Eden Robinson

An Interview

Gerard Beirne

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Gerard Beirne: Eden you grew up in Kitamaat Village, British Columbia, a member of the Haisla and Heilstuk First Nations. Can you describe your community and what your upbringing was like?

Eden Robinson: My mother is Heiltsuk and my father is Haisla, both small, coastal First Nations in northern British Columbia.  I have an older brother, a younger sister and about 10,000 cousins.  My parents had an enormous amount of siblings and they, in turn, had a lot of children.  I cannot safely date anywhere on the coast of British Columbia without asking a lot of pointed genealogical questions. 

I live in a small reserve at the head of a fjord.  Our village is traditionally called Ci’mot’sa, which means Snag Beach because of all the tree trunks that wash ashore here, left by the Kitimat River and the tide.  It used to be a winter village used more for ceremonial purposes than a proper village.  The river floods in the spring and fall, so it wasn’t suitable for homes until we put up a bunch of dikes in the 80s.

Kitimat, our neighbour, is a company town eleven kilometres away.  The aluminum smelter is now owned by Rio Tinto and the Methanex plant is now owned by Shell, and is strictly a place holder for the upcoming Liquified Natural (aka methane) Gas lines our province hopes to get up and running.  We have another reserve on the other side of the fjord which was a fishing ground that has been flattened into an industrial site leased by assorted LNG projects.  Another proposed project for this site was the terminus of a bitumen (tar sands) pipeline from Alberta which was called The Northern Gateway Pipeline by Enbridge, a Calgary-owned company.  The Haisla are pro-LNG projects because they’re more or less neutral to our environment and have been promising prosperity.  I’m less enthusiastic because I disagree with fracking.  As long as the locals being fracked don’t mind and get something out of it, I’m meh-LNG.  We’re all anti-Enbridge Northern Gateway because we get nothing out of it but an environmental headache.  So I’ve been a part of the nine year battle to not have a bitumen pipeline but to have an LNG line.  It’s awkward.  And complicated.

I grew up thinking my life was completely ordinary, and was stunned when I went to the University of Victoria and discovered that no one had ever heard of the Haisla or the Heiltsuk and not everyone ate salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

GB: How important was your culture to you growing up and how significant a role did it play, if any, in you starting out writing?

ER: My culture is central to my writing, but not always the focus.  It colours everything I write and informs the way I think people/communities work or don’t work.  In Canada, my way of thinking is often mistaken for Socialism, but it’s more of a potlatch way of thinking.  Wealth is there to support the clan and community.  People who don’t support their communities aren’t invited to the good parties and don’t get the good names and other people actively slag them. 

GB: You have spoken before about the influence of Haisla traditions upon your work, can you talk a little about that?

ER: We’re a traditionally oral culture and I grew up hearing stories all the time in every situation.  You get a feel for stories --the stories that are there to make someone look good or pass on history or teach a lesson.  Every story teller has a cadence, and an underlying agenda which they are better or worse at disguising.  I took our sensibilities into writing, and can sometimes find myself adopting the voices I’ve grown up hearing and it’s on me to remember in as great detail as I can what I’ve witnessed.  In the beginning of my career, I felt a deep and heavy burden that I was representing my culture and my people, but that has lightened a lot now that I’m older and there are a lot more First Nations writers representing our cultures in many ways. 

GB: Your first book, Traplines (3 stories and a novella), focused on the lives of young people in Vancouver's downtown east side whereas your novel, Monkey Beach, was set in Kitimaat Village. How do you think the different locations affected the work? Was it hard to write about your home place?

ER: Oh, writing about home is awkward.  Horribly, horribly awkward.  And the temptation to gloss over things is enormous.  Especially when your community is tightly-knit.  But I also saw that no one was writing about the people I cared about.  No one was writing about them as ordinary people.  When we aren’t being ignored, we’re portrayed as grim victims everyone must pity.  So I tried to paint my characters with as much life and truth as I could muster. 

  Writing about Vancouver turned out to be much easier.  Early on, one of my US publishers wanted me to set a story in Seattle instead, but I wasn’t familiar with Seattle.  I didn’t realize I was so attached to Vancouver until I was asked to abandon it to make my novel friendly for an American audience but the story unglued in its new home.  I didn’t change the setting in the end, and it taught me the power of place. 

GB: Both Monkey Beach and your follow-up novel, Blood Sports, returned to characters from Traplines, why did you feel compelled to revisit these lives?

ER: I become enmeshed with my characters and want to give them better endings.  So I keep writing stories and give them amazing, happy endings, and then put those away and write down what would happen in reality.  It’s a compulsion.  If I could stop at the happy ending stuff, I think I wouldn’t have such a grim reputation in the Canadian literary world. 

GB: Your agent, Denise Bukowski, once said that you have two different styles in you – “one aboriginal, the other raceless.” How reasonable do you think that is?

ER: Ha, yes, she does say that.  Well, I had a big fascination with serial killers at the beginning of my career (I was very Goth) and I never really named their race and some people assumed they were native and other people, that they were white.  I’m over serial killers now.  Part of that is because they’re so overdone.  Part of it’s because, really, their motivations are so banal.  Hulk angry.  Hulk smash. 

GB: How difficult was/is it for a First Nations writer to have their voice heard?

ER: It depends on if you’re resisting the narratives that Canada has for its First Nations.  There’s acceptable, accessible stories and then there are the stories that are, perhaps, more blunt than the reading public wants to hear.  Which is the same for a lot of the authors in Canada, but particularly true for First Nations.  Stories that challenge the narrative that Canada is polite and racially-blind and sympathetic to people of colour have a harder time finding a home.   

GB: You have written stories (one novella length), novels and book of non-fiction, The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling that originated from a lecture series. Within these books, the structure often seems to resist (in a positive way) the more conventional narrative structure. Is this a conscious process or something that emerges from the particular story being told?

ER: My non-linear, time-hoppy structures are completely chosen by the Ouija board in my head.  Each story has a different way it wants to be told and resisting the inherent structure of a story often kills its energy.   

GB: Has your understanding of “story” changed over the years?

ER: Each novel, each story is a snapshot of the person I was when I wrote that particular piece.  I read my old books and I remember the person who wrote that and realize how my thinking has changed and how it hasn’t.  I could never write any of those books anymore.  I could only write them that particular way at that particular time.  I remember the struggles of each book because I banged my head against them for so long.  I had so much I wanted to cram into my first novel, and now that I look back on it, it could have been trimmed.  I now see where the threads start to wander and how that effects the pacing.  I see the peaks and valleys.  My concept of structure and how the bits work together has gelled.  The stories I’m interested in have changed as I’ve changed.  I’ve just started working on novels with multiple points of view and it’s very frustrating.  I’m used to being in a single head for an entire story.  The technical challenges are easy compared to deciding what you want to say and who you want to say it.

GB: Are you working on any particular project at the moment?

ER: I’m in the final editing stages of Son of a Trickster, a novel.   It was turning into a brick so split it in half and am writing the first draft of the second novel, Trickster Drift while I wait for my editor to get back to me.   The Trickster Wee’git goes to the All Native Basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, falls in love with a girl and transforms into her crush to woo her into bed.  He knocks her up and the novels are about their son and his journey to reconcile the supernatural world where he is the son of a demi-god and the mundane one where he is an assistant manager at Dairy Queen. 

GB: Any advice for a writer starting out?

ER: Writing is not a spectator sport.  Talking a good game isn’t going to get it done.  Get your ass in the chair and write.  If the blank page intimidates you, play some computer games until the fear dies down and then write.  Some writers meditate.  Some writers walk.  Some listen to music.  Some do writing exercises.  Once you push past the fear, writing is such a rush.  When it’s going well, you are a God.  Then you wake up the next morning and go ‘what the hell did I write?’  But that is why we have editors and first readers.  Ignore your dreck.  Just because you wrote something awful doesn’t mean you’re an awful writer.  You’re learning.  It’s part of the process.  Write.  Write some more.  Keep writing.