Eden Robinson’s debut novel, Monkey Beach, was nominated for the 2000 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Monkey Beach is the first novel published by a member of the Haisla First Nation, and has been widely acclaimed by critics and readers alike.
Robinson’s previous collection of stories, Traplines, was awarded the Winifred Holtby Prize for the best first work of fiction in the Commonwealth, and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Robinson grew up near Kitamaat, BC and now lives in North Vancouver.
pdc: The dominant culture does not know much about First Nations lives. The romanticising of First Nation peoples, perhaps more so outside of North America, seems to be well and alive in Western minds. In your first book Traplines the dark side of modern First Nations lives is exposed in one of the stories. Was Traplines a difficult book to write?
ER: Only one of the stories is about First Nations people and I got a lot of flak for that. I did not realize I was expected to write from an utterly First Nations perspective.
It was a tough book to write, because I was dealing with a lot of poverty issues. In retrospect it was the kind of book I could not have written at any other time in my life.
pdc: What was the response to the book from your own community and the larger First Nations communities in Canada?
ER: I did not get much of a response. I asked one of my cousins what he thought and he said: long.
pdc: “Queen of the North” is the last story in Traplines. In that story you introduce us to Karaoke and Jimmy Hill. What was it about those two characters that captivated your imagination to write Monkey Beach, your present novel?
ER: I am a good sucker for a good love story. I originally tried to write Monkey Beach from Karaoke’s point of view but I quickly realized she was in no condition to narrate a book. I started writing from Jimmy’s point of view. That did not work either. He drowned. You can only have so many flashbacks. But the sister who had a minor role in the short story was distant enough for a narrator.
The more I put into that story the more I had to explain and that led to more and more stories and into a novel. I had never written a novel before and I was surprised how structure in a novel worked. It did not go anything like a novella or a short story. It was a humbling experience. I had to learn a lot of skills I thought I knew already.
pdc: Much like long-distance swimming: you imagined that making a character swim a long distance would force you to follow him too.
ER: True. (laughs)
pdc: The hilarious and the horrific walk hand in hand in your books. Is humour the redemption for those who have to face the unbearable and live on?
ER: I have always loved horror. My family has a great sense of humour. Humour arrived all by itself. Some situations cried out for irony, sarcasm, a very dry sense of humour.
pdc: What have you learned about yourself and your heritage in the process of writing your two books?
ER: I learned that I can smoke two packs of cigarettes a night, drink two pots of coffee and two liters of Pepsi.
There was a potlatch scene in the first draft, and it really dawned on me that it is not something that is talked about. I was telling a cousin about a scene I was having trouble with and that is when he told me that is something one is not supposed to share. That is something for the community and the community alone. He said “You should leave it alone. It is a private ceremony. If you write about it you will cause great discomfort. It is up to you.” Then I thought about it and decided I had better not put it in the book. I learned something there.
I also learned more Haisla words than I could handle. I was so entranced in learning Haisla it was actually getting in the way of writing the story.
pdc: Are you fluent in Haisla?
ER: Oh lord, no. People in the village decided that they had gone through too much and it would cause too much trouble to have their children speaking Haisla, stigmatized by having a Haisla accent. There was a conscious effort not to teach the language to their children. Of course that has changed now. But for those of us in a two-generation period learning Haisla was learning a second language.
pdc: There is a sudden blossoming of young First Nation writers. What do you think has contributed to such blooming and what impact will that have in the First Nation communities in general and to Canadian literature in particular?
ER: It will have a wonderful impact and it has been a long time coming. First Nations people have always told stories, but in the last 25 years we have been figuring out how to write them down instead of telling them. It is not much of a leap, but it is a big change in concept.
I like being part of this wave, of watching these writers go places. The young writers I’ve seen have been completely passionate and completely driven to write about their cultures, their experiences. They’re going into genres I would never have thought they’d be going into. They’re expanding in ways that is amazing for such a short period of time—it’s been such a steep curve. At the same time, we’ve got a pool of older Native writers that are still around and having two of them is marvelous…
pdc: Because of mentorship?
pdc: How do you think it’s going to affect the lives of First Nations communities in general to see those models, that expression, their voices?
ER: I don’t think it’s so much seeing the models… It’s always such a thrill to see your community in the newspaper or something and go “Hey, that’s where I am.” In a weird way, it’s validating. It’s like we do exist, we are in the consciousness of other people. And I think there will be more writers, because they see these writers and realize that it’s a path they can take.
pdc: You have just returned from a several-month-long tour abroad. Do people respond differently to your writing in other countries?
ER: Oh lord, yes. In Monkey Beach, nature plays a very large role, but most people don’t see it as a large role. If you’re from Canada you take it for granted that there’s this big stretch of wilderness, whereas in Belgium and the Netherlands…
pdc: It’s such an urban culture…
ER: Yeah. They were more interested in talking about nature as a character than in any other characters. In Scotland (I like Scotland because Scotland likes me [laughs]), they seem to like the bleaker parts of the book.