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(June 13, 2002, Gazette)

Wednesday, May 29, 3 p.m.
Oration honouring Sandra Djwa

Many people are deeply suspicious of literary scholars and especially literary biographers. After all, A. S. Byatt, states unequivocally that “all scholars are a bit mad.” In her novels she recounts the obsessive, relentless pursuit by literary biographers of every scrap of paper belonging to a poet – private diaries, love letters, grocery lists, anything with a text. Literary biographers wilfully ignore the literary theorists who say that there is no truth or value in the written text, that the self is merely a set of clashing desires and molecules and, anyway, the author is dead. What are we poor mortals to do as we stumble from the embryo to oblivion in a world with no signs or signifiers and no one to tell our stories?

Fortunately, Mr. Chancellor, there are more sane literary scholars in life than there are in novels and their learning and language make our stories immortal. One such exemplary literary scholar I present to you today. Professor Sandra Djwa, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, author of major literary studies and biographies on Canadian writers, winner of the Governor General’s Commemorative Medal and the Trimark Mentor Award, first woman scholar to give the prestigious Sedgewick lecture at the University of British Columbia, former chair of the Department of English at Simon Fraser University, and, most significant of all, former student at Curtis Academy and Memorial University.

For Sandra is no stranger to these island shores. Growing up in St. John’s, spending the winter on LeMarchant Road and the summer at her grandmother’s house on the shores of Conception Bay, using her berry-picking money to join the library at Carbonear, Sandra learned early the value of words, and the joy of books. Whether reading to her sisters, writing prize-winning essays, and taking home the huge sum of $50 for a public speech she gave, Sandra was always surrounded by books. Her teachers at Curtis Academy and her professors at Memorial remember her intellectual gifts and her acting ability.

For, Mr. Chancellor, this is not the first time that Sandra has been on stage decked out in a red dress – as a young actress in a murder/mystery play performed by the Memorial University Dramatic Society, she sported a bright, red, taffeta dress made by her mother. But Sandra’s sights were set on an academic, not an acting career. Like the graduates today, she knew that learning was difficult, but that “literature to which it gives access was a ravishing delight” and it was here, where “the tides flow” that she began to study the poetry of E. J. Pratt.

In her youth, like so many Newfoundlanders before and after, Sandra headed westward – but she was no latter-day Persephone, seized unwillingly from the flower-filled fields of her native land to be cast into the darkest reaches of British Columbia. She was the new Newfoundland woman, taking command of the narratives, inverting the archetypes, finding fulfillment in marriage and in the active quest for knowledge. For the next 30 years, through the fertility of her mind and the energy of her personality, she charted new directions in scholarship, writing on a range of Canadian authors from Lampman to Birney, Laurence to Atwood, Cohen to P. K. Page. Using the realism and pragmatism of her heritage, as well as its mythology and music, she wrote of the shaping influence of E. J. Pratt’s poetry on the English/Canadian modernist tradition. With the practiced eye of the Newfoundlander, she discerned his subtle, ironic allusiveness, the exacting craftsmanship beneath the appearance of his unpretentious forms and phrases. She ascertained the originality of his vision and themes – the transformative power of the mind and spirit in overcoming the elemental and unforgiving forces of the natural world. In her many articles and books, she wrote of the centrality of poetry in providing those “necessary fictions” that define and sustain us.

Mr. Chancellor, the work of the imagination is no idle pastime and Professor Djwa is no insular, obsessive scholar. While fully engaged in overseeing the publication of the complete works of E. J. Pratt, she served for eight years as chair of the English Department at Simon Fraser University, was re-elected twice to the position, no mere accolade in English departments known for their lively politics. Then she produced Politics and the Imagination: A Life of F. R. Scott that set a standard for literary biography in Canada. Mind you – only a Newfoundlander could turn an inauspicious encounter with F. R. Scott, the eminent Canadian law professor and poet, into a lasting relationship. Listen to Sandra’s words as she describes her 9 a.m. audition with F. R. Scott for the role of biographer – “I went to his office in the law faculty on the McGill campus. There I found Scott slumped over his desk, suffering a severe attack of tachycardia. I issued orders. He was to lie quietly on the floor; a doctor was phoned.”

A Canadian icon and iconoclast was saved and Sandra got the part. She moved easily from the role of Florence Nightingale, to that of James Boswell, sifting and sorting through Scott’s written texts – the diaries, letters, interviews, papers and reviews – balancing the distortions of memory with verifiable facts, creating the necessary fictions that are our essential selves – the private beneath the public personas. Sandra’s biography has given immortality to one of Canada’s great humanists who believed law should be a force for social change, that politics should be the art of shaping a just society, that poetry can change our souls, and that professors should teach, “That all truth is relative and only the obligation to search for it is absolute.”

Mr. Chancellor, we have summoned Sandra back to these shores, lured her away from her cabin in Porpoise Bay, that rocky promontory so like the Newfoundland landscape of her childhood, from her greenhouse where she grows the earthbound orchids, not the “wild orchids of the sea” and from her work on her next biography, on P. K. Page, a poet who, though she is a traveller, with no destination and no maps, is confident Sandra will chart the geography of her soul and locate her poetry in the landscape of her spirit.

Mr. Chancellor, Professor Djwa has given us the maps and the magic, so I ask you to welcome her home to the land once called “Prima Vista” and where she first saw the light and award her the degree of doctor of letters, (honoris causa).

Annette Staveley
Deputy Public Orator