Quill and Quire

Eden Robinson (2000)

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Spirits in the material world

Haisla culture takes strange shape in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach

Eden RobinsonEden Robinson is watching her back these days.

The Haisla novelist asked village elders for advice on making the leap from oral literature to written text, and they were shocked that she wanted to write about traditional beliefs. Their unease fires her own trepidation.

“I can’t write about certain things,” she says, “or someone will go fatwa on me.”

But Robinson, who turns 32 this month, confesses she worries more about reaction from the spirit world than she does about earthly punishment for cultural transgressions. Her spirit guardians like to tell her off, and they did so repeatedly during the creation of her new book, Monkey Beach, published this month by Knopf Canada (and reviewed on p.37).

“I had one poke me in the butt,” she laughs. “Another was just so pissed at me – yelled and shouted. Gave me nasty dreams all night. “I would know when it was wrong to write about certain things,” she says of their not-so-subtle hints. “There are some places that are not for me to go.”

Did she ever think of ignoring their directives? “I’m not that brave,” she exclaims, eyes wide. “It’s one thing to have some psycho stalking you, and quite another to have them around.”

Welcome to Ms. Robinson’s neighbourhood, where spirit beings and psychos vie with each other for page space. “The first sociopath I ever met was dating one of my cousins,” she says brightly.

That handy research subject fuelled the characters in Robinson’s first book, Traplines, a collection of short stories and novellas, about the brutal, violent lives of contemporary urban youth. Traplines won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best first work of fiction in the Commonwealth, and was also featured as a New York Times 1996 Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year. One of the stories in Traplines also won the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction. Published in five countries with advances totaling over six figures, the book made Robinson – by most writers’ standards – a rich woman. For a while.

“The great thing about the money was that it gave me three solid years to write. I never had to leave my apartment!” she says gleefully. But there is a downside to all that artistic momentum. “I didn’t see my family, and I lost a lot of friends.”

The result of those years at home is Monkey Beach, a book noticeably different from Traplines, with its casual violence and body parts stuffed in freezers. “Some people thought the material in Traplines overwhelmed the writing,” Robinson says. “I don’t agree. I like the dark, gritty side – and reality is reality.”

“I’m a very selfish writer. The best stuff I write comes when I’m not thinking about an audience, when I don’t think about who’s going to read this, what market it’s going to.”

In her debut novel, Robinson presents a rather different kind of reality – a world inhabited by raven tricksters, tree-dwelling munchkins, and their long-haired, pointy-toothed sasquatch cohorts. Now, though, instead of worrying about possible horrified reaction to the psychos in Traplines, Robinson has to worry about ticking off the denizens of the spirit world, not to mention the entire Haisla Nation.

Monkey Beach is the story of Lisamarie Hill, a Haisla woman who embarks on a wilderness quest to find her brother, who is lost at sea. Lisamarie lives on the Kitamaat reserve in northwestern B.C., where Robinson herself was born and raised except for time spent in her Heiltsuk mother’s hometown of Bella Bella. Where Traplines was concerned with the narrow inner lives of damaged people, Monkey Beach reaches considerably wider, into the world of prescient dreams, spirit beings, and ghosts. It’s a world Robinson is comfortable in – now that she’s made her point.

“People assumed I couldn’t write anything that wasn’t native because I’m native,” Robinson says, rolling her eyes. “But I’m fascinated with serial killers, psychopaths, and sociopaths. I wrote about non-native characters [in Traplines] just to show them I could.”

The psychos are on holiday, but there’s still plenty of gritty realism in Monkey Beach: Robinson makes pointed reference to the Alcan aluminum plant at Kitimat town, and the industrial pollution that has destroyed the traditional (subsistence) fishery and mountain waterways. She also mentions the smallpox epidemics that cleared entire villages after contact, and the legacy of residential schools.

There are some things, though, that she will not write about – such as ceremonial practices. “General ideas I feel very comfortable using,” she allows, “but I feel uncomfortable [detailing specific native traditions]. I kept some scenes more or less true as they would happen, but I reworked stuff and made certain parts up.”

Even so, she still managed to annoy the village guardians of cultural integrity. “I wrote about a feast, and I found out later that you’re not supposed to write about feasts in Haisla culture,” she says, looking worried.

Like many aboriginal writers, Robinson believes she must strike a balance between her artistic freedom and the privacy of her community and a culture that the colonial government once sought to eradicate. Her uncertainty comes with the territory, though, because Robinson is quite literally the first of her kind. She is the first Haisla novelist. Ever.

“My Uncle Gordon [Robinson] was the first Haisla writer to be published,” Robinson recalls. “He wrote the non-fiction Tales of the Kitamaat in 1956 or ’57. He wrote down stories he didn’t want people to forget, but he got some flack for it. He was told, ‘You’re not supposed to write them down.’ All our stories are oral. Other than that book, you’re not going to find any books about the Haisla.”

Until Monkey Beach – and it may not be alone on the shelf for long. Now that Robinson has tested the water, writing has started to appeal to others on the reserve. “Now there’s a whole crop of people saying, ‘Yeah, I want six-figure advances too,’” Robinson laughs.

Robinson began her writing career at the University of Victoria, where she did an undergraduate degree in creative writing. “The first three years at school were awful,” she says, recalling a particularly low point when she was told she had no talent, and almost gave up. “I knew I wanted to write, but I was really struggling. At home, there were no writers. I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t know what they did, I didn’t know how they got from A to B. So I needed to hear and see and talk to other writers.”

During her years at the University of Victoria and later, the University of British Columbia (where she got her master’s), she met those writers. How she got from being that no-talent U Vic student to featured writer at the Edinburgh Writers’ Festival is a long story, best heard in person, with punctuation provided by Robinson’s unique laugh – a burst of low bass sound underscored by a high-pitched hum, Tuvan-monk style. The short version is: a lot of work and many, many drafts, the shelving of a thesis (which would later become Monkey Beach), the arduous completion of a new one (Traplines), a patient literary agent, and many litres of Pepsi Max, a couple of cases of Twizzlers, and gallons of coffee.

The difficult decisions Robinson made over what to commit to the page and what to keep only as oral tradition have sapped her energy for the time being. The author is heading off to the Yukon for a five-month writer-in-residence gig at the Whitehorse Public Library starting next month.

“I can’t write. I’m so burnt out. Everything’s bad, and it hurts,” she says. “I need a new head space.”

But she can count on support from a variety of sources, including touchy spirit guardians and other more corporeal guides. “What makes me is definitely family,” Robinson says. “I am surrounded by a family that supports artistic drive. I never felt like I was letting anybody down by being a crazy artist. I’ve only found out lately how rare that is.”