GG Q&As: Non-fiction winner Sandra Djwa

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Congratulations to Sandra Djwa, who won this year's Governor General's Literary Award for English-language non-fiction for her book Journey with No Maps, her acclaimed biography of poet P.K. Page. CBC Books spoke with Djwa following the announcement of her win on Wednesday.

Q: You had first published a biography of F.R. Scott before working on Journey with No Maps. Which figure did you find more challenging and/or personally rewarding to write about?

sandradjwa-80-80.jpgSandra Djwa: They were both challenging. Scott was once called a Renaissance man because he combined the roles of constitutional lawyer, poet and political activist. When I began his biography I imagined I was writing the life of a poet. But, in fact, to write an adequate biography I had a to deal with all aspects of the life. One of the discoveries of this biography was the fact that F.R. Scott had strongly influenced Pierre Elliot Trudeau's determination to repatriate the Canadian constitution.

So I was way in over my head. But it was great fun and personally rewarding because I met many of the movers and shakers in Canadian law, politics and poetry.

At the time I had no idea that I would ever be writing P.K. Page's biography. But now, in retrospect, I think that P.K. Page was the more complex and many-dimensional figure.

Q: P.K. Page has been described as one extraordinary woman with many different lives -- do you think there was a particular life in which she was happiest?

A: She was an extraordinary woman. Her many different lives would have included her life as a poet, her life as visual artist, her life as a diplomat's wife, and her life as a mystic of sorts. To all of these we would have to add a Prairie childhood, a Maritime upbringing, the beginnings of modernism in Montreal and her re-education as a diplomat's wife in Australia, Brazil and Mexico. When she returned to Canada -- to Victoria, B.C. -- in 1963, she eventually became a great influence on younger writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Atom Egoyan. At about this time, her reading shifted to Idries Shah's book The Sufis. As far as when she was happiest, she says in Brazilian Journal that she was never happier than receiving images of Brazil through her eyes.

Q: Will there ever be another artist like P.K. Page?

A: I suppose every artist is completely unique in that his or her art derives from his or her particular way of looking at the world. In addition, P.K. was sometimes very quirky. No, there will not be another artist like P.K. Page.

journeywithnomaps-149-96.jpgQ: What particularly strikes you about Canadian cultural life in the latter half of the 20th century?


A: In 1970 when P.K. Page gave her first poetry reading to my students at Simon Fraser, Canadian literature was just beginning to be accepted in the academy. The '70s and '80s saw a tremendous growth in Canadian writing and by the end of the '90s we believed we had arrived in terms of Canadians winning major prizes like the Booker. But in this last decade our demographics had changed, major Canadian presses were going under, we had signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and the notion of a national literature was to some extent a causality.

Q: P.K. Page died a couple of years before your book was published. What was your relationship with her like?

A: After her poetry reading at SFU, I would sometimes go to Victoria and visit with P.K. Page and her husband Arthur Irwin. In 1987 when we were both shortlisted for the B.C. Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize, P.K. sent me a postcard saying to the effect "I wish we could both get it!" She was very supportive of younger writers, and I was happy when she asked me to write her biography. None-the-less, biographers have to step back a little from friendship when writing a biography.

Q: How do you think she would have reacted if she had read your biography of her?

A: She always maintained that she would never read her biography, a statement that filled me with dismay. But I later realized that she probably meant that she would be dead before it was published. Indeed, she wanted me not to publish for a decade. As it happened, she did die before it was finished.

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