Cyclops, do you ask me my famous name? Well, I
Will tell you. Then give me the guest gift you promised.
Noman is my own name. Noman do they call me,
My mother and my father and all my companions.
— The Odyssey
I hadn’t been in St. John’s for long—this was 1997—when I was introduced to a man of American origin just about to retire from his teaching post at Memorial University. Having spent his whole academic career in a city he hated on an island he hated, he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Newfoundland. It was early in my own stay here at the time, but even then I had doubts about his complaints. I know that few academics can just relocate at will, not unless a brilliant publication record puts you in demand. If you’ve got stuck in a place you hate, you are probably not in demand. What a waste, though—all those alienated years!
There I was, coming in as he was going out, conversing with no kindred spirit. I had no thought of moving to Newfoundland at the time but was already liking the place. When I did move here for good, 1999, it was because I had fallen for St. John’s, just as one might fall for a person. I was not beguiled by the outskirts. The Kenmount Road exit off the Trans-Canada Highway (called TCH in Newfoundland), lands you in familiar banal territory: the usual fast food outlets, car and truck dealerships, the Avalon Mall and all: the standard periphery of any Canadian city, in no way distinctive. But then entering the downtown core! Those multicoloured clapboard houses!
Infatuation is the word we use to pooh-pooh the power of love at first sight, and yes, strong first feelings had better undergo some testing. I’m not so romantic and impulsive as to uproot my own life and those of my loved ones to follow some perhaps fleeting urge, however powerful. But I had eight months worth of testing ahead of me, three quarters of my sabbatical from Western University in London, Ontario, and that was enough. I returned to Western for the 1998-1999 academic year, then took early retirement and moved to St. John’s. Sixteen years later I’m still here, a former teacher of English drawn to Newfoundland by congenial people, by the burgeoning arts scene, by the so-called bleak, certainly rugged, landscape, by the personality of the place. I have entered a long-term relationship much like a marriage. I often think of what a dear friend says about marriage, his own truly happy union being the instance: it’s hard work. So it is, and so it also ought to be with a new and in many ways foreign culture you hope to embrace. St. John’s and Newfoundland is endlessly fascinating to me, still is, but living here as an outsider has not been a snap. Love may be the lure, but then comes trial by difference, by strangeness, immersion in the distinctive culture of one country inexpertly and incompletely annexed by another. Comes the quest to be a resident stranger worthy of the new place, unassimilated but at home.
Newfoundland was not part of Canada when I was born. Had I been born in Newfoundland, I might now be proud to have avoided being a Confederation baby. I was seven in 1949, living with my parents in Grimshaw, Alberta, old enough to attend a ceremony welcoming the new province—were there Newfoundland hijinks in every hamlet in Canada?— but not old enough to really understand what was going on. My classmates and I had not gathered in the Elk’s Hall by choice; the whole school had been marched over there. Oddly, though, I can still see the flags that were set up on the stage. Those flags come into “Cod Liver Oil,” a non-fiction story, the first thing I wrote in and about Newfoundland. It takes off from a poem by Gordon Rodgers and remembers the cod liver oil pill that was administered to Alberta schoolchildren every school day morning. We were ingesting Newfoundland, but none of us knew that. Odd that an unintelligible ceremony from so long ago has stayed with me. Or perhaps it was retrieved from oblivion when I moved here fifty years later, realized with a shock that I was not in the Canada I thought I knew and found myself fiercely drawn to the newest part of it.
Strangers and Others: Newfoundland Essays
By Stan Dragland
$23.00, paperback, 420 pp.
Pedlar Press, September 2015