His Many Lands, His Many Stories

J. Edward Chamberlin can do many things. He has helped write recommendations for governments; travelled through South Africa, Alaska, and Australia; ridden horses in Mongolia; been a hunting guide through British Columbia. On October 20, the now-retired University of Toronto English Professor is coming to Laurier Brantford to speak at the Grand River Forum. And before that, and also after, first-year Contemporary Studies students, as well as some in some 400-level courses, will be interacting with his 2003 book, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground.

He does a lot. And he rarely answers questions with a sentence or two. Here’s why:

Chamberlin grew up in British Columbia, or perhaps the province grew him. He’s always loved that land – its mountains, its coast. Northrop Frye, the late Canadian literary critic and theorist, once wrote that Canadian sentiment revolves around the question “Where is here?” perhaps more than “Who am I?” Chamberlin’s life and writing exemplify this. He’s lived mostly in Ontario – he loves it, too – but British Columbia has always remained important. He knows not everyone can go home, and he has two homes, now. One in Toronto, and one in Half Moon Bay where he watches dolphins and sea otters and seals. His family stretches like his homes: two children in British Columbia, one in Ontario. So, he knows the connection between place and identity.

They knew each other, actually, Chamberlin and Frye. Frye was his Ph. D. supervisor and later, his colleague at the University of Toronto. Chamberlin learned a lot from the celebrated scholar. He learned to prepare for every speaking engagement – big or small – with so much care that when presented, the material sounded like it had just been written.

But before those conversations with Frye, Chamberlin was back in British Columbia, an undergraduate student studying mathematics at the University of British Columbia, set to pursue a Ph. D. in the subject. English always interested him though, and when the chance came to travel to England, he figured it would be a good place to study literature. He found the disciplines very similar.

“I didn’t find that much difference between mathematics and English in the sense that both of them involve making up stories,” he explains from his Toronto home. “You know, ‘Let x be such and such’ and ‘Let y be such and such’ and then ‘Let x squared plus y squared equal r squared be a circle.’ That’s not so much different from [Herman Melville] saying, ‘Call me Ishmael’ and here’s a story about Moby Dick. Let’s take the first step – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – and after that, your mind. I’ll take you wherever I want to take you in this story.”

Stories take readers anywhere because, as Chamberlin sees it, they are everywhere. If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? is about both literature and mathematics – and history and religion and science and horses and land. But always about how people come to believe things. It’s one of the reasons why Contemporary Studies Program Coordinator, Peter Farrugia, thinks the book can be used in courses throughout both semesters, even after the Grand River Forum. It applies to students studying social and political thought as much to those learning about environmental issues.

Chamberlin describes himself as a “great dipper into books.” His scholarly work has ranged from Wallace Stevens (American, twentieth century modernist poetry, liked to look at blackbirds), to Oscar Wilde (Irish, nineteenth century dramas and novels, liked portraits of Dorian Gray) to West Indies poetry. But he had another job, too – working on First Nations land claims.

This began in the early 1970’s when the Department of Indian Affairs called him and asked if he would be involved with helping the Government craft public policy about Indian rights. Outcry over the 1969 White Paper was strong – a policy Chamberlin explains would have abolished First Nations rights. When he was younger, he’d worked as a hunting guide in the Rockies. He knew different Aboriginal communities. So he went to Ottawa for a year and worked with the Department of Indian Affairs. And then came work with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry from 1974 to 1977, work in Alaska, Australia, and, most recently South Africa in the late 1990’s as well as expert witness appearances in court cases.

He saw the two things – literature and land claims – as separate until he noticed they weren’t.
“Slowly I began to realize that they were both about stories and songs,” he remembers. “The ways that Aboriginals present land claims is through stories and often through songs, and the ways in which we come together through communities is often through literature… Those literatures [of specific people groups] give people of sense of who they are, where they belong and what’s important to them.”

But while Chamberlin believes people can come to find common ground by respecting each other’s stories, he knows it’s often difficult. While stories help facilitate wonder and can bring people together, “there are such things as wrong stories.” In those times, individuals need to give a better story. Ultimately, he hopes the book will encourage students to ask questions about how finding common ground can be possible in a world of so many different people and their stories living on – relying on – the same land. He thinks Brantford in particular is a great place to explore life’s many contradictions. Beyond that, Chamberlin hopes students can recognize the stories in all of the disciplines, to “get lost in the shuffle” of their own stories.

“By that I don’t mean that we think of [stories] as untrue,” he clarifies. “We need to believe.”

Belief and wonder – two things Chamberlin believes essential to any university, to being human. He loves language, but understands its limits. He knows saying he dedicated the book to his wife of ten years (his first wife passed away in the late 90’s), celebrated Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison, because he loves her doesn’t describe her encouragement during the writing process. He knows his work influenced his children – they fell asleep to the sound of his typing, wondering what was wrong when it stopped – but he may never completely describe how, except that they love language and land and stories and songs. The wonder keeps him attending as many U2 concerts as possible, the wonder he saw in undergraduate students taking their first English courses.

He knows this because he has seen First Nations women in South Africa, in their seventies and eighties, roll down sandy hills like children, skirts flying in the air, over the joy of finding pieces of china they used at an old campsite. He has heard their laughter and their singing, the song of coming back home.

Which is why, in October, J. Edward Chamberlin will, for a few days at least, make this city “home.”

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