Ask anyone who has interviewed her or heard her interviewed, gone to one of her readings, met her even in passing: author Eden Robinson has the best laugh in the business. Unbridled, loud, contagious. And on this particular Sunday afternoon, even as we discuss all kinds of non-laughing matters, it is ringing through the observation area at Vancouver International Airport. Robinson is here on a stopover. Home is Kitamaat Village, the primary residence for the Haisla Nation, just south of Kitimat, B.C. Her destination is Toronto, where this week she launched Son of a Trickster. There's a lot to discuss over our airport food-court coffee, which Robinson takes black. "Nothing comes between me and my caffeine," she says with a laugh.
The novel is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the spring literary season. Robinson's first novel in more than a decade, Son of a Trickster is the start of a new trilogy by the award-winning Haisla and Heiltsuk novelist, one of the foremost chroniclers of contemporary indigenous-Canadian life.
Set primarily in Kitimat, the novel paints a fairly bleak – if often funny and poignant – picture of the First Nations experience in British Columbia's north. Its characters are deeply damaged by the legacy of residential schools but fierce in their resistance to the pain. They're also dealing with the fallout of the economic bust, including mass layoffs in Kitimat. (In 2010, more than 500 people lost their jobs when the Eurocan paper mill shut down.)
Further, Robinson is launching the novel into a charged atmosphere. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is beginning, while truth and reconciliation remains top of mind as the country marks its sesquicentennial. Meanwhile, Canadian literary circles are still discussing the questions surrounding Joseph Boyden's indigenous heritage. Lower down the list of recent CanLit controversies is the treatment of fiction at the Walrus, an issue that came to a head over demands to water down Robinson's story Nanas I Have Loved – the first chapter of Son of a Trickster.
Last year, Nick Mount, the respected fiction editor of The Walrus, parted ways with the magazine, citing concerns about the magazine cracking down on the use of obscenities. At the request of editors, Robinson and Mount did two edits to remove curse words. When the magazine asked for a third edit, requesting alternatives for words such as "orgasm" and "crap," Mount resigned and Robinson pulled the story altogether.
"I was willing to soften it and then it just kept going and going," she says. "I'm willing to go soft, but I'm not willing to go that soft."
The tiny heart tattoo at the centre of Eden Robinson's chest is a remnant from her Goth days; it was supposed to be part of a much larger, more elaborate neck tattoo, but after 10 minutes in the tattoo parlour she was done, she says. The purple hair and spider earrings are long gone.
Robinson, 49, grew up in Kitamaat Village and attended school in town. She did her undergrad in creative writing at the University of Victoria and her MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her first novel, Monkey Beach, was short-listed for both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award.
Not that you'll learn any of that from the biographical note at the back of her book. It reads, in part: "Her two previous novels, Monkey Beach and Blood Sports, were written before she discovered she was gluten-intolerant and tend to be quite grim, the latter being especially gruesome because, halfway through writing the manuscript, Robinson gave up a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and the more she suffered, the more her characters suffered. Son of a Trickster was written under the influence of pan-fried tofu and nutritional yeast, which may explain things but probably doesn't."
All true, Robinson confirms, munching on (overly salted) edamame.
"I did not think that would make it in there. I was feeling really goofy that day." That laugh again.
Also pertinent to the lighter tone of Son of a Trickster: She wrote Monkey Beach and Blood Sports between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., while Trickster was written primarily between 4 and 5 a.m. She would then move into marking (she works as an adjunct professor) before heading over to her parents' home, a couple of blocks away, to help care for her father, who is in the beginning of advanced Parkinson's disease.
That kind of schedule might plunge the best of us into the darkest of moods, but not Robinson. She has energy she did not before, now that she's gluten-free. And since hitting menopause, the cyclical depression she has dealt with for years appears to be reversing.
Her memory, on the other hand, is failing. "Sometimes, I feel like Dory," she says, referring to the forgetful fish from the films Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. "It changed all the strategies for writing because I had a beautiful memory; I could hold my entire novel in my head, I could edit in my head. And now I'm the queen of Post-Its."
Son of a Trickster's central character is Jared, a high-school student who sells weed cookies. His parents have split in a bitter divorce. He lives with his mother, who swears liberally, drinks heavily and helps her live-in boyfriend deal drugs. His father, a Eurocan casualty, is living in Terrace, B.C., hooked on prescription meds, and can't keep up with his bills. His new wife is an alcoholic. Her young daughter is pregnant.
Jared is embraced by one grandmother, rejected by the other. As the novel progresses, we learn the mean, maternal granny has been through a horrific residential-school experience.
The novel is populated with First Nations characters trying to drink, smoke, drug and junk-food the pain away, passing on the habits to the next generation. One chapter is called "KFC & Beer Solve Everything." A sample line from another: "His mom brought a Hungry-Man TV dinner to his bedroom. Hot turkey, his favourite. She smoked while he ate."
I ask her if she's concerned that that portrayal of this kind of lifestyle plays into negative stereotypes of First Nations.
"Yes, but I didn't want to let it limit the story I wanted to tell. … I wanted to deal with people who were dealing with their addictions in a way that made them human. If it plays into someone's stereotypes, they were going to think that anyways."
She adds that things have changed in fiction writing about the First Nations experience. (Her first book, the short-story collection Traplines, came out in 1996, to rave reviews.)
"What I like about the giant, developing pool of indigenous authors is that I don't feel the responsibility on my shoulders to be the person carrying the good representations around," Robinson says. "When I was writing Monkey Beach, I didn't see a lot of representations that were positive. And now, there's so many other authors writing that I don't feel as much pressure. … So thank you to all the serious indigenous authors writing positive indigenous role models." She laughs.
In 2014, Robinson wrote an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail about the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (an insult, she said). She began by stating, "I don't speak for anyone but myself. … Although I don't profess to be the voice of my people, I can offer a few insights."
These words could easily apply to our discussion about Joseph Boyden, someone she calls an acquaintance.
The Boyden controversy stems from an APTN report that questioned the celebrated Canadian author's indigenous heritage. It became a huge preoccupation for Canlit, although Robinson reports that it barely registered in Kitamaat Village. ("Even if I wanted to talk about it, they'd be going, 'Who's Joseph Boyden?'" she says.)
She herself was dealing with a number of family crises as the issue was erupting over the holidays, but caught up later through social media.
"It was interesting to see the two completely different streams of conversations that were going on. One was, you're being mean to Joseph Boyden. And the other was, it's our right to decide who is and isn't in our community. And the indigenous-identity issues have been ongoing for many, many years. So it's not so much identity politics as it is we're trying to come to terms with the Sixties Scoop, who is and who isn't Métis, the horrible record-keeping. So I'm still processing it.
"What I took away from it was that we really don't want a singular spokesperson for 600 different nations. That's what we don't want."
Robinson tells a story about speaking at an event at the University of Northern British Columbia, where she was doing research on the Highway of Tears. She was next to speak when an elder explained that the person going after her was the sister of a missing woman who would discuss how it had affected her family.
"And I finally realized what she was saying was: Keep your talk short," she says with another laugh. "So after that I was like, okay, I think the voice that we need to hear in this is from the families. That's what I got out of it. So I can help tell the stories but I shouldn't be the focus of the stories. There are a lot of articulate family members and I think they're the ones who should be spotlighted. So I don't even think it's me that should be speaking. I don't think it should be Joseph that's speaking. I think it should be the families."
Robinson explains that there are different expectations placed on indigenous authors – by people in the community, family and the reading public.
"You're given a lot more credibility but you're also given a lot more responsibility. Whereas if you're a non-indigenous person writing indigenous characters, you're not taken to task the way an indigenous author is, but you're not given as much credibility. And Joseph Boyden was skating between those two. … But when everyone's yelling at you and you can't do anything right, or can't say anything right, that's the aboriginal experience. Welcome to our world." She laughs.
Robinson expresses the same concern regarding speaking about the legacy of residential schools, another issue dealt with in the novel. She is part of the first generation after the tragedy, and is a couple of years from having gone through the system herself. Her father went to day school and her mother through residential schools in Port Alberni and Alert Bay. She is trying to learn Haisla – there are fewer than 100 fluent speakers left – and her mother is also trying to teach her Heiltsuk. Her parents taught her neither as a child.
"Out of the whole thing, I speak flawless English and when I'm trying to learn Haisla, I'm speaking it with a very white accent," she says. "It had been drilled into them that speaking English with a native accent would lead you to bad jobs. So if you wanted a good future for your kids, you taught them to speak English and only English."
But there's not much time to save an endangered language when people are busy trying to get by in hard times.
"When we had the boom, everyone was out in the camps. Now that we're in the downturn, everyone's left for work. People my age who would be learning Haisla are struggling in the work world. That's taking second place to bills and food."
At the same time, those who are able to teach it are getting on. "The elders are my dad's age. He's very patient with me, but when he gets tired of hearing me mangle Haisla, he pops out his hearing aids." She laughs.
But he tells her: "Girl, you're doing good. Keep going."