You can go home again: Eden Robinson, Haisla novelist
September 22nd, 2012
The gritty urban world of Eden Robinson’s new novel Blood Sports (M&S), treatment set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, doctor is far removed from the Haisla village of Kitamaat (pop. 700), the setting for her first novel Monkey Beach (Knopf, 2000). But whether Robinson is depicting inner city grime or the eerie beauty of a remote inlet, her characters all find themselves drawn into a death-grip struggle for emotional and physical security. Vickie Jensen visited Eden Robinson in Kitamaat and she sends this report:
Three years ago Eden Robinson moved back to the Haisla reservation in order to live with her parents in their quiet home that looks out onto the upper reaches of the Douglas Channel. Framed photographs of Eden and her sister Carla, the first Aboriginal anchorwoman for CBC TV news, are prominently displayed everywhere. Her father Johnny Robinson suffers from Parkinson’s and it looked like the disease was advancing rapidly. Fortunately most of his symptoms turned out to be side effects from medication.
After two months back on the rez, Robinson realized that she really didn’t know her parents as adults and staying on in the village was an opportunity to remedy that. “My folks both have a lot of things they want to share,” she says, “although I don’t think they want to see them published!”
Coming home was the sixth move in the last three years for Robinson, who’s still unpacking boxes and recovering from the success of her first two books. Published in five countries, her short story collection Traplines (Knopf, 1996) won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best first work of fiction in the Commonwealth and was featured as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Monkey Beach won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award.
After years of city living, travelling, touring, and working as writer in residence, Robinson says the transition to life on the rez was a huge culture shock. “I didn’t realize how much of an urban Indian I was. I am so bad at bush living! People think I must be Lisa in Monkey Beach—they forget that I made her up. I’m completely incompetent at living off the land. The characters in Monkey Beach are modeled after a number of my cousins who are really into it. I’d starve!”
Robinson contends there are different types of intelligence. “Me, I’m smart with books, but I’m really dumb if I try to start a boat or set up a tent. The first time I went to the Kitlope as part of a Haisla Rediscovery Camp, I brought my hair dryer. Someone asked me where I thought I was going to plug it in and I told them I figured if I could bring my laptop, I could bring a hair dryer.” Robinson’s laughter spills out as regular punctuation to her thoughts. “Of course, after three days, my laptop packed it in because the batteries ran out but by then we were so busy going places, collecting food and scouting archaeological sites that by 6 p.m. I was in my tent snoring! I think that was the first time in my life that I didn’t use conditioner. We bathed in a glacier-fed river, so I just rinsed the soap out of my hair as fast as I could!”
Around the village, the elders know Eden as Vicki Lena Robinson. “I was named after a cousin who choked to death in her crib on a bottle,” she explains. “Unfortunately there were five other Vickis in the village at that time, and I got tagged with Big Vicki. Little Vicki didn’t like her name much either,” she laughs. “So, I always thought that someday I’d change my name to something like Rebecca or Anastasia. Anyway, my first year of college I was telling that to someone who said, ‘Oh, you’ll never change your name.’ And I decided, ‘Yes, I will. I’m… Eden Robinson.’ I don’t know where that name came from! That was 20 years ago now—it was part of a mental switch, of seeing myself differently. I wasn’t ‘Big Vicki’ any more.”
Asked how she learned so much about the world of pimps, prostitutes and drugs for her new novel, Blood Sports, she says, “I used to live in East Vancouver. I’m part of the arts community and we always need to seek out the cheapest rent possible!” More seriously, Robinson says she knows a lot of people who live in the downtown core or work in rehab clinics. “It’s a severely different mindset, an environment where addictions are the norm. In some parts of Vancouver, people regularly discuss stock portfolios—there people talk about treatments or fixes.”
Robinson’s education also spans two worlds. After wrestling with a no talent assessment at the University of Victoria, she went on to complete a Masters in Creative Writing at UBC (where Monkey Beach served as her Masters thesis), but she also values her Beaver Clan heritage and the Haisla storytelling tradition. “I’m trying to learn Haisla,” she says, “word by painful word. But I have a tin ear. Dad’s always amused by my attempts.”
While Eden Robinson is the first Haisla novelist, her uncle Gordon Robinson, author of the non-fiction Tales of the Kitamaat in 1956, was the first Haisla writer to be published. “I think I’m the only full-time writer in the village now although others on the reserve are getting interested, especially when they hear tales of six-figure advances! But most don’t really know what writing for a living is all about. There’s no basis for understanding. They just think it’s like what they see in the movies—you finish the book, you hand it in, it gets published and you get a big cheque. I try to explain about the long hours writing, the edits and the copy edits. Or that making money at writing is so sporadic. People do understand if I compare it to seasonal fishing. But they don’t understand that writing is usually just me on my ass in the basement, glued to the computer for hours on end.”
Recently a battery of tests confirmed Robinson suffers from celiac disease, an intolerance to gluten that has sapped her energy, left her prone to depression and caused constant gastrointestinal pain. “I didn’t think it was celiac disease because all the people I know who have it are really skinny,” she says, “but it doesn’t work that way for me. It’s hard to explain this level of constant fatigue to healthy people. Here my aunties aren’t in the best of health so we can share colonoscopy stories. There’s a real openness about medical conditions.”
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, Robinson adopted a strict wheat and gluten-free diet. Sticking to the diet when she’s on the road or when she attends any of the local feasts or parties is a challenge since most of the foods served are wheat-based, but now she packs her own snacks and reads labels. The discipline is paying off—much of the pain is gone and she can already feel her energy level shifting.
“This is a good time in my life to just be,” she says, “to get my life, my finances and my own health in order. I have a low energy level because of my illness, but each day there’s a certain time period when I can go to town on the writing; if I miss that, it’s a shot day. So when I write, I hermit. 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.”
If writing is what makes Eden Robinson happiest, she’s also the first to say that it’s often a struggle. “Some people have tremendous control over their novels. I don’t seem to be one of them.” Robinson was working on a different novel when Blood Sports took over. It grew out of her novella “Contact Sports,” a story in Traplines that took her ten years to complete, and 34 drafts. “It was my apprenticeship,” she says. “Everything I needed to write Monkey Beach I learned in that novella— switching time periods, changing voice, structure of the story.”
For Blood Sports, Robinson revisits her original cast of characters from “Contact Sports”, five years later in their lives. The tangled web of addiction, revenge and human relationships in Blood Sports is stark and violent. Tom Bauer, now in his early 20s, has fathered baby Melody with fellow ex-junkie Paulina, but he comes home from work to find that Paulina and the baby have disappeared. At the same time his controlling, abusive cousin Jeremy has come back to haunt his life.
“I expected Blood Sports to go in a very different direction. I had plots, plans, but the characters evolved in a way I hadn’t outlined. Originally I was picturing something lighter, maybe superficial or glib,” Robinson says, “so my characters were really safe in the first couple of drafts. Then I started torturing them. I really didn’t have a choice. When my characters solidify themselves, they pretty well take over.”
The main character in Blood Sports has an 11-month-old daughter. “I don’t know where she came from!” she says, “And I never planned for the main character to have a mental breakdown.” The brutal parts were hardest to write. “I’m really squeamish so the violence was really a surprise.” Even so, the book is not as dark as some earlier versions of the manuscript. “I went back and cut the torture scenes to one or two and the deaths went from eleven to four.”
The traditional storytellers from her village have advised Robinson to stick to the storyline but it hasn’t been easy to follow their advice. “In Monkey Beach they wanted to know definitely, did Lisa’s brother live or did he die? I tried to explain that I deliberately wandered off track with the story. We’ll see what they say about Blood Sports since it really goes all over the map.”
Robinson describes the new novel’s structure as “a little haywire.” Each of the different sections corresponds to the main character’s different mental states. Robinson says the book will work best for people who like puzzles and piecing things together. “I wanted this new book to be a straightforward mystery but it fell flat when I tried to make it a traditional narrative,” she says.
Whereas she thinks Monkey Beach was fairly easy to market because readers were interested in northern life and native families, she feels she’s taking a chance with Blood Sports. “This new book did a lot of things I didn’t want it to do. It’s certainly more extreme, and the form is not incredibly commercial. I think it’s going to be a really tough sell. I’m just hoping it gets banned—that would be great for sales!”
Now with three notable books to her credit, Robinson is well aware that the business of writing demands two personalities from every author. “There’s the personality you need to write and the personality you need to promote. Without the hermit side, I wouldn’t get any book finished, but without the ham side, the book wouldn’t get published. “It took a lot of effort for me to be able to function in public, but I was pretty damned determined so I took voice lessons, acting lessons, desensitivity training, counselling—I worked my ass off to make it look like I was comfortable in front of an audience. Before, I was focused on how awkward I was, how shy. Once I could do small talk, it just opened up my world.”
Robinson describes herself as “a bit of a control freak” so learning to trust her instincts rather than trying to rigidly control everything was a huge leap of faith for her. “It’s a scary freedom,” she says. “I fought it for about two years and finally just started writing. Once I gave in, the book started to flow.”
Essay Date: 2006