Today has been a good day, so far. A cool front moved into town, bringing down the temperature in the desert, and rare rain is in the making. I slept well last night. My mind was finally at peace–somewhat, because memories of petty personal tragedies due to certain persistent peccadilloes of mine at long last receded; I filed the income tax return before the extension deadline; I just came back from the gym, trying to fight against the ravages of time; I stopped at the library on the way to work and hit a mother lode of good used books; and now a friend asked me if I had any thoughts on Alice Munro’s winning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.
What else could I say about Alice Munro, a famous short-story writer, that has not been said in today’s Wall Street Journal and the New York Times? Munro’s stories regularly appeared in the Best American Short Stories year after year. She writes with assurance and deftness and much readability. And her collections of stories have been translated into thirteen languages and won many awards, including the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award, the Man Booker International Prize, and now the biggest plum of all, the Nobel Prize. She deserved the Nobel Prize. She earned it, without any stain of political controversy or howls of protest as a black American woman named Toni Morrison did back in 1993. Then many white authors and even some male African-American authors complained she received preferential treatment based on race and sex. I don’t usually read female authors unless they write poetry. Sylvia Sexton and Sylvia Plath wrote exceptionally strong accessible memorable poems. Everybody knows about Emily Dickinson. There are many North American women prose writers nowadays, the famous ones are the incredibly prolific Joyce Carol Oates (a contender of this year’s Nobel Prize), Anne Tyler, Gail Godwin, Ann Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Ann Dillard, and Lorrie Moore.
Short stories as an art form probably dated back to Decameron of Boccaccio and Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, flourished with Hawthorne, Poe, Maupassant, Chekhov, Hemingway, and now exploding in the U.S. with Raymond Carver (deceased just when he got fame and fortune, due to early years of heavy drinking and smoking), Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, Thom Jones, and Scott Wolven. Just read any story of these four writers and I can assure you you will be transformed, changed, and intoxicated at the power of words if the words are arranged in an artistic, suggestive manner. The following was what Wolven wrote about love and life. I cried when I first came across the passage. I couldn’t help thinking about my first love, Laura.
“Love can die. It’s a mysterious thing, the death of love. Sometimes it fades slowly, like a long sunset with amazing and rare color that lasts in the memory forever. Sometimes it becomes obese and dies from its own weight, the density and slowness that come with things grown too large. It is often killed on purpose, by someone who is in love with someone or something else. But the other person, the one still in love, is a loose end, snapping and cracking in the high wind of life passing them by. Life moves so fast it creates a back draft, that leaves things scattered and blowing in its wake. Life, of all things, is alive. It is everywhere and moves beyond speed.”
Currently there is a young Vietnamese-Australian writer named Name Le whose debut story collection named “The Boat” caused a sensation when it first appeared about five years ago. It won a staggering amount of awards. All the stories there are very good and assured, amazingly so for so young a writer. I strongly urge you to read them. Le’s collection just contain two “ethnic” stories. The problem with Vietnamese-American writers nowadays is that they tend to write “ethnic” stories, and most of them are predictable and boring, even when one or two writers managed to snatch some obscure prizes, of which nobody knows anything about.
Literature gives us more lasting pleasure than those provided by food and sex. In addition, it makes us feel apart and superior to lower forms of life whose pleasures are biologically and maybe socially oriented. They know nothing about the pleasures generated by culture and arts. The power of literature lies in language, something only humans possess. Literature not only brings pleasures, but it can be an agent of personal and social change. Practitioners of literature are usually persons of sensitivity and higher consciousness and often the voice of their times, sometimes even the conscience. The best ones usually write because they have to. They have no choice; they cannot remain silent; they have something to say and share with sensitive fellow men. Sometimes the things they share resonate with the readers. Their words command respect and admiration, resulting in a Nobel Prize and increasing their chance of immortality.
I felt happy for Alice Munro. In the twilight of her life, a Nobel Prize in Literature surely brought her joy not only to herself, but also to her loved ones and her country, Canada. You could taste her literary power in the story “Axis” listed in the 2012 Best American Short Stories, originally published in The New Yorker, a magazine that originally published many J.D. Salinger’s stories. By the way, you should read “Nine Stories” by Salinger. This story collection and the slim novel “Catcher in the Rye” have earned Salinger a place in American Literature.
Roberto Wissai Ngo Khoa Ba
October 10, 2013