Arts, Culture & Media

Mavis Gallant never got over being abandoned as a child — and it shaped her writing

Gallant_official.jpg

Mavis Gallant is shown in Montreal in October 1981.

Credit:

Ian Barrett/The Canadian Press via AP

Mavis Gallant published her first book in 1956. And though she never became a household name, she was celebrated in literary circles for the quality of her short stories.

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Gallant died Tuesday, February 18, at the age of 91.

Gallant had a heartbreaking childhood. She was abandoned by her parents and put into a convent school when she was 4. Her father died when she was 10. Even though her mother remarried, she was not interested in raising a young Mavis.

Gallant never got over these traumic experiences, but it did inform her writing.  She was able to capture the experience of people from World War II, war refugees and people having to escape.

Gallant herself eventually escaped from the rigid female stereotypes of Canada of the mid-20th century. She left her job as a newspaper reporter in Montreal in the late 1940s and moved to Paris to become a writer.

The move freed her.

Daphne Kalotay, a writer and Gallant scholar, says Gallant, "needed that distance to look back on her experience and turn it into art. She was able to reach into the souls of people who were starting over after great trauma."

Decades later, Kalotay met Gallant in Paris. Kalotay admits she was terrified to meet her literary idol. She remembers seeing Gallant at an outdoor cafe.

"I waved and she waved back and she had this beautiful smile," Kalotay recalls. "And I realized she probably saw me the way she had once been in her 20s — when she was so curious and wanted to begin to write."

Kalotay grew up reading Gallant's short stories. She sensed the depth and sadness, but also the the humor.

"Her sentences are exquisite and her humor is so real and appropriate even when she's writing about really tragic things." Kalotay says, "To be able to do that, this is what I aspire to."