Telling Our Stories
- Jim Betts (Author)
Colours in the Storm. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- J. Edward Chamberlin (Author)
If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rudy Wiebe (Author)
Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
The question that Ted Chamberlain chooses for the title of his book is one that all three of these books address. The general point, as Chamberlain insists, is that our common ground as human beings, regardless of time or place, is story: nothing is more human than the desire to tell and the need to listen to stories. But that common starting point has always led to a range of persistent problems. Lack of knowledge, a basic refusal to listen, a competition as to whose story becomes the official one—all these obstacles, as human-made as the stories themselves, fuel intolerance, genocidal wars, and the less violent but deadly advances of colonialism that characterize human history. In the face of such challenges to our willed deafness and hegemonic story-telling, however, we keep making stories in many forms and genres. Where Chamberlain reminds us of the role of story in bringing us together, Rudy Wiebe and Jim Betts give us explicitly Canadian stories that exemplify ways in which Canadians claim that this land is ours or, to put this claim more precisely, that we belong to this land.
If This Is Your Land is a highly personal narrative in which Chamberlain gives his readers his message in the very form he is discussing: story. He recounts autobiographical experiences from childhood and later life and he repeats others’ stories, such as the Gitksan one about the origins of the world in their part of Canada or the Aboriginal elder’s admonition about the need for song and story if one claims to belong to Australia. As he develops his reflection on language, the meaning of home, truth, and the significance of stories, he ranges widely over the vast territory of story to recall Greek epics and compare them with North American Indian sagas, to celebrate the poetry of contemporaries, like Patrick Lane, and to remember the story of a Yupik woman in Alaska.
But the stories Chamberlain tells are not only about places and how human beings come to belong in those places. They are also about physics, mathematics, the science of our world, and this may be the juncture in his story that requires our greatest leap of faith because, in the West, we rarely think of such factual disciplines as telling stories. Systems like the law, scientific exploration (cartography for example), and government rely on truth claims, enforcement, monologic interpretation. Moreover, the rules and evidence of these systems are written down; it is the writing down in one authoritative language that gives such systems their power. Stories are something else—childish, oral, entertaining, fictional. But, as Chamberlain reminds us, this is a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one. We are, he insists, at all times surrounded by story, by competing stories, by contradictory stories, and until we can learn to listen more carefully and with greater acceptance of the contradictions, we will continue to be victimized by the barbarians at the gates who are US. We will continue to misunderstand that we belong through story to the human race.
Wiebe’s Playing Dead is a classic Canadian narrative of belonging and, thus, an entirely appropriate choice for NeWest’s first reprint in its Landmark Editions Series. First published in 1989, this reprint includes a number of additional illustrations, an Afterword by Robert Kroetsch, a 2003 note by Wiebe, and two new short essays. But Playing Dead remains a thoroughly personal story about Wiebe finding his own “true North.” It is no surprise to find him meditating here on the meaning and importance of the North, on the stories of indigenous northerners and on the clash of cultures in the North that constitutes the northern history of European and southern Canadian exploration and exploitation of the land and its resources. His own travels in the Northwest Territories and his study of the history and mythology of the Dene, of Sir John Franklin’s expeditions, and of numerous other events involving native and non-native northerners are familiar to readers from his splendid novel, A Discovery of Strangers, and his captivating recreation of Albert Johnson in The Mad Trapper.
But here, in Playing Dead, Wiebe speaks to us directly in his own voice, and he critiques the Euro-Canadian history that is his story (and ours) to illustrate how all non-northerners have failed to understand the land, the people, and the place they encountered in their determined search for a passage through the North to riches and imperial glory elsewhere. Europeans came armed with stories in which the land was empty, the people barbarous, and the country waiting to be discovered and developed by white men with white history on their minds. The Dene, however, already had their stories (as did the Dogrib, the Yellowknives, the Chipewyan, the Netsilik Inuit from Pelly Bay) and in their stories the world was already full of histories, languages, and meaning. What Wiebe urges us to do is to listen to these stories and then to break through our smug ignorance about our own nordicity.
Colours in the Dark focusses even more specifically on one story about belonging and it does so in the form of a play. The subject is Tom Thomson, whose life and death form a quintessential Canadian story of claiming place by dying in it, even more than by painting it. The play premiered in 1990 and went through several revisions and productions before reaching this published form, which includes several pages of “leadsheets” with the basic lyrics and melodies for all the songs in the play. The play itself is as much musical—almost an opéra comique—as it is a traditional stage script, and this mixed form is crucial to its intention. Thomson himself appears as a ghostly presence conjured up along with the other characters in his story (friends, possible enemies, other painters) by a group who remembers his death after seeing what the Lawren Harris character describes as his spirit paddling on Canoe Lake: “those who depart before their time continue to haunt the lands they loved,” he tells us. The memory play that unfolds from this opening gambit, however, is not Harris’s story or even the story of Canoe lake and one painter so much as a collective story about Canada, and this is why I think Betts has called on the resources of music to help him create and celebrate a communal narrative of place and belonging—a “common ground,” to return to Chamberlain’s phrase—that includes as many participants and rememberers as possible.
I have not seen a live production of Colours in the Dark so I cannot say if this complex play works. Nevertheless, its existence as a play (rather than an essay or a scholarly study) means that it can only function fully in the communal space of a theatre, on the common ground that an audience shares during a performance. Insofar as it recapitulates in speech and song a well-known story about our land, it attempts to occupy that borderland of difference and contradiction that Chamberlain warns against, and it stages a story, as Wiebe might wish, about the North as here, as our place and home.
Sherrill Grace is Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where she holds the Brenda and David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies, 2003-05.
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MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Telling Our Stories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 114 - 116)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.