Reflecting on Canadian Literary Culture

A Blog by Janine Fleming for ENGL 470A

Finding Common Ground (1.3)

Write a summary of three significant points that you find most interesting in the final chapter of If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?

In his final chapter of If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, J. Edward Chamberlin argues that in order for us to find common ground, we must abandon our need to be right. When we encounter a story that challenges our beliefs, we tend to draw a line in the sand; distinguishing ourselves from the other. However, in putting up this boundary, we set up harmful barriers between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’—the kind of barriers that result in prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and war. Through a vivid metaphor, Chamberlin addresses the dangers of only accepting a Single Story. Just as two painters sitting on different sides of an inlet will paint the same boat from two different perspectives, so too will stories paint a picture of an event in two different lights. In this way, our question is no longer ‘which story is right?’, but rather ‘how do these stories inform a fuller picture of the world?’ (222).

Photo Credit: Daderot. Burrard Inlet with Sailboat. 2015. Web. 20 May 2016.

Chamberlin also challenges his readers not to approach story-telling as a chance for debate. He likens the telling of stories to a ceremony. During ceremony, we accept that imagination and reality can exist simultaneously. We approach ceremonies with a sense of reverence and decorum. We live within these spaces peacefully because we understand that to accept a ceremony, we do not have to ascribe to the beliefs behind the stories being told, songs being sung, or dances being danced. For example, we may stand at a Canuck’s game and belt out the national anthem with all the fervor of someone who believes the words they are singing; but is belief in these words a pre-requisite for participating in the ceremony? Chamberlin would argue that it is not. We can participate in and respect a ceremony without having to accept the underpinning beliefs. And so it should be in listening to the stories of others. We can listen to, participate in, and offer respect and reverence to a story and storyteller without having to choose between our beliefs and theirs. Indeed, perhaps living within this tension will help us to open our minds and “see with an innocent eye”, to accept that there is more than one story to be told (221).

The last point I would like to discuss is a story from the beginning of Chamberlin’s final chapter. The story tells of the Gitskan (Gitxsan) people of Northwest British Columbia. Within the history of these first peoples is the story of a village in the valley between two peaks. Over time, the village grew to ignore ancient teachings about how to care for the land and each other. The spirit bear of the mountains, seeing their actions, stormed down the mountainside in a rage, bringing with him a giant rock slide that engulfed the village. Years later, the Gitskan people told this story in order to assert their claim to the land. However, the crown wouldn’t accept this story as proof of their rights to the land. But, when a group of geologists corroborated the story of a landslide, the crown conceded. Chamberlin points out that “the storyline of geology was framed by a narrative just as much the product of invention as the story told by [the Gitskan] people; and [ . . . ] each storyteller’s imagination—whether telling of tectonic plates or of grizzly outrage—was engaged with discovering a reality that included much more than the merely human” (221). What Chamberlin so cleverly reveals through this story is that science, faith, religion, belief, culture, and even history are all stories. There are degrees of reality to each, but also of imagination. And only by recognizing that reality and imagination belong together in story, will we ever be able to find common ground with others. We need to recognize that affirming the story of another does not automatically preclude the efficacy of our own stories. Indeed, as Chamberlin’s chapter asserts, the process by which “we divide up the world into Them and Us is inseparable from the way we understand stories themselves” (239). So if we learn to accept the stories of others, we will be well on the way to finding a common ground.

Works Cited

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 2003. Print.

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