Constructing a Scots-Canadian Ground: Family History and Cultural Translation in Alice Munro
Gittings, Christopher E., Studies in Short Fiction
It was not the individual names that were important, but the whole
solid intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.
Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
A Scottish element of Canada's diverse ethnographic history is uncovered a by transformative acts of remembering family history in Alice Munro's "Friend of My Youth," "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass" and "A Wilderness Station." The speaking subjects of "Friend of My Youth" and "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass", compose their narratives from Scottish-Canadian materials, thus grounding Scottish Reformation history, the kailyard genre, and the Scottish ballad in a Canadian context. These signs of Scottish culture enclosed in twentieth-century Canadian texts are attached to a variety of Canadian signifieds by their narratees; they are translated into a Canadian ground. Let me clarify what I mean by the rather slippery term of cultural translation: translation is a polyvalent process defined in part by the Oxford English Dictionary as "to bear, convey, or remove from one person, place or condition to another." This concept of movement from one locale to another lends insight into the signs of Scottish culture in Munro's stories. Scottish immigrants did not simply transpose their culture from one surface to another; they had to reshape or translate the New World into systems of meaning by bridging the gap between the Old World and the one in which they found themselves. Through this process they could begin to recognize the familiar in an alien space. The Old World signifying systems used to enact this transformation, however, are transformed themselves in a marrying of their cultural referents to new signifieds. The act of bridging a gap between two seemingly incommensurable systems, whether linguistic, temporal or cultural, necessarily creates a new entity.(1) Munro exploits the gap between Scottish cultural markers and their referents in her narratees' twinning of these signs with their own personal Canadian signs to construct a world.(2)
Scotland's is one of the many national pasts married to Canada's through immigration, and this hybridized Scottish-Canadian past must be negotiated by the narrator of "Friend of My Youth" and Hazel, the protagonist of "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass," if they are to unravel their personal histories and discover who they are. As Homi Bhabha suggests, a nexus of personal and national narratives may be read as "a national allegory" where, he writes, quoting Fredric Jameson, "the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately include the whole laborious process of the collectivity itself' (292). The Scots-Presbyterian elements of "Friend of My Youth," "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass," and "A Wilderness Station" exemplify the textualization of nation Bhabha describes in his study:
The nation reveals in its ambivalent and vacillating representation, the
ethnography of its own historicity and opens up the possibility of
other narratives of the people and their difference. (300)
Both the narrator of "Friend of My Youth" and Hazel engage in a dialogic relationship with the past to establish personal and cultural identity in the present. The narrative voice in "Friend of My Youth" reaches out toward her late mother, a woman reduced to an aberration by the unfolding of time, and her daughter's own rigid image of her. To recover her mother the narrator delves into memory and retells her mother's story of the Scots-Cameronian(3) Grieves family, tethering her personal history to the Grieves narrative of immigration and the translation of their faith and culture to Canada.
A Canadian whose memories of a Scottish village and its people have been imaginatively reconstructed from the wartime experiences of her late husband Jack in "Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass," Hazel makes a journey of return to the Scottish community she has preserved in memory. …