Profile of Eden Robinson: The Hermit and the Ham

By Stafford O’Neal

It is one thing to read a book for enjoyment or even to review it for work; it is quite another thing, however, to read a book so that you can teach it. I had the pleasure a few years ago of leading a seminar on First Nations Literature with seven intense Haida women in Old Masset, Haida Gwai, (Queen Charlotte Islands).

We read Eden Robinson’s second book Monkey Beach for the course and found so many layers of meaning that our animated discussions often went into overtime. There was just so much to talk about in terms of the manner in which Robinson brought together the seemingly antagonistic worlds of Haisla tradition and popular culture. She claims not to know where the name Eden she chose for herself came from, but it turns out to be a pretty good fit in terms of the garden-like fertility of her mind.

Eden Robinson, the now famous Native author born Vicki Lena in 1968 on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat Reserve in northern British Columbia is already about as famous as a writer can get without turning in to a parody of herself, and now that she has experienced this celebrity status she says she “can’t wait for more Haisla people to get famous” (BC Book World). I want to tell her to be careful what she wishes for, because fame is a slippery reptilian thing that doesn’t always come and go without creating its own kind of problems and wreaking its own brand of havoc. But I couldn’t reach her by phone before the Drum went to press, and who am I, anyway? I am not famous. I have no celebrity status.

Robinson in contrast is so successful that everyone she has crossed paths with at some point in the past wants to bask in the sunshine of her literary fame. The University of Victoria, for example, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1992, tried to take credit for her success when bestowing upon her a Distinguished Alumna Award for 2001.

According to the online announcement of the award, this critically acclaimed Native author “credits her writing abilities (sic) to the guidance and support of the instructors at UVic, although her Master of Arts degree from UBC also undoubtedly contributed to her writing successes.” Undoubtedly! Although the esteemed creative writing program at UBC might very well place the rhetorical emphasis here in reverse order.

But ask Eden Robinson for the goods on who is really responsible for her writing achievements and the short answer is compact and direct: “definitely family.” As she told Suzanne Methot in a January 2000 Quill & Quire profile, “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.”

Rare, to be sure, and it makes much more sense for Robinson to give credit where credit is really due, that is to say, the family that nurtured her. The reading public that is the ultimate beneficiary of Robinson’s literary talents can thank her Haisla father and Heiltsuk mother for being such awesome parents. And Robinson can safely count herself fortunate that the same universities competing for designation as primary caregiver during crucial years of her apprenticeship as a writer did not altogether destroy her burning desire to write.

In any case, the young ‘bookworm’ who skipped boring classes in order to go to the library has come a very long way from the University of Victoria where she ‘flunked fiction’, was told she had ‘no talent’, and threw portions of cafeteria jello against the walls of the student dormitory she shared with ‘perky cheerleaders’ and other people who seemed strange because they ‘had never struggled’.

And if she has certainly come even further in space and time from the Kitamaat Village in Haisla territory where she grew up with her older brother and younger sister (CBC-TV anchor Carla), she has now finally gone full circle.

In 2003 she moved back to her parents’ quiet home on the coast of central British Columbia overlooking the upper reaches of the Douglas Channel. After years of living in the city, touring to promote her books, and working as writer in residence at various institutions around the country, the return to her origins was apparently a shock to her system. As Robinson said to photojournalist Vickie Jensen, “I didn’t realize how much of an urban Indian I was.” Thankfully, as the old saying goes, you can take the woman out of the rez, but you cannot entirely take the rez out of the woman.

As one of the first female Aboriginal authors in Canada to attract international attention she has made the best of her international fame. She has never forgotten where she came from. In Time magazine she used her high profile and celebrity status to chastise the Canadian government for ignoring Native issues, such as health care and housing. Her argument was of course a solid one. The many agreements entered into by First Nations with governments were in fact originally meant precisely to secure just such services in exchange for land.

In her fiction Robinson has made pointed reference to historical wrongs such as small pox epidemics, the tragedy of residential schools, and the industrial pollution caused by the Alcan aluminum plant at Kitimat town, the mostly white settlement near where she was raised.

In a world apparently hungry for authentic (or exotic) voices Eden Robinson seems to have been in the right place at the right time. It is not just that she is lucky enough to have parents with imaginations who have supported her since the very beginnings of her aspirations to write. She has also worked very hard at writing, consuming “many litres of Pepsi Max, a couple of cases of Twizzlers, and gallons of coffee” in the process. She has gone long periods of time without seeing her family and “lost a lot of friends” during the times of creative isolation necessary to produce the product.

Robinson knows however that it is not enough merely to write the book, the book must be sold too. The business or job of writing demands a sort of dual personality. She seems to understand these modern realities of writing better than many writers twice her age.

“There’s the personality you need to write and the personality you need to promote,” she recently told Jenson. “Without the hermit side, I wouldn’t get any book finished, but without the ham side the book wouldn’t get published.” This is as clear a statement as any of the schizophrenic condition of art in the twenty-first century. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. But the creative individual walks a very fine line if the essence is not to be overshadowed altogether by the marketing of the product, and Robinson knows this too. “I’m a very selfish writer,” she told Suzanne Methot after the publication of her second book.

“The best stuff I write comes when I’m not thinking about who’s going to read this, what market it’s going to.” This woman is wise beyond her years.

On the hermit side of things
The ‘hermit’ side of Robinson’s personality is the side few people see when she shuts herself away for long periods of time in order to write. “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.”

But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! Her ‘ham’ side is evident in the sense of humor expressed by a unique laugh everyone who writes about her seems to mention. According to CBC arts reporter Rachel Giese, “her distinctive laugh starts as a shy giggle and swells to a room-filling crescendo.”

And in a Quill & Quire profile it was described as “a burst of low bass sound underscored by a high-pitched hum, Tuvan-monk style.” This “earthy exuberance” punctuates her conversation both intimately and in the many interviews she is forced to undergo because of her phenomenal success.

Robinson’s much anticipated new novel, Blood Sports, is advertised by her publisher McClelland and Stewart as a “Canadian bestseller, written with the cunning of Alice Munro and the twisted violence of Stephen King.” The author herself, of course, claims King as a major literary influence, and credits The Shining with making her want to write in the first place.

But her more substantive reasons for liking King’s books are intelligent ones. The attraction has less to do with the stereotypical fear factor, than with the fact that he populates his novels with real and authentic characters. As she told Giese in a recent interview, “King’s books are full of working-class people who have shitty jobs and live in small towns. They’re people I know.” I can’t think of a better reason to read Stephen King than for the opportunity to meet working-class people with shitty jobs; I agree with Robinson. If the end result of reading Stephen King compulsively between the ages of 10 and 14 is the close attention to character development characteristic of Robinson’s writing, the ends certainly justify the means. It’s a shitty job but somebody has to do it.

Robinson has herself apparently worked some shitty “McJobs” in her time too. She has been employed at one time or another as a janitor, a receptionist, a mail clerk, a dry cleaner, and a napkin ironer. Now, of course, she is a professional writer; writing is her work, whether or not it will remain her passion. In an interview during a promotional tour for the new novel Blood Sports Robinson was already setting the wheels in motion for a sequel to be called Death Sports.

This is sophisticated marketing. The ink is barely dry on the one book and advertising has already begun on the next. Both of these books, the former out in hardcover and expected in paperback in February 2007, and the latter projected for some unknown future date, derive their characters and plot from the long short story (or novella) “Contact Sports” that was the centerpiece of her first book, a collection of four stories published as Traplines in 1996.

Full of dark and brutal tales punctuated with a gritty deadpan humor, Traplines catapulted Robinson into the literary spotlight when it won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best first work of fiction by a Commonwealth writer and was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year. Back home in Canada Robinson was put on the Maclean’s 100 Young Canadians to Watch list, and no doubt people are still watching and waiting ten years later. Since then she has been featured writer at the Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, and Writer in Residence at the Whitehorse Public Library and the University of Calgary. And, of course, the nominations and awards just kept on and may very well just keep on coming.

Her second book, the highly acclaimed Monkey Beach came out in 2000 and was quickly appreciated by critics. It has been variously described as an “artfully constructed” (The Washington Post) and “intricately patterned” (National Post) narrative about the coming together of Haisla and popular cultures. This novel won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was short listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was nominated for both top Canadian literary prizes, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. It was also named one of The Globe and Mail’s “Best 100 Books” and “Editor’s Choice.” Robinson wrote it with money received in the six figure advance that resulted from a bidding war between publishers wanting the rights to her first book, Traplines.

“The great thing about the money was that it gave [her] three solid years to write. [She] never had to leave [her] apartment.” Monkey Beach is about family intimacy and energetically evokes the Haisla community’s encounter with popular Western culture by introducing the entire gamut of native clich├ęs as drawn from Robinson’s own experience.

But the setting for Monkey Beach posed a problem for Robinson when in talking c with the elders of her community about writing down Haisla reality she met with some resistance. There are things she is not supposed to make public. As she told Suzanne Methot, “I wrote about a feast, and I found out later that you’re not supposed to write about feasts in Haisla culture.” Indeed the level of violence and psychosis in Traplines is limited in Monkey Beach by the fact that it actually takes place among the people with whom she grew up.

“Like many aboriginal writers,” Suzanne Methot writes, “Robinson believes that 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.” Since the publication of Monkey Beach only John Burns in The Georgia Straight has cautiously called the novel a “disappointment by comparison” with Traplines. The disappointment is perhaps the result of the fact that Robinson feels a bit restrained by tradition.

But to be fair, the two books are like apples and oranges, or twizzlers and salmonberries and can hardly be compared. In this context Eden Robinson apparently comes by the contradiction inherent in her vocation honestly enough. The stories of the Haisla were first translated from the oral tradition and taken down in writing (to the chagrin of some elders) by her uncle Gordon Robinson in his Tales of the Kitamaat (1956). It is quite understandable that she would want to return to the mean streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the setting for her third book.

On the one hand she became very attached to the characters in “Contact Sports;” it took her ten years and over 30 drafts before this first novella of just over 100 pages was ready for publication. And during this period the author’s grandmother died, and she experienced perhaps the first real grief of her life. By returning to an urban setting she avoids the problem of angering the elders in terms of community values.

Part of the authenticity of Robinson’s work is the ease with which contradictions between popular and native cultures are resolved in a kind of treaty process. These negotiations operate like a defense mechanism and in the end only put off the inevitable. There is always a point at which the two cultures are, in fact, completely incompatible. Surely, otherwise First Nations cultures are doomed to become nothing more than the miniature totem poles and dream catchers of a tourist souvenir stand waiting to be lost when luggage is searched at a border crossing or an airport. They end up completely buried under the garbage of pop culture and packaging.

This is what the elders of First Nations communities are worried about when they caution against the wholesale marketing of oral tradition. And this is why Robinson is right to be respectful of their wishes and responsible in her transcribing of tradition into literary fiction.

She sees great significance in the fact that she was born on the same day of “dangerous genius” as Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton (and Janis Joplin). As she puts it, “I am absolutely certain this affects my writing in some way.” Add to this mix early exposure to her mother’s True Detectives and True Romances, her grandmother’s television soap operas, her father’s Mechanics Illustrated, and pop cultural product such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer consumed over the years and you have the determining factors that go together to make this writer unique. “I happen to be a huge TV-aholic in recovery,” Robinson admits.

But such influences are perhaps no more or less apparently confused and contradictory in her than in any writer growing up in the late twentieth century. It would be safer if comparisons to other writers were limited to contemporaries such as Michelle Berry, Michael Turner, Evelyn Lau, and Andrew Piper who all portray the bleaker side of growing up urban in the last quarter of the 20th Century. And as a Native Canadian writer, of course, she joins the ranks of others such as Thomas King, Thomson Highway, Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, Gregory Scofield, Daniel Gavid Moses and Drew Hayden Taylor.

She has already been compared in a recent Globe and Mail literary review to Leonard Cohen in terms of the “technical virtuosity” with which she combines “a variety of narrative forms and conflicting styles” in her new novel Blood Sports. She has not yet, however, been compared to the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Perhaps it would not be such a bad idea to add his name to the list of writers made relevant to Robinson’s literary achievements so far. Robinson grew up near Kitamaat Village (not Kitimat town) among the forests and mountains of central coastal British Columbia.

“Kitamaat” is a Tsimshian word meaning ‘people of the falling snow’. Dostoevsky begins one of his most famous narratives, Notes from Underground, with an epigraph which makes thematic use of the atmospheric potential ‘apropos the falling snow’ to set the scene for all the dark psychopathology that follows. And of the main character in his novel A Raw Youth Dostoevsky wrote that he took “an innocent soul, yet one already touched with the terrible possibility of corruption . . . These are all the abortions of society, the ‘uprooted’ members of ‘uprooted’ families.” All this seems quite appropriate. Blood Sports bills itself as a novel about such corruption. The first sociopath Robinson ever met apparently “was dating one of her cousins.” She comes by her interest in this honestly too then.

It is possible to judge a book by a quick look at its cover and then forget all about the novel when the movie version is over. According to a recent review in The Calgary Herald Robinson’s new novel Blood Sports is “a gripping page-turner of a tale [that] should have Quentin Tarantino knocking down her door.” Oh boy, a Canadian Kill Bill and its sequel Kill Bill Again. I can’t wait. Don’t get me wrong! I think she can write. She’s a very good writer, maybe even great. But Eden Robinson has yet to reach her full potential, and there is still plenty of time for that.

After all she is only 38 or thereabouts. A 38 is a gun, if I remember right. Robinson, according to a recent review of Blood Sports, doesn’t play with guns; rather, she “writes like a seasoned knifefighter . . . In her hands, language is a weapon that can leave you bleeding, unsure of just how you were cut.” The National Post reviewer means this metaphorically, I hope.