“You can imagine then how distinctly I remember the day Jesus of Nazareth, in person, climbed the hill in our back yard to our house, then up the outside stairs to the sun deck where I was sitting. And how He stayed with me for awhile. You can surely understand how clear those details rest in my memory. ” – Gloria Sawai, “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” in ‘A Song for Nettie Johnson’ (2002)
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that this short story, first published in 1976 or 1980 (depending on which source you use), has been anthologized and discussed a great deal due to its unusual title. I find magical realism flowing through the story while others think the author merely came up with a clever title and couldn’t do it justice. (You can read the short story in PDF form here.)
I like Morny Joy’s take on the short story in Voices and Echoes: Canadian Women’s Spirituality: “No ecstasies, stigmata, fasts undo death or masochistic indulgences for this visionary. No cloistered convent or perpetual vows of chastity in the name of a temperamental divine lover. No proclamations of salvation or indictments of this perfidious, lascivious world. Instead, a woman has a neighborly chat with Jesus on the deck of a house on the outskirts of Moose Jaw.” (You can read the rest of her commentary here.)
As Joy notes, this story “illustrates the extraordinary in the ordinary,” and that is what we expect when reading magical realism.
Within A Song for Nettie Johnson, the story is unique, for it is the only one where magic is overtly mixed with the days of the characters’ lives. Some reviewers think the story doesn’t fit and should have been left out. I see their point, but I don’t agree. This story presents another viewpoint in a collection that Cocteau Books says “examines the heartbreaking lives of people on the margins.”
Consider the book’s description: A group of young school students prepares a memorial for the town’s deceased doctor, at the inadvertent risk of deeply offending his widow. A young girl learns important things about herself – some of them extremely unpleasant – on a storm-ravaged Mother’s Day weekend. A woman on a road trip in search of her erstwhile husband finds instead the one thing she never expected to see again in her lifetime. A woman sitting on the deck outside her Moose Jaw home receives an unusual and unexpected gentleman caller. And, in the title story, an outcast and misunderstood woman and her disgraced lover struggle toward what may be their last chance at redemption.
The short story collection won the Governor-General’s-Award in 2002. The winner’s news release said, “Gloria Sawai brilliantly creates a world in which love and light redeem human failings. With clarity, deftness and generosity, she celebrates a universe in which even the least of her characters can achieve a vision of the infinite.” The finalist news release said, “A Song for Nettie Johnson is a profoundly light-filled collection of short stories set on the Prairies and peopled with holy sinners, visionaries, children and so-called ordinary folk. The power of grace illuminates her world.”
I read this collection years ago and I think I wrote a post about it–because she is among the writers who have influenced my own writing–but that must have been in another blog because I can’t find it in the archive. I find myself thinking of her from time to time along with her stories which, as the Canadian Encyclopedia describes them, are “filled with gentle humour. Her stories often focus on characters in pious communities, set amid the majestic extremes of weather and landscape on the prairies. They emphasize the power of grace to bring forth hope, wonder, and goodness out of circumscribed lives and straitened circumstances.” (Sawai, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, died in 2011 at 78 years of age.)
Here’s a brief excerpt from the story: “First He was a little bump on the far, far off prairie. Then He was a mole, way beyond the quarry. Then a larger animal, a dog perhaps, moving out there through the grass. Nearing the quarry, He became a person. No doubt about that. A woman perhaps, still in her bathrobe. But edging out from the rocks, through the weeds, toward the hill, He was clear to me. I knew then who He was. I knew it just as I knew the knew the sun was shining…And there He was. Coming. Climbing the hill in our back yard, His body bent against the climb, His robes ruffling in the wind. He was coming. And I was not ready. All those mouldy clothes scattered about the living room. And me in this faded old thing made in Japan, and drinking—in the middle of the morning.”
Perhaps some of you will enjoy this collection, the art and craft of all the selections, and the lighthearted but powerful “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.”
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”