a little more Canadian, though I will always be other.