The nature and power of storytelling has been a topic of critical conversation for more than 2,000 years, though the subject was likely active long before Aristotle’s Poetics. Over the course of two millennia, this conversation has shifted and mutated, both narrowing and expanding outward, to incorporate, among many other areas, hermeneutics and post-structuralism and, away from the strictly literary world, the practice of narrative psychology and, of course, the mercantile force of storytelling in sales and advertising. Recently, the conversation has grown to include the voices of Indigenous and marginalized communities questioning and upending the stories of the dominant culture, including in the past year Indigenous writers Harold R. Johnson and Tomson Highway offering their perspectives and experiences in The Power of Story and Laughing with the Trickster, respectively. The conversation has grown exponentially while simultaneously splintering into increasingly specialized silos of understanding.
Although he makes no explicit claim as such, Canadian writer J. Edward Chamberlin (If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories, A Covenant in Wonder with the World) in his new book Storylines: How Words Shape Our World looks to break down barriers and specializations with an approach that is something akin to a grand unified theory of story. The book, which begins with a gathering of Rastafarian elders in Jamaica “for a set of reasonings—theological interpretations, in Rasta parlance—of Old Testament texts,” draws not just on his academic background (Chamberlin is professor emeritus in English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto) but, crucially, on his extensive work on Indigenous land claims in Canada and elsewhere, and on his role on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The result is a kaleidoscopic exploration of the role of story not just in literary terms but also in areas of social justice and, surprisingly, in the realms of science and mathematics.
His description of the process by which the Gitxsan First Nation demonstrated the length of their territorial residency during their land claims case is a breathtaking example of the worlds of storytelling coming together. “First,” he writes, “they presented oral testimony that included traditional stories that chronicled the history of their homeland.” Among these was the story of a rock slide and flood, which “heralded a new and more respectful era for the community and the beginning of its new righteous residence there, for which that storytelling provided a precise date—3,500 years ago.” Rather than relying solely on the testimony of their stories, however, the Gitxsan also hired geologists to date the rock slide. “And 3,500 years ago was the conclusion of the geological engineers,” he concludes. This isn’t, however, an account of science overshadowing or verifying traditional stories; rather, it is a drawing together of two forms of story in a cycle of truth telling and revelation.
Storylines, to its considerable credit, resists the desire to come to easy conclusions or definitive answers to questions around story, as Chamberlin revels in the inherent contradictions and paradoxes both within stories and with our understanding of them. In Chamberlin’s view, the world of story is in a state of perpetual dynamic equilibrium, the root not only of survival and community but also of conflict and uncertainty, and of the ageless quality of truth and the uncertain contemporary reflections and refractions of those truths. (“But why is it that we are especially comfortable believing unbelievable things in company?”) It’s a powerful and absorbing approach to the material, and reads like the summation of a life lived not only in the real world, but in the world of stories which, despite – or because of – the inherent contradictions, are one and the same.