To Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, and other women with elbows

And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.

~Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Early 2008 – Jain College.

We were doing Margaret Atwood in an Optional English class one day. We were reading Journey to the interior when a boy said that the Canadian landscape had never been utilised by its authors and that Margaret Atwood should do something with Canada instead of whining all the time. I remember being pissed off by this accusation. I liked Atwood. Why should it fall upon her to do things with the landscape, was my initial response. The teacher sided with me, and when the boy’s retort was the usual, ‘how much of Canadian literature are you even familiar with?’, she told him to bugger off.

We moved on to African Literature after that and the boy and I reconciled so I didn’t go back to reading or fighting. It was a strange time to be a student. Love was around, friendships were disappearing, and parents were sworn enemies. My biggest worry then was figuring out a lie to tell my mother for why I was going to be home late that evening. Time was endless and college really only came to picture a day before the exams. Evenings were spent with a dysfunctional group at the back of a car, watching a movie, eating or planning our next outing.

It’s only as I am writing this that I’m wondering if I should forgive myself for the things I didn’t do when I was 18.

But seven years later, I discovered Alice Munro and I am not thinking of the time I could have read her in. I don’t know what I am thinking when I am reading Munro. I look at the page numbers printed at the top of the pages –One number above the other, wondering if she put them there too, because they seem assured. I am looking at the page numbers only because I have read a line that has made me wonder how many notes the woman must have made in her life. I am convinced that if I pull an investigation and get to the root of it all, I’ll find stack upon stack of dusty notes scribbled in black ink. Or maybe blue, I don’t know.

I cannot read Munro for a long time. Now and then – Now more than then, I must look up from my book and blink, adjust my posture, tie my hair into a bun, and get up to make tea. I must make these readjustments so when I reread that same line; I am more prepared for its candour. Looking at the page numbers came after I had exhausted all of the above.

I am drawn into her stories so easily, moved by her characters so strangely that I feel isolated. That’s a measure of reading I’m growing to be quite comfortable with. If I am pushed into believing that the people around me are as strange as I want the characters in books to be, then I needn’t be afraid of them. I am doing just that. I am taking away all the people I meet and putting them in books that I want to write.

If I could go back to that class again, I would tell the boy there’s a lot of Canada in Munro’s stories. People are always going to Walley to sell things. People are always writing letters to people in Quebec, people are always talking about their children who are in Ontario. The roads are not crowded; they are wide and angled perfectly so there are trees growing at right angles, the sunlight passes through these trees in brilliant bright colors that aren’t just your orange or red. The houses are tall and yellow.

The train journeys are long like in real life, the conversations are short, like I wish they were in real life, and sometimes punctured by longer silences. Munro fills these silences by telling us what these people’s hands looked like or what they were like in a past that is not theirs anymore. Maybe she’s not even telling you what their past was like but you are thinking about it anyway because she’s told you so much about it and moved so quickly from it that you almost want to know what she’s not telling you.

Sandra Cisneros says women in her family sat their sadness on their elbows, always waiting at the window. I remember feeling very happy and sad when I read this line. Happy because who writes like that and sad because I thought of all the women in movies I had grown up watching and how most of them did sit their sadness on an elbow. I am so sure that if my mother’s room had a convenient window like that, she would sit her sadness on an elbow too. Actually she would sit her sadness on an elbow at my window so I could see it feel guilty.

This is an image that hasn’t turned up yet in my reading of Munro so far. The women are doing lots of things at windows but they are never sitting their sadness on their elbows. They are figuring out ways to get rid of strange men trying to talk to them in trains, they are searching for the daughter that left home and never came back, they are counting the number of walnuts that fall off from trees every year, they are cutting  parts of their faces off to deal with guilt, they are falling in and out of love, they are surviving wars and losses, and they are writing and reading letters. But they aren’t sitting their sadness on elbows.

Sometimes they seem just the right amount of sad for a rainy afternoon and you can’t help but sit by a window, your elbow sticking out, your eyes soft with sleep — watching the rain and dreaming sepia dreams.

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