Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Downtown Eastside, Fiction, Literary Landmarks
LITERARY LOCATION: Kitamaat Village, at the head of the Douglas Channel, home to approximately 700 of the 1700 Haisla members, 10 kilometres from Kitimat and 45 kilometres from the Terrace Airport.
Born in 1968 on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat Reserve, Eden Robinson grew up in Kitimaat, a Haisla village near the mostly white community of Kitimat, located east of the Queen Charlotte Islands on the coast of mainland B.C. She worked as a mail clerk, dry cleaner and receptionist prior to attending writing courses at UBC. In 1996 she published Traplines, a critically acclaimed collection of four short stories that she wrote in four months at UBC's Creative Writing department. Not necessarily autobiographical and mostly concerning dysfunctional families, Traplines (Knopf 1996) won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best work of short fiction by a Commonwealth writer. It was also a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year.
ENTRY: For many years Eden Robinson had struggled with a more personal story, Monkey Beach (Knopf, 2000), her first novel about a confused teenager who is coming to terms with her 17-year-old brother’s disappearance at sea, probably by drowning. Subject to premonitions, the narrator, Lisamarie—named for Elvis Presley's daughter—explores Haisla community life on the central coast. She veers towards danger rather than away from it as the Hills family melds their Haisla heritage with Western ways. Uncle Mick is a Native-rights activist and an Elvis fan. Lisamarie respects that her grandmother Ma-ma-oo is a guardian of tradition but she also has less tangible advisors—ghosts, sasquatches and animal spirits—as she journeys in her speedboat up Douglas Channel to Monkey Beach, a remote stretch of shore renowned for Sasquatch sightings. Haisla mysticism is laid on pretty thick and there are enough forays up remote inlets for a National Geographic article; there are also sasquatch sightings, bits of Haisla vocabulary, a two-page explanation of oolichan grease and a somewhat wonky ending. But at the heart of Monkey Beach is family intimacy. Monkey Beach won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was nominated for the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Long in the works, Robinson's sought-after second novel about extortion and other forms of human manipulation, Blood Sports (2006), is set in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside amid drugs and prostitution. Eden Robinson’s uncle was Gordon Robinson [see entry] and her younger sister is CBC national news anchorwoman Carla Robinson.
The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling (University of Alberta, 2011) is the basis of Eden Robinson's address at the 2010 Henry Kreisel Lecture, held at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton. Narrative topics include a trip to Graceland with her mother, and a wilderness outing in which she and her father try to catch a glimpse of the Sasquatch.
Traplines (Knopf 1996).
Monkey Beach (Knopf 2000).
Blood Sports (M&S 2006).
The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling (University of Alberta, 2011) 978-0-88864-559-3 $10.95
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2011]
An interview with Eden Robinson by Alan Twigg
BCBW: Tell me about your family.
ROBINSON: My parents are both highly imaginative and they both loved to tell stories. Dad, if he had the chance, would have been an artist or an engineer. Or an architect. My mother was the reader. They never had the opportunity I had, or the support system. I have a brother who is four years older than me. He's always been incredibly good with numbers, at computers. Now he's teaching computers with the school board in Bella Bella. He's the one person in the family who reads the instruction book for the VCR.
BCBW: And your sister Carla?
ROBINSON: People underestimate my sister. They think because she's gorgeous, she has no brain! [Laughter] And then she bowls them over. She's much, much more than they expected. She's possibly the most positive person I've met. And she's a lot tougher. She has to be. She's on TV in Toronto from Saturdays to Tuesdays as a news anchor for CBC. [Laughter] Watching Carla go through the shit she went through is quite inspiring because she handles it with so much grace. She's three years younger. It's great having her with me at the same stage of our careers. We get to compare notes. She tells me some of the things she's feeling and they're the same feelings I'm having. It's such a relief. I can't wait for more Haisla people to get famous!
BCBW: Besides Monkey Beach, have you visited any other spiritual places?
ROBINSON: I love the Mayan temples; but the first place that moved me deeply was Kitlope. It was the first place that struck me as having a special energy. That was in 1992. I'd won $2,000 in a PRISM writing contest so I took the summer off and I went up to Kitimat and got invited up to the Kitlope. It was part of the Rediscovery Program. I went up there on a boat with sixteen 16-year-olds boys. By the time we got there, I knew Wayne's World by heart without even seeing it. They described all the scenes in intricate detail. [Laughter] Schwing!
BCBW: What happened?
ROBINSON: I just went up there for something to do. But when we actually got there, it was eerie. The cabin was haunted. I was a city kid. I'd brought my hairdryer. Someone said to me, 'Where you going to plug it in?' The only generator we were using was keeping the fish and the meat cold. I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to unplug it for a while and blow-dry my hair!' [Laughter] I didn't realize the fish were more important than my hair. [Laughter]. We went up to Kitlope Lake. There was such a sense of place! It touched the part of me that tells stories. And it was the part of me that had been missing. That trip was the first time I'd ever made bannock. [Laughter] It was the hardest bannock you'd ever had! [Laughter] Oh, God. It was rock solid!
BCBW: What about literary influences?
ROBINSON: The first author I read obsessively was Stephen King. I think it was The Shining that made me want to start writing. And we had a grade four teacher, Mr. Mung, who absolutely adored Edgar Allan Poe. The Purloined Letter. The Golden Ladybug. He's still teaching there at Cormorant Elementary. I went there from grades two to seven.
BCBW: Where did you get books in Kitimat if there wasn't a bookstore?
ROBINSON: There was a Salvation Army. We also had a second-hand bookshop. My Mom would be reading about World War II and my Dad would be reading Popular Mechanics. It took forever to get me out of there. I liked science fiction and horror. The first time I realized books were telling a truth, not the truth, was when I was reading the Arthurian legends. I read two different versions and I asked people which one was true. I was told 'whichever one you want'.
BCBW: It must have been a radical change to leave home.
ROBINSON: Those were bleak years at first, my punk years. At UVic, I had short, purple hair. I was living in a dormitory and there were all these perky cheerleaders in the dorm. And the food was terrible. We threw jello against the wall and it stuck. Before that I'd lived for a while in Cranbrook. That was my first time on my own. I was thrilled to get a huge one-bedroom apartment for only $200 a month. I soon found out why. The next floor was rented by a biker gang and they threw endless parties. Nobody could shut them up.
BCBW: At UVic, you got into Bill Valgardson's class. Things started clicking for you. What makes Bill Valgardson such a good teacher for people like you and W.P. Kinsella?
ROBINSON: He was an incredibly positive soul. If you want support for believing that you can write, he is definitely someone who'll give it to you. I still have the 'Affirmations for Writers' he handed out on the second day of class. The first one was 'Writing is easy and fun for me.' [Laughter] 'Writing is easy and fun for me!' He would always say that writing is like panning. You're going to get a lot of dirt but what you're looking for is nuggets. You focus on the dirt, not the nuggets.
BCBW: There was a lot of panning in Monkey Beach
ROBINSON: [Laughter]. Yeah. Three years solidly, and six or seven years off and on. The psychos in my first book, Traplines, were a lot easier. [Laughter] When Traplines came out, not a lot of people realized I was Native. The attention was more focused on the writing. Now there's a growing awareness that I am Haisla. It's actually been nice to get some bad reviews this time. I'm not on a pedestal [as a Native author]. I don't want to be untouchable. That's not going to help me grow as an artist. Writing is a job, it's what I do, it's what I love. But on some days I'm completely and utterly overwhelmed. My writing has gone far beyond anything I imagined.
BCBW: Your agent Denise Bukowski had something to do with that. And Louise Dennys, your editor. Both influential people in Toronto.
ROBINSON: [Laughter] When Denise is your agent, she's actually very motherly. She's kind of like my aunt or something. And Louise was very, very sensitive. There were times when I was ready to chuck the whole thing into the garbage. She made the process a whole lot less scary. She has a non-intrusive style of editing that I really appreciated. I really don't respond very well to the more 'authoritative' approach. [laughter]
BCBW: What were some problems?
ROBINSON: I had a lot more people in the earlier drafts. When you're used to dealing with hundreds of cousins, for me having 20 characters in a novel didn't seem so bad. [Laughter] When I was growing up, my cousins were more like sisters and brothers. Compared to other people, I was always a little bit dyslexic about keeping track of who all the relatives were. Living in a small place like Kitimaat has its advantages and disadvantages. If you were over at someone else's house near dinnertime, people just fed you. But at the same time, you don't necessarily want your parents to know instantly who you are dating.
BCBW: Now you have to become a public figure to survive. This business of making writers into performers can be quite bogus.
ROBINSON: Liposuction, here I come! [Laughter] Oh, God!
BCBW: Back in grade ten, you wanted to be an astronaut. If you weren't a writer, what would you like to be now?
ROBINSON: A pastry chef I took some French classes last year so I might attend the Dubreuille School of Cooking. I love baking. I also thought about being an electrician. [Laughter] And I'd like to be a voodoo high priestess.
BCBW: After reading Monkey Beach, will people expect you to be 'psychic'?
ROBINSON: Oh, God, yes. [Laughter]. And some will obviously want to make fun of my beliefs. I find it strange sometimes that people can assume they know how the universe runs. This is how life is, this is how death is, this is what's going to happen to me after death. That sometimes strikes me as arrogant. If you look back a hundred years, people thought differently. And if you look back four hundred years, people thought differently again.
BCBW: I was suggesting some people might expect you to exhibit some shamanistic qualities. [Laughter] Do you have any premonitions about me being hit by a car?
ROBINSON: [Laughter] A green one. [Laughter] I was into the occult for a few years as a teenager. And I can read palms. [Laughter] I read an astrology book once that said my birthday, January 19th, is 'the day of dangerous genius'. [Laughter] I was born on the same day as Edgar Allan Poe and Janis Joplin.
BCBW: What about your Haisla opera?
ROBINSON: [Laughter] My Dad took me to the Mt. Layton Hotsprings, between Terrace and Kitimat, and I was very hyper, bouncing around. I had had way too many cups of coffee. I was learning a bit of Haisla and I loved opera, so it occurred to me to combine them. [She bellows operatically.] I've got the libretto written for the first couple of scenes. It's very Wagnerian, very dark. In older times, you see, there were four or five clans. I'm from the Beaver clan. I was adopted into it. That's means I'm not supposed to marry someone else from the Beaver clan even if they were from a different village. That would be considered incestuous. So my opera would be about that. Lovely and dark and horrible.
BCBW: You're not joking about this.
ROBINSON: No. [Laughter] There are two people on the Haisla Opera Committee. Myself and my mother. She's quite unwilling. [Laughter] My father has a videotape of me singing opera on Monkey Beach. [Laughter]
A profile by by Vickie Jensen
[The gritty urban world of Eden Robinson’s novel Blood Sports (M&S $34.95), set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is far removed from the Haisla village of Kitamaat (pop. 700), the setting for her first novel Monkey Beach (Knopf, 2000). But whether Robinson is depicting inner city grime or the eerie beauty of a remote inlet, her characters all find themselves drawn into a death-grip struggle for emotional and physical security. Vickie Jensen visited Eden Robinson in Kitamaat in 2006 and wrote this report.]
Three years ago Eden Robinson moved back to the Haisla reservation in order to live with her parents in their quiet home that looks out onto the upper reaches of the Douglas Channel. Framed photographs of Eden and her sister Carla, the first Aboriginal anchorwoman for CBC TV news, are prominently displayed everywhere. Her father Johnny Robinson suffers from Parkinson’s and it looked like the disease was advancing rapidly. Fortunately most of his symptoms turned out to be side effects from medication. After two months back on the rez, Robinson realized that she really didn’t know her parents as adults and staying on in the village was an opportunity to remedy that. “My folks both have a lot of things they want to share,” she says, “although I don’t think they want to see them published!” Coming home was the sixth move in the last three years for Robinson, who’s still unpacking boxes and recovering from the success of her first two books. Published in five countries, her short story collection Traplines (Knopf, 1996) won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best first work of fiction in the Commonwealth and was featured as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Monkey Beach won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. After years of city living, travelling, touring, and working as writer in residence, Robinson says the transition to life on the rez was a huge culture shock. “I didn’t realize how much of an urban Indian I was. I am so bad at bush living! People think I must be Lisa in Monkey Beach—they forget that I made her up. I’m completely incompetent at living off the land. The characters in Monkey Beach are modeled after a number of my cousins who are really into it. I’d starve!” Robinson contends there are different types of intelligence. “Me, I’m smart with books, but I’m really dumb if I try to start a boat or set up a tent. The first time I went to the Kitlope as part of a Haisla Rediscovery Camp, I brought my hair dryer. Someone asked me where I thought I was going to plug it in and I told them I figured if I could bring my laptop, I could bring a hair dryer.”
Robinson’s laughter spills out as regular punctuation to her thoughts. “Of course, after three days, my laptop packed it in because the batteries ran out but by then we were so busy going places, collecting food and scouting archaeological sites that by 6 p.m. I was in my tent snoring! I think that was the first time in my life that I didn’t use conditioner. We bathed in a glacier-fed river, so I just rinsed the soap out of my hair as fast as I could!”
Around the village, the elders know Eden as Vicki Lena Robinson. “I was named after a cousin who choked to death in her crib on a bottle,” she explains. “Unfortunately there were five other Vickis in the village at that time, and I got tagged with Big Vicki. Little Vicki didn’t like her name much either,” she laughs. “So, I always thought that someday I’d change my name to something like Rebecca or Anastasia. Anyway, my first year of college I was telling that to someone who said, ‘Oh, you’ll never change your name.’ And I decided, ‘Yes, I will. I’m… Eden Robinson.’ I don’t know where that name came from! That was 20 years ago now—it was part of a mental switch, of seeing myself differently. I wasn’t ‘Big Vicki’ any more.” Asked how she learned so much about the world of pimps, prostitutes and drugs for her new novel, Blood Sports, she says, “I used to live in East Vancouver. I’m part of the arts community and we always need to seek out the cheapest rent possible!” More seriously, Robinson says she knows a lot of people who live in the downtown core or work in re-hab clinics. “It’s a severely different mind set, an environment where addictions are the norm. In some parts of Vancouver, people regularly discuss stock portfolios—there people talk about treatments or fixes.”
Robinson’s education also spans two worlds. After wrestling with a no-talent assessment at the University of Victoria, she went on to complete a Masters in Creative Writing at UBC (where Monkey Beach served as her Masters thesis), but she also values her Beaver Clan heritage and the Haisla storytelling tradition. “I’m trying to learn Haisla,” she says, “word by painful word. But I have a tin ear. Dad’s always amused by my attempts.” While Eden Robinson is the first Haisla novelist, her uncle Gordon Robinson, author of the non-fiction Tales of the Kitamaat in 1956, was the first Haisla writer to be published. “I think I’m the only full-time writer in the village now although others on the reserve are getting interested, especially when they hear tales of six-figure advances! But most don’t really know what writing for a living is all about. There’s no basis for understanding. They just think it’s like what they see in the movies—you finish the book, you hand it in, it gets published and you get a big cheque. I try to explain about the long hours writing, the edits and the copy edits. Or that making money at writing is so sporadic. People do understand if I compare it to seasonal fishing. But they don’t understand that writing is usually just me on my ass in the basement, glued to the computer for hours on end.” Recently a battery of tests confirmed Robinson suffers from celiac disease, an intolerance to gluten that has sapped her energy, left her prone to depression and caused constant gastrointestinal pain. “I didn’t think it was celiac disease because all the people I know who have it are really skinny,” she says, “but it doesn’t work that way for me. It’s hard to explain this level of constant fatigue to healthy people. Here my aunties aren’t in the best of health so we can share colonoscopy stories. There’s a real openness about medical conditions.” Once the diagnosis was confirmed, Robinson adopted a strict wheat and gluten-free diet. Sticking to the diet when she’s on the road or when she attends any of the local feasts or parties is a challenge since most of the foods served are wheat-based, but now she packs her own snacks and reads labels. The discipline is paying off—much of the pain is gone and she can already feel her energy level shifting.
“This is a good time in my life to just be,” she says, “to get my life, my finances and my own health in order. I have a low energy level because of my illness, but each day there’s a certain time period when I can go to town on the writing; if I miss that, it’s a shot day. So when I write, I hermit. People in the village are sometimes surprised to find that I’m here because they haven’t seen me. For me, writing is a passion. It doesn’t feel like I’m working 18 hours. I want to do it.” If writing is what makes Eden Robinson happiest, she’s also the first to say that it’s often a struggle. “Some people have tremendous control over their novels. I don’t seem to be one of them.” Robinson was working on a different novel when Blood Sports took over. It grew out of her novella “Contact Sports,” a story in Traplines that took her ten years to complete, and 34 drafts. “It was my apprenticeship,” she says. “Everything I needed to write Monkey Beach I learned in that novella—switching time periods, changing voice, structure of the story.” For Blood Sports, Robinson revisits her original cast of characters from “Contact Sports”, five years later in their lives. The tangled web of addiction, revenge and human relationships in Blood Sports is stark and violent. Tom Bauer, now in his early 20s, has fathered baby Melody with fellow ex-junkie Paulina, but he comes home from work to find that Paulina and the baby have disappeared. At the same time his controlling, abusive cousin Jeremy has come back to haunt his life. “I expected Blood Sports to go in a very different direction. I had plots, plans, but the characters evolved in a way I hadn’t outlined. Originally I was picturing something lighter, maybe superficial or glib,” Robinson says, “so my characters were really safe in the first couple of drafts. Then I started torturing them. I really didn’t have a choice. When my characters solidify themselves, they pretty well take over.”
The main character in Blood Sports has an 11-month-old daughter. “I don’t know where she came from!” she says, “And I never planned for the main character to have a mental breakdown.” The brutal parts were hardest to write. “I’m really squeamish so the violence was really a surprise.” Even so, the book is not as dark as some earlier versions of the manuscript. “I went back and cut the torture scenes to one or two and the deaths went from eleven to four.”
The traditional storytellers from her village have advised Robinson to stick to the storyline but it hasn’t been easy to follow their advice. “In Monkey Beach they wanted to know definitely, did Lisa’s brother live or did he die? I tried to explain that I deliberately wandered off track with the story. We’ll see what they say about Blood Sports since it really goes all over the map.”
Robinson describes the new novel’s structure as “a little haywire.” Each of the different sections corresponds to the main character’s different mental states. Robinson says the book will work best for people who like puzzles and piecing things together. “I wanted this new book to be a straightforward mystery but it fell flat when I tried to make it a traditional narrative,” she says.
Whereas she thinks Monkey Beach was fairly easy to market because readers were interested in northern life and native families, she feels she’s taking a chance with Blood Sports. “This new book did a lot of things I didn’t want it to do. It’s certainly more extreme, and the form is not incredibly commercial. I think it’s going to be a really tough sell. I’m just hoping it gets banned—that would be great for sales!” Now with three notable books to her credit, Robinson is well aware that the business of writing demands two personalities from every author. “There’s the personality you need to write and the personality you need to promote. Without the hermit side, I wouldn’t get any book finished, but without the ham side, the book wouldn’t get published. “It took a lot of effort for me to be able to function in public, but I was pretty damned determined so I took voice lessons, acting lessons, desensitivity training, counselling—I worked my ass off to make it look like I was comfortable in front of an audience. Before, I was focused on how awkward I was, how shy. Once I could do small talk, it just opened up my world.” Robinson describes herself as “a bit of a control freak” so learning to trust her instincts rather than trying to rigidly control everything was a huge leap of faith for her. “It’s a scary freedom,” she says. “I fought it for about two years and finally just started writing. Once I gave in, the book started to flow.” 0-7710-7604-5
--by Vickie Jensen, a Photojournalist and author of nine books, including most recently The Totem Poles of Stanley Park (Vancouver: Westcoast Words and Subway Books, 2004). She and Jay Powell have co-authored 40 native language and culture texts.