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

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

by J. Edward Chamberlin

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“We need to understand our stories because our lives depend upon it.” -- Ted Chamberlin

The stories we tell each other reflect and shape our deepest feelings. Stories help us live our lives -- and are at the heart of our current conflicts. We love and hate because of them; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out on the basis of ancient


“We need to understand our stories because our lives depend upon it.” -- Ted Chamberlin

The stories we tell each other reflect and shape our deepest feelings. Stories help us live our lives -- and are at the heart of our current conflicts. We love and hate because of them; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out on the basis of ancient tales. As Ted Chamberlin vividly reveals, we are both connected by them and separated by their different truths. Whether Jew or Arab, black or white, Muslim or Christian, Catholic or Protestant, man or woman, our stories hold us in thrall and hold others at bay.

Like the work of Joseph Campbell and Bruce Chatwin, this vital, engrossing book offers a new way to understand the hold that stories and songs have on us, and a new sense of the urgency of doing so. Drawing on his own experience in many fields -- as scholar and storyteller, witness among native peoples and across cultures -- Ted Chamberlin takes us on a journey through the tales of different peoples, from North America to Africa and Jamaica.

Beautifully written, with insight and deep understanding, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? examines why it is now more important than ever to attend to what others are saying in their stories and myths -- and what we are saying about ourselves. Only then will we understand why they have such power over us.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[Chamberlin] dances between ideas, sources of ideas, anecdotes, giving the reader flashes of insight and glimpses of the world that are both new and profound….[He] has made this tapestry so rich that it will be explored again and again.”
—Hugh Brody, author of The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World

“Chamberlin’s book, thought-provoking and humane, is a welcome addition to this quest for cross-cultural understanding.”
—Eva Tihanyi, National Post

"Chamberlin…bring[s] together personal reminiscences — with references from sources as diverse as Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and Canadian country singer Ian Tyson — to form a liquid, virtually seamless argument that shifts between anecdote and high theory, often on the same page.”
The Calgary Herald

“Chamberlin…is a storyteller at heart. His analysis is interrupted by wonderful personal anecdotes, and his prose is eloquent and lucid. Writing with the same grandfatherly mix of authority and gentleness as Joseph Campbell, Chamberlin will appeal to scholars and amateurs alike.”
Quill & Quire

“There is no easy way to describe this remarkable book. Every page is a cascade of rich and original ideas, dazzling in their breadth and profound in their relevance. Baudelaire once identified horror of home as a great malady of the modern age. In a literary journey that takes us from the of the fires of the Gitksan to the forests of Africa, from the songs of cowboys to the poetry of shamans, from science to the realm of myth, Ted Chamberlin provides the cure.”
—Wade Davis

“J. Edward Chamberlin writes with astonishing originality about the fluidity of human cultures — about our pressing need to acknowledge the paradoxes and contradictory truths that are apparent everywhere just under the surface of events. His book reads like the distillation of a lifetime of thinking and personal experience. It is a gift to the reader.”
—Erna Paris, author of Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History

“Ted Chamberlin’s book is delightful. It tackles profound quations of cultural conflict, by reminding us of our own songs and stories, revealing the extend to which vocabulary and language enable us to know not only where we are but who we are. They give meaning to our lives; in them we are blessed by imagination, whether we realize it or not. And by an understanding of the songs and stroies of the peoples who lie beyond our borders, or even within them, we can truly know who we are, where we came from, and what we — and they — may become.”
—Thomas R. Berger, author of One Man’s Justice and A Long and Terrible Shadow

“Ted Chamberlin’s wise and wonderful ruminations on the importance of stories remind me of a gentle spring rain, penetrating and nourishing, awakening and encouraging. His book makes our world a brighter and happier place.”
—Modris Eksteins, author of Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of The Modern Age and Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century

In our concern for the new global community, we often overlook those peoples and traditions that were and are essentially local. Indeed, our use of the very term ‘indigenous’ peoples seems to evoke the stigma of the backward and primitive, rather than its actual meaning of those who are rooted in the land of their ancestors. Ted Chamberlin’s new book places us in the middle of the stories of [indigenous] peoples from Canada to Africa to Australia about themselves and the world. Chamberlin has become our literary bard through which these people are able to speak in their own voices. An extraordinary achievement, one made once in a generation. It is not only a book that all must read but, more importantly, one that we all must listen to.”
—Sander L. Gilman, The University of Illinois, Chicago, author of Jewish Frontiers: Essays on Bodies, Histories, and Identities

Product Details

Knopf Canada
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Random House
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2 MB

Read an Excerpt


It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials. The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn’t understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. “If this is your land,” he asked, “where are your stories?” He spoke in English, but then he moved into Gitksan, the Tsimshian language of his people -- and told a story.

All of a sudden everyone understood . . . even though the government foresters didn’t know a word of Gitksan, and neither did some of his Gitksan companions. But what they understood was more important: how stories give meaning and value to the places we call home; how they bring us close to the world we live in by taking us into a world of words; how they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart. They also understood the importance of the Gitksan language, especially to those who do not speak it.

The language sounded strange; it made no sense to most of the people there. But its strangeness was somehow comforting, for it reminded them that stories always have something strange about them, and that this is what first takes hold of us, making us believe. Recognizing the strangeness in other people’s stories, we see and hear it in our own.

Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live, and sometimes how to die. They come in many different forms, from creation stories to constitutions, from southern epics and northern sagas to native American tales and African praise songs, and from nursery rhymes and national anthems to myths and mathematics.

And they are all ceremonies of belief as much as they are chronicles of events, even the stories that claim to be absolutely true. We first learn this when we are very young; which is to say, we learn how to believe before we learn what to believe. It is what we believe -- the second stage -- that is at the heart of many of our current conflicts. We love and hate because of our beliefs; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out, saying that we have been here forever or were sent because of a vision of goodness or gold, or instructions from our gods; we go wandering, and we go to war. Whether Jew or Arab, Catholic or Protestant, farmer or hunter, black or white, man or woman, we all have stories that hold us in thrall and hold others at bay. What we share is the practice of believing, which we become adept at very early in our lives; and it is this practice that generates the power of stories.

We need to go back to the beginning. We all want to believe. We all need to believe. Every parent, every farmer, every builder, every cook knows this. We have to believe that the child will grow, or spring will come, or that the house will take shape, or the bread will rise. Stories and songs give us a way to believe, and ceremonies sustain our faith.

They also give us things to believe, which is a mixed blessing. The reality of our lives is inseparable from the ways in which we imagine it, and this closeness sometimes produces conflict and confusion. But it also produces some of our most durable myths, whose contradictory character seems to be part of being human and is certainly part of all cultures. The contradiction is inseparable from the nature of belief and the dynamics of believing, which always involve an element of strangeness and surprise.

Every story brings the imagination and reality together in moments of what we might as well call faith. Stories give us a way to wonder how totalitarian states arise, or why cancer cells behave the way they do, or what causes people to live in the streets . . . and then come back again in a circle to the wonder of a song . . . or a supernova . . . or DNA. Wonder and wondering are closely related, and stories teach us that we cannot choose between them. If we try, we end up with the kind of amazement that is satisfied with the first explanation, or the kind of curiosity that is incapable of genuine surprise. Stories make the world more real, more rational, by bringing us closer to the irrational mystery at its centre. Why did my friend get sick and die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Whose land is this we live on? How much is enough?

And where is home? Home may be where we hang our hat, or where our heart is . . . which may be the same place, or maybe not. It may be where we choose to live . . . or where we belong, whether we like it or not. It may be all of these things or none of them. Whatever and wherever it is, home is always border country, a place that separates and connects us, a place of possibility for both peace and perilous conflict.

Except for the idea of a creator, there is no idea quite as bewildering as the idea of home, nor one that causes as many conflicts. It is a nest of contradictions. The late-twentieth-century image of the global village seemed to sound the death knell for home as a particular place, much as an earlier generation claimed to do for religion when they said God was dead. But the report of His death was an exaggeration (as Mark Twain once said when he read his own obituary in a newspaper); and so it is too with the idea of home. God has certainly not disappeared from the scene, and nor has Allah; the world seems to be getting larger, not smaller; and home is becoming more important, not less.

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 reimagined Them and Us.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

J. Edward Chamberlin is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. Previously Poetry Editor of Saturday Night Magazine, he has worked extensively on native land claims in the United States, Canada, Africa and Australia nd has been Senior Research Associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. His books include The Harrowing of Eden: White Attitudes Towards Native Americans (1975), Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde (1977) and Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (1993).

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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