The year after Alice Munro—a Canadian short story writer—won the Nobel Prize in Literature, my family moved back to Toronto. In a used bookstore downtown, I discovered an entire shelf of “Canadiana”—a large portion of which was occupied by Munro’s books. Drawn by the title, I picked up “Who Do You Think You Are?” (published in the U.S. as “The Beggar Maid”) and began to read.
The collection of short stories chronicles the protagonist Rose’s upbringing in a poor town in Southern Ontario, under her practical but parochial stepmother. In the third story, “Half a Grapefruit,” Rose enters the local high school “across the bridge,” where she encounters a divide between the well-off students from the town and those from the country. The well-meaning but naïve teacher “asks what [students] had for breakfast, to see if they were keeping Canada’s Food Rules.” The country students ate “tea and porridge,” and on the other side of the classroom, the town students “claimed to have eaten toast and marmalade, bacon and eggs, Corn Flakes, even waffles and syrup.”
Munro wrote, “Rose had stuck herself onto the back of a town row. West Hanratty was not represented, except by her. She was wanting badly to align herself with towners, against her place of origin, to attach herself to those waffle-eating coffee-drinking aloof and knowledgeable possessors of breakfast nooks.”
She proudly announces that she ate “half a grapefruit”—the fanciest breakfast item she could imagine—thus becoming the subject of scorn from her country classmates. But Rose can’t deny that she wants to escape her rural origins to become a member of the cultured elite. As she finds a home in the thick books that she brings home from school (much to her stepmother’s dismay), she increasingly aspires to the life she finds in books such as Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” Upon hearing someone shout, “Well, I guess yez wondered where I was,” Rose thinks, “Katherine Mansfield had no relatives who said yez.”
This story conjured memories of the social unease I felt growing up, in small talk and classroom conversations about what I had done during summer vacations. It is an unease I experience even now, when upon finding out that I moved around so often, people ask if my parents are professors or diplomats. One possible solution, as Rose demonstrates, is to embellish and overcompensate in a desperate attempt to “fit in”—in my case, packaging instability as mobility and worldliness. But this leads one to vacillate between being ashamed and being guilty for feeling ashamed. As Rose’s story shows, there is a delicate balance between bettering oneself and staying true to one’s roots, between doing things and being able to explain them to people from back home. In the titular story, Rose’s teacher admonishes her, saying, “You can’t go thinking you are better than other people just because you can learn poems. Who do you think you are?”Rose eventually goes to university and becomes an actress, but this question—a theme that runs through the entire book—stays with her. “Who do you think you are?” is also a non-judgmental, non-rhetorical question about which version of oneself is the true one. When Rose hears taunting from her classmates about the “half a grapefruit” incident, it is unclear whether the taunts are real or an inner voice is telling her that she is trying to be someone that she is not. Later, as she lives a life of glamor (“well known” but not “well-off”), she feels an unaccountable sense of shame about her public personality. Rose’s story shows that upward mobility is not something to be simply applauded. It can be accompanied by a host of emotions: guilt about disavowing one’s origins and leaving others behind, combined with the fear that one is giving oneself away. Munro does not provide any answers, but she shows the dilemmas faced by someone straddling two worlds, unable to bring them together.