Quillblog was saddened to learn of the death of Gloria Sawai last Wednesday. The Alberta writer, whose single book, the short-story collection A Song for Nettie Johnson, beat out Carol Shields’ Unless and Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York to win the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award, was 78 years old. Sawai was born in the United States, but spent most of her life in Alberta.
The CBC quotes Carol Holmes, executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta, who called Sawai a “trailblazer.”
Fellow Edmonton writer Todd Babiak published a heartfelt tribute to Sawai in the Edmonton Journal, focusing on her 1975 short story, “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts,” frequently anthologized and included in Nettie Johnson. Babiak writes that several people have told him “The Day I Sat with Jesus” is “the best short story they have read.”
Also of note in Babiak’s piece is Noah Richler’s reaction to Sawai while he was travelling the country researching his non-fiction work, This Is My Canada, What’s Yours? Babiak says Richler found the Alberta writer “suspicious”:
They met in the Edmonton Public Library, where Sawai did much of her work after quitting her teaching job at Grant MacEwan in the late 1990s to be a full-time writer.
“Everything I write comes out of the land,” Sawai told Richler. “Well, my childhood memories are prairie. They’re dust, they’re wind, they’re odd people in little towns. They’re just kind of desolate, actually, partly because of the religious nature of my upbringing and partly because of the communities that I lived in.”
About the story that made Sawai part of the Canadian literary canon (a story that is, ironically, set not in Alberta but Saskatchewan), Babiak has this to say:
When Jesus visits the hero of Sawai’s most successful short story on a Monday morning in September 1972, they drink a glass of wine, spill some tea, talk about breasts. Jesus calls the Prairies “nice,” which astounds Gloria. Then they laugh, her and Jesus, uncontrollably, and she has no idea why.
Then, his time is up. “‘Goodbye, Gloria Johnson,’ he said, rising from his chair. ‘Thanks for the hospitality.'” Then Jesus kisses her, and not just as friends. Gloria goes back to the laundry, “dry and sour in the living room.” Sawai made smelly laundry and everything else, strange and beautiful. “That’s what happened to me in Moose Jaw in 1972,” she wrote. “It was the main thing that happened to me that year.”