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Monkey Beach

by Eden Robinson

Haisla-Heiltsuk writer Eden Robinson’s first book was a collection of four stories, Traplines. In 1996, it opened to New York raves and Canadian reserve (pun intended): pretty good for a beginner. Her subsequent New Face of Fiction deal with Knopf Canada placed her in a troupe of elite young ’uns and flicked on the bright and hot lights: dance kid, or you’re out of the show.

Monkey Beach is Robinson’s command performance, set in her home town of Kitamaat Village, on the coast of B.C.: “If your finger is on Prince Rupert or Terrace, you are too far north. If you are pointing to Bella Coola or Ocean Falls, you are too far south.” The novel is told by Haisla teenager Lisamarie Hill, whose Olympic hopeful swimmer brother is missing off a seiner. Her waking dream world is haunted by premonitions and wise ghosts; her life is tortured by school and the deaths of loved ones; her alcohol and drug consumption is its own exhausting dance. Shipwrecked and just wrecked, Lisa enters the crow-ordered world of memory while watching and waiting for the sasquatch – and her brother – to show up on Monkey Beach. The novel is also a primer for those who’ve fallen behind on Haida culture:

“Enter the trees, step over the fallen logs and watch out for the prickly, waist-high devil’s club … Wander slowly, careful where you step … In the time of the great dying, whole families were buried in one plot. Pick wild blueberries when you’re hungry, let the tart taste sink into your tongue, followed by that sharp sweetness that store-bought berries lack. Realize that the plumpest berries are over the graves.”

In a recent essay in the Vancouver Sun, Robinson said that her agent, Denise Bukowski, would have liked a lot more sasquatch in the novel. When the first draft of Monkey Beach was submitted to Knopf, it was “rejected for not making any sense.” Second draft? Also rejected for not making any sense. The third draft was “cautiously hailed as something comprehensible.”

We’ve commodified young writers, burdened them with the power to save Canadian booksellers and to revive a national literature for a media-dazed generation. Writers like Robinson do not have the time-worn privilege of hiding a stuttering book in a desk drawer. Dance kid, or you’re out of the show. For native writers, the dance is even more dirty. Earlier this year, Robert Bringhurst, in Story as Sharp as a Knife, proposed that early Haida oral stories must be considered – logically and esthetically – our nation’s classical art, akin to the works of Homer and Beethoven. Robinson’s novel, as the first ever by a Haida author, is then placed at the temporary end of a tightrope continuum: lose your balance, you free-fall.

Monkey Beach is an important novel. It exposes the redemptive, vital lives of a once dying culture with Robinson’s insider compassion and trickster wit. And it contributes to a body of work – Dogrib Richard Van Camp’s writing is there – that gives hard proof to young native writers that they can publish and dazzle.

What’s gained when we push hard? Robinson has energy; she resists the slickster sophistication that dries out so much of today’s fiction; her humour is not urbane and nasty, but shifty and wise.

What’s lost when we push too hard? Monkey Beach seems awkwardly structured. If anything, it makes too much sense and the connections between realms and relatives are too forcefully juxtaposed, too easy to follow. The subject yearns for disconnection and chaos and expressionism, but the book follows either a familiar track or loses track of characters altogether. Editors are notoriously wise and wonderful, but I’d like a look at that first draft, the one that didn’t make any sense.

Eight years ago, I took a summer workshop – pregnant, depressed, washed up – and we got an enormous story, 45 tiny-font pages, to read for our next meeting. We whined and wondered, “who?,” since most of us had been struggling, in the sun and sand and sex of summer, to bang out even 10 large-font, fat-margined pages of niftyish prose. Who? That story, “Traplines,” left our mouths open and empty: the imagination and energy, the volume of images, humour, and heart. When it came time to discuss Eden’s story – she who said little, laughed lots, and at 22 sometimes wore neon wigs – praise seemed beside the point, an intrusion. She was far beyond us in her ability to tell the story the way it needs to be told, the way she hears it told to her.

That summer, we tried harder, our stories got longer, we paid more attention to our spirit voices. And even though my voice said, “you have no stories as important as hers,” the pregnant white chick went home and wrote.