If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground

by J. Edward Chamberlin
ISBN: 0676974910

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A Review of: If This is Your Land Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground
by Clara Thomas

Edward Chamberlin's book abundantly answers the question of its title. It was written as the summation of years of study of the stories of many people from the Gitksan, the aborigines of Northwest British Columbia, to the aborigines of Australia, and from the cowboys of the western plains of North America, to his own father and grandfather. The title's question was asked by an elder of the Gitskan tribe to counter a government claim on the land. Its answer is a testament to the author's abiding faith in the power of the imagination: "Can one land ever really be home to more than one people? To native and newcomer for instance? Or to Arab and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Albanian and Kosovar, Turk and Kurd? Can the world ever be home to all of us? I think so. But not until we have imagined Them and Us."
Chamberlin has the essential qualifications for his work: enduring enthusiasm, the ability to write a uniformly idiomatic, informal, readable prose, and an endless supply of anecdotal illustrations to enliven his text. A reader is easily persuaded that he/she is listening to the spoken word. The entire work is very like a series of lectures, a course in fact, with the designated reader an attentive student whose knowledge base broadens and deepens throughout. This method and effect carries its own dangers as any course does: there is a good deal of necessary repetition and an inevitable sense of returning again and again to the same spot, though once having captured the reader's interest the sheer variety of anecdotal evidence supplied stimulates a constant "what's next" curiosity.
The book is divided into five parts, each one a sub-division of Chamberlin's major thesis, from "Them and Us", through "Losing It", "Reality and the Imagination", "Riddles and Charms" to the final and ultimately hopeful "Ceremonies of Belief". Early in the text he relates a formative episode which he uses as a touchstone throughout and which demonstrates his thesis again and again. When, at six years of age, he attempted to eat his peas with a knife and defended himself by citing the example of the family's well-loved Ukrainian cleaning lady, his father pronounced, "Learn to speak Ukrainian and you can eat peas with a knife." His attempt at Ukrainian was meaningless babble and, he writes, "it took me awhile to learn that it was the verbal equivalent of eating peas with a knife. A ceremony, but someone else's." The book's entire thrust is to impress on us the diversity of others' ceremonies, the necessity of our recognition of their dignity, the inevitability of their contradictions and the paramount importance of our imaginations in learning to mediate these elements.
Part I leads us through the myriad displacements of peoples throughout history, their ill treatment justified by the interlopers' designating "Them" as savages or barbarians, less than human. Part II is concerned with the loss of home, and the worldwide songs of all races that attempt recognition of and consolation for that bitter loss. From the Rastifarian "By the Rivers of Babylon" to Billie Holliday's "Good Morning Heartache", from the cowboy's "When the Work's All Done This Fall" to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" the laments are universal, both mourning and strangely consoling. He has a special affection for cowboys, their songs and tall tales, because from his youth, he knew his grandfather's stories of being one of them. To him they were always glamorous wanderers, cowboys in western North America, gauchos in Argentina, Llaneros of Venezuela and Colombia, vaqueros of Northern Brazil and Huasos in Chile. "They had no home. They owned no land. And they never would. Period." They were bound by no laws except those imposed by the land and the weather. He offers us two versions of his own family story, "both of them more or less made up," always with the warning that they, like all stories of home, involve a conflict between the true and the untrue. We must learn to forego choice, accepting that in their contradictions lie their comfort, "not in obliterating the feelings of loss, but rather reminding us of them even as they release us from their hold."
Part III, "Reality and the Imagination", is the book's central hinge. Only by cultivating our imaginations can we learn to negotiate the space between the true and the not true, "that mysterious world," as Frye said, "where our true freedom lies." As adults we lose the ability to live in and with a story and at the same time to detach ourselves from it. A child, of course, knows how to believe and not to believe simultaneously. The story of the three bears is as real to him as his breakfast on the kitchen table; he doesn't have to choose "either or" because he can accommodate "both and". Numbers of children have an imaginary, invisible playmate who for a time is an inseparable companion and then gradually drifts away, a prime example of the real and the not real easily negotiated by the imaginative child. As for the adult, Chamberlin gives the prize to the mathematicians: "Nobody walks the borderline between what is and what is not with more elegance than mathematicians." Their mantra, "Let us suppose that ______" gives the game away at once. Things are and they are not, what Bertrand Russell described as "a science in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we say is true."
Wordsworth's Daffodils, Ahab's Moby Dick, and King Arthur's Excalibur, are all stories about someplace or someone else, taking us to imaginary places with imaginary people, broadening our horizons and letting us freely wander in an imagined world. The key word is "freely"-through a developed imagination we move freely and enjoy limitless possibilities. All true understanding and tolerance of others, of "Them" depends on a practised ability to ignore tight little categories of true and untrue, useful and useless, to feel at home wandering happily in fields without borders. In Part IV, "Riddles and Charms", Chamberlin explores the strange power of certain stories or songs, National Anthems for instance, favourite hymns or the books that we read over and over for comfort and reassurance. They are talismanic amulets, always potent and always available.
Finally, in "The Ceremonies of Belief", Chamberlin shares with us his sense of a possibility of universal tolerance among peoples. Through the centuries their ceremonies of belief have been and always will be very different, but the priceless gift of imagination can bring us to an understanding of the power and paradox of their stories: "If we can do this, I believe we will be able to understand how the contradictions that are part of the art of story telling are also part of the nature of our lives and our conflicts over land, and how the way in which we divide the world into Them and Us is inseparable from the way we understand stories themselves."
Chamberlin's book is much more than a successful summary of decades of learning and teaching. It expresses with passion and conviction his own life's credo-we have within us the means to learn not what to believe but what it is to believe. The final ideal answer to the question "If this is your land, where are your stories?" is On Common Ground.

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