Regina Leader-Post Review and Interview - A Song for Nettie Johnson

Reviewed by: Nick Miliokas

Although it has been published frequently in various literary anthologies, it wasn't until this fall that the work of Gloria Sawai has appeared in a single volume.

The reason for this, as the Edmonton-based author explains, is that Sawai didn't think there was enough "good stuff" to make a book. There is also the fact that she considers herself to be both a perfectionist and a procrastinator.

"The two are closely related, don't you think?" Sawai says. "I had often taken a look at what I thought could be published, and I didn't tihnk it was thick enough to be a book."

Clearly, the folks at Coteau Books thought otherwise. The Regina publishing house has produced a collection of stories by Sawai under the title A Song for Nettie Johnson. 

The reason this volume was so long in the making has to do with the title piece itself. It is a story whose origins go back nearly 25 years. Sawai first wrote it as a poem, "but it didn't go anywhere except the drawer," she says.

Sawai later wrote it as a play. Once again, "it didn't go anywhere except the drawer," she repeats, in a charming conversational manner. "But I thought it was too good to let go, so I wrote it as a story."

By way of contrast, it should be noted that there's another story in the book, "Mother's Day," that was written over the course of a single long weekend.

Sawai firmly believes that her "stuff." as she calls it, works best as prose simply because, along with theme, plot and character, the focus of her short fiction is description of landscape. "In drama," she says, "everything has to be done with dialogue. In poetry, oftentimes the treatment is so open-ended that it simply becomes too vague."

Sawai, whose roots are in Saskatchewan, discovered her keen interest in writing when she was a child. Indeed, she was in grade school in Preeceville at the time she attempted her first novel. "That's probably because writing was the only thing I could do - I wasn't much good at anything else," she says. "When something looks good on the page, it is really satisfying. This doesn't always happen, but it happens often enough to keep me going."

The pieces which comprise A Song for Nettie Johnson bear evidence that "torn relationships" are a common element in Sawai's work. She has long since discovered that "the themes that have been powerful in my heart are the themes that come out in words on the page."

As an itinerant English teacher, not to mention that her father was a preacher who moved his family frequently, and her former husband was a Japanese visual artist, Sawai has lived in Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Japan, as well as in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

"I'm restless," she says, adding that, "with all due respect, I'm finished writing about Saskatchewan. My next book deal with islands throughout the world."

Asked when readers might expect her next book, Sawai hesitates only momentarily before replying with a laugh and presumably tongue-in-cheek: "Don't hold your breath."

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