(June 13, 2002, Gazette)
Wednesday, May 29, 3 p.m.
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 Generals 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. Johns,
spending the winter on LeMarchant Road and the summer at her grandmothers
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
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 Sandras 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. Pratts 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 Sandras 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 Scotts 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.
Sandras biography has given immortality to one of Canadas
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).
Deputy Public Orator