Stories by Alice Munro and Yiyun Li reveal the ghosts of the writing process.
Disturbances from the Dead
Ghosts of the Writing Process
“Death does not take the dead away; it only makes them grow more deeply into you,” reads a line in the short story “A Sheltered Woman,” by Yiyun Li. Certainly, whether one subscribes to any notion of an afterlife or not, it is difficult to dispute that death is rarely as definite as it would imply. Be it involuntary or a conscious choice, we seem to cling to memories of those who have passed like static in the cracked-knuckle dryness of winter; their presences hang palpable in the air and occupy some ever-available mental space. Perhaps this posthumous fixation is unavoidable given the capacities of the human mind and the complexities of its emotion—or perhaps the pervasive memory of the dead is not something from which we run. In fact, Li’s story concludes with a bout of poignant existentialism, as the protagonist Auntie Mei is faced with the thought that “when she moved on to the next place, she would leave no mystery or damage behind; no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her.” The perceived implications of such a notion vary depending on the audience: some readers may be calmed by this peaceful passing, whereas others may be unsettled, preferring to haunt than to risk fading into obscurity. Auntie Mei’s reflection suggests that a life of mystique, controversy, or even detriment will always outlive one of agreeability. The latter can be put to rest with relative ease, whereas the former leaves something behind. It disturbs, and one of the most susceptible to this disturbance is the writer, given her constant and necessary intermixing of the personal and the professional. Auntie Mei’s closing sentiment enforces the idea that the ways in which authors are disturbed by the dead crucially informs the writing process, and furthermore in death, the work and lives of bygone writers disturb people who live on. These concepts are particularly notable in two short stories by Alice Munro, “Meneseteung” and “Family Furnishings.”
Munro’s “Meneseteung” persistently displays the writer’s tendency—maybe even her imperative—to disturb and to be disturbed. The first of many such cases is the narrator, who is captivated by the story’s main character, fictional nineteenth century poet Almeda Joynt Roth. Obsessively she excavates traces of the late writer’s existence, resurrecting a detailed history of Almeda’s life that begins with the examination of her literary work. Predeceased by all of her relatives, Almeda’s fluid verses tell tales of death and loss as she “hears the (ghostly) voices” of her siblings calling to her from beyond the grave, discovers that “her family has been taken away from her, stolen by Gypsies,” and chronicles the trees that used to flourish in the region but have now long been cut down (52). Indeed, Almeda admits that she utilizes writing to “[allay her] griefs” (51); it would seem that she is frequently struck by what has been left behind, by what has been forgotten. When the entrepreneurial character Jarvis Poulter, for example, speaks of extracting salt from the earth, Almeda is more enraptured by the thought of a great bygone sea than by the financial opportunities of such a venture. In the story, this disparity is attributed to differences in gender; however, Almeda’s reaching for these geographical ghosts also may be connected to the dispositions that led her to become a writer. As a matter of fact, one of the most pivotal episodes in the story—a confrontation that precipitates the restructuring of her entire outlook on her life and work—is similarly centered on a deathlike disturbance. Almeda bears witness to the trauma of a woman being brutally abused by a drunken crowd outside her window, which leaves the woman for dead after it has received adequate entertainment. Distressed, Almeda seeks aid from Jarvis, only to see him treat the woman in a manner so casually callous and apathetic that it brings her to the brink of nausea. This experience awakens her. She is shaken from any semblance of complacency, from any desire to settle into a life of subservience by becoming Mrs. Jarvis Poulter. Instead, Almeda is thrust into a moment of creative enlightenment as she is compelled to write, to write the greatest poem she has ever composed, the all-encompassing zenith of her career. This incident prompts her to do away with the decorative, insubstantial work of her past and hold, powerfully, ownership over herself as a woman and her work as a writer—two intimately related entities.
Almeda’s unconventional ways continue to disturb the townspeople after her own passing, too. Her lifelong deviance from the social norm—and the corresponding disapproval of her contemporaries—is repeatedly expressed throughout the story, fittingly accented when she defies the unanimously-held expectation that she and Jarvis will be wed. The ever-gossipy local newspaper, the Vidette, serves as the primary source of the narrator’s constructed storyline and epitomizes the views of the town. Almeda’s obituary, for example, describes at length her apparent decline from being “a lady of talent and refinement whose pen, in days gone by, enriched our local literature with a volume of sensitive, eloquent verse” to “somewhat rash and unusual . . . a familiar eccentric” (71). The newspaper goes so far to describe this as “a sad misfortune,” leaving Almeda a mere shadow of the “former pride and daintiness” she was once said to have embodied, and which society accepts so much more readily than it does the alternative (71). This sharply contrasts with Jarvis’s obituary in the Vidette, which is devoid of the scarcely-veiled digs that so characterize Almeda’s. But although Jarvis is praised for his “lively commercial spirit” and heralded as a “maker and shaker” of the community, his obituary appears comparatively short and generic, almost impersonal (72). One gets the sense that it could be reprinted nearly word for word and used for any supposed “maker and shaker” of the town, without raising a single brow. The opposite could never be done—Almeda’s obituary applies to her and her alone. It gives a feeling of character where Jarvis’s has all the personality of a cardboard cutout. This exemplifies how the townspeople have, in some shape or form, been disturbed by having known Almeda.
The air of mystery she leaves behind continues to haunt for years into the future, as well: the story is concluded as the narrator’s undying curiosity takes her to visit the Roth family gravestones. The array of stones is noted to be “a private sort of memorializing, not for the world,” something slightly ironic given that the narrator, a contemporary writer with no blood relation to the Roths, is herself of “the world” (72). Is or is this not an invasion? Does the narrator’s very fascination—or the fascination of any individual haunted by someone beyond the grave—christen her into the world of the memory that disturbs her? Or does she inevitably remain an outsider? Once again, words from Li’s “A Sheltered Woman” offer perspective: “If knowing someone makes that person stay with you forever, not knowing someone does the same trick.” Almeda’s disturbances function dually; those who knew her experienced enough of her eccentricities to generate the interest that persists beyond her death, and those who never could are intrigued enough to examine the remains. The uncertainty surrounding Almeda’s history is what possesses the narrator so, and it is with this obsession that some configuration of Almeda is assembled from broken pieces. Regardless of factual accuracy, Almeda lives on by disturbing the narrator. The compelling fragmentary evidence of Almeda’s life is sufficient in terms of both what it has and what it has not; there is enough content to spark the imagination, yet enough negative space to allow for infinite dreaming as to what could lie in between. These circumstances provide a welcome opportunity for a storyteller of any kind to resurrect a ghostly presence, to search for meaning in a person’s fleeting existence, to create what is lost and gone. The results is the formation of a multifaceted narrative that is both powerful in the independence Almeda finally finds within and poignant in her eventual death, which feels more like a slow, eerie fading from view. In this way, Almeda’s memory transcends the scope of the story: the narrator’s elegiac retelling disturbs us as readers, too.
Another of Munro’s short stories, “Family Furnishings,” also demonstrates how significantly the concept of disturbances affects the writing process. From a young age, the narrator is strongly influenced by her unconventional aunt Alfrida, whom she admires for her wildness and her wit. Unlike the rest of the narrator’s family, Alfrida abandoned country life in favor of a writing career in the city, a narrative that earns her a share of both glorification and disdain from her relatives. Undoubtedly, she disturbs. The narrator, however, finds Alfrida to be extraordinarily wonderful; that is, until she moves to the city with her own literary and intellectual aspirations and finds herself disillusioned with the woman she previously idolized. In her first few years of adulthood the narrator keeps up no contact with Alfrida, yet her presence continues to assert itself through an unanswered telephone message asking for a call back, or the rare glimpse of her name in the now seemingly irrelevant newspaper “that had once seemed . . . the center of city life” (222). It is later that we see that an initial, sort of symbolic death of Alfrida occur, taking place when the narrator visits her aunt’s home for the first and last time. She first notices a multitude of physical changes in Alfrida—immediately, the perturbing disappearance of some formerly-held image is demonstrated. Still, the rest of the dinner manages to be equally oppressive, from the cluttered, flowery decor that reminds the narrator of her other aunts to the peculiar discussion. One topic worthy of attention is a conversation in which Alfrida recounts her mother’s tragic death, a story which the narrator has observed to be “a horrible treasure to [her mother and aunts], something [their] family could claim that nobody else could, a distinction that would never be let go” (230). It is made clear that the family is similarly disturbed by Alfrida’s mother’s passing—disturbed but also fascinated, in a perverted, possessive combination. However, despite the disconcerting nature of this visit, the evening leads the protagonist to literary epiphany. Comparable to Almeda Roth’s transformation, upon leaving Alfrida’s house the narrator is suddenly strikingly aware of her surroundings, understanding profoundly “the work [she] wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories” (239). And grab something out of the air she does: strangely inspired by dinner and its disturbances, the narrator fictionalizes Alfrida in a piece of writing, both immortalizing her and precluding any future interaction with her real person.
The narrator is hit by a more chilling disturbance after the death of her father. The relationship between these two characters remains somewhat unclear to the reader, for the narrator alludes to instances of physical abuse in her youth, yet she and her father seem to be ultimately amiable in adulthood. Although Alfrida does not attend the funeral that follows this passing, a surprising figure—Alfrida’s biological daughter, who was given up for adoption—does. While talking with this woman, an old story is brought up, one that the narrator herself had heard from Alfrida in the past. Alfrida’s daughter recites the anecdote in which her mother and the narrator’s father are walking home from school together and bells go off, signaling the end of World War I. But there is a discrepancy between this story and the one that the narrator has heard, for she recalls that her father and Alfrida were just children at the time, but in the daughter’s telling, they were in high school. A markedly sinister atmosphere descends as the narrator begins to do the math and, in the face of this woman, comes to the unspoken realization that her father and Alfrida were having an affair. Her father is, too, the father of this stranger before her. The narrator is blindsided by the reconsideration of what had once been an innocent story; the already undesirable familial framework she holds is newly disfigured. Most definitely, a sufficient quota of the mystery and damage Li addresses in “A Sheltered Woman” is left behind by Alfrida’s evanescence from the narrator’s life, and once again, the reader shares the awe and disturbance that falls upon the characters of the story.
It is worth noting the female gender of many of the aforementioned figures, as the interplay between writing and disturbances is particularly pertinent when one is writing as a woman. Indeed, society historically has been and in many cases still is disturbed by the success and free expression of women in the authorial world. Although the gender of the narrator in “Meneseteung” cannot be guaranteed, factors such as the irony with which the townspeople’s patriarchal views are conveyed to the reader, the unmistakeable gender politics throughout the story and the narrator’s hyper-aware, emotionally-nuanced understanding of Almeda’s responses to them, and the symbolization of menstruation do indicate a certain femininity. If these qualities of the text are enough to imply that the narrator is a woman, her interaction with Almeda Roth would serve as just one example of the countless number of circumstances in which female writers have had to excavate their literary predecessors from obscurity. Moreover, still to this day we see women’s work both past and present being discredited—for its content, for its excess or its lack, for supposedly not being written by a woman alone. The disturbances that linger do so in order for us to heal from the collective silencing that has been imposed upon us for generations. In Li’s story, Auntie Mei is disheartened by the undisturbed calm she has left behind, by the dispassionate stability that does little to provoke in the moment or in memory. For although there is an apparent and often unappealing sense of disorder that comes alongside disturbance, the turmoil serves as fertile soil for rebirth and continuation, bittersweet as it may be. Authors are both subjects and objects of disturbance, as illustrated by Alice Munro in her short stories “Meneseteung” and “Family Furnishings.” Yes, it would seem that the writer demands disturbance in her life; she must latch onto it. Or perhaps the disturbance demands to be written, to be passed on, to be pulled apart, to be felt.
Li, Yiyun. “A Sheltered Woman.” New Yorker 10 Mar. 2014: n. pag. The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 10 Mar. 2014. Web.
Munro, Alice. “Family Furnishings.” Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014, Vintage International Edition, Vintage Books, 2015, pp. 210-239.
Munro, Alice. “Meneseteung.” Friend of My Youth, Vintage International Edition, Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 50-73.