Why Study Canadian Literature?

We need to understand [our stories] because our lives depend upon it.

— J. Edward Chamberlin, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?

A woman reading to a child.

Reading to children teaches them lessons about how to interpret experiences. “Woman Reading to Child” (~1950s) by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton. Library and Archives Canada, archive number R12438-1226-9-E, e010974709-v8.

An undergraduate student might wonder why it’s worthwhile to engage with Canadian literature. Although critics have different answers to that question, we can begin to find a common ground on reasons for studying literature when we think about what it does.

Stories and other types of creative expression help shape experiences, foster social interactions, and support, affirm, or question practices of daily life.

To borrow David Herman’s summative title, stories are tool[s] for thinking. Literature helps us understand experiences. Along with other social and cultural artifacts, it also constructs ways of interpreting and responding to these experiences.

What does it mean to study literature?

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.

—Thomas King, The Truth About Stories

To study literature means to study the different literary strategies used to express and contest understandings of experiences, be they shared or foreign. Literary criticism, therefore, largely seeks to recognize and unpack these strategies and the possible meanings of works that employ them. It’s about paying attention to what we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Thomas King

Thomas King. Canadian Literature

The analysis of Canadian literature offers the possibility of entering into discussions about the ways Canadian authors explore shared and diverse experiences. As Sherrill Grace summarizes in her review of J. Edward Chamberlin’s If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?,

We are … 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. (115)

Works Cited

  • Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. 2003. Toronto: Vintage, 2004. Print.
  • Grace, Sherrill. Telling Our Stories. Rev. of Colours in the Storm, by Jim Betts, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground, by J. Edward Chamberlin, and Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic, by Rudy Wiebe. Canadian Literature 184 (2005): 114–16. Print.telling_our_stories
  • Herman, David. Stories as a Tool for Thinking: Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. Herman. Stanford: CSLI, 2003. 163–92. Print.
  • King, Thomas. The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi, 2003. Print.