On the third day of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) we had a conversation with Eden Robinson about her latest book (Son of a Trickster), Wee’git storytelling and writing about socio-political issues.
Robinson is headlining the Last Lecture on Sunday May 7th at St. Paul’s United Church in Brampton. Her body of work mid-career won the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award in 2016. She also won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2001 for her book Monkey Beach, which was also shortlisted for The Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Traplines, her first book also won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998.
What part of Son of Trickster was your favorite to write?
The exchanges between Jared and his mother. Much like a Disney movie Mom, she was meant to disappear quickly so the protagonist can get in trouble with no one to rely on but themselves. But she kept popping up with zingers and their relationship became surprising tender amidst all the prickly moments when they were arguing. They had fantastic chemistry.
You mentioned in a previous interview that it wasn’t until Jared came to the page that the story you wanted to tell really gained momentum. Tell me a little bit about how the Wee’git’s story came through Jared’s character.
In the original short story, Wee’git had a ‘potlatch’ voice. He told his story as close as it’s possible to a Haisla tale in a formal potlatch cadence in English and it was wonderful but it petered out quickly. It refused to budge. My muse decided it didn’t want to go through an entire novel like that.
I moved on to Jared’s mother, who at that point wasn’t very fleshed out. She’s full of vinegar, so her story was full of fights and taunts leading up to fights.
I tried on a bunch of minor characters that never went anywhere. When the story dies that quickly, it’s usually a sign that I’m not using the right narrator. Then I was working on a short story about a young man who arrives in Vancouver on a Greyhound. It always haunted me, but I could never make it work. Once I transplanted him to the novel, named him Jared and set him loose in my fictional world, the writing started to flow.
What role did Kitamaat play in helping the story come to life?
Initially, none. About 300 pages into the first draft, I had one high school flashback scene where Jared was selling pot cookies to his classmates. Then it was two flashbacks, then three. To break up all the to and froing, I staggered the Kitamaat chapters between the present of the novel, and my first readers became confused about that section. The narrative slowed and people couldn’t tell what was happening where. So I tried a large flashback. When my editor came on board, she suggested a more linear structure, which meant the Kitamaat chapters came first. Once that happened, they expanded into the current novel, and the original opening of Son of a Trickster became the second novel, Trickster Drift.
What other projects and writing are you working on?
The second and third novels in the Trickster trilogy. A trashy band council romance. A set of linked short stories set in East Van about a traditional dance group that forms and falls apart. And a half-formed thing about a new virus that turns the human hosts who survive it into shapeshifters.
How do you feel that your political activism influences your work?
Hmm. Well, I grew up being forced to read a lot of novels with heavy moralization and a steady diet of spoonfeeding, so I want to write without being a hammer. The point is in there, but I’m not interested in telling you what to think. I’ll present the world and you bring your experiences to the table and hopefully we’ll mesh.
You’ve mentioned before, that being vocal about social justice issues seems unpatriotic to some. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
When you are dealing with people afraid of losing their jobs and you’re seen as an obstacle, you get called all kind of things, unpatriotic being the most benign. When my community was dealing with the possibility of the Northern Enbridge Gateway pipeline, it impacted our territory in every single way imaginable but we had no say in any aspect of building, running or monitoring it. Most of the focus of the mega-extraction projects is on their economic benefit with lip service to the environment. Most of the indigenous communities in Canada live in the remote places being extracted and we’re generally attached to the land of our ancestors. Generally. I didn’t see what was happening on the ground reflected anywhere else, so my job as a writer was to bring that reality to life and show it to the world.
What would you say to writers who may not see that much of themselves reflected in Canada’s Literary landscape and as a result aren’t sure about whether their book might be that important?
If you don’t see yourself in the literary landscape, then the landscape probably needs you more than anyone. I think fiction has a lot of competition and other mediums are doing a better job of adding diverse voices. Not a great job, but a better job. When Monkey Beach came out twenty years ago, I was worried about what my community would say about what I’d written–the spiritual and cultural aspects can be dicey–but I wasn’t expecting their joy in seeing the landscape and culture they loved in print. There’s a hunger for it.
What are you the most excited for at this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton? What do you hope that attendees take away from it?
I think we’re a fun group. When you’re tackling such serious, weighty issues, you might expect a lot of hand-wringing, but the writers that I’m familiar with who are coming to this year’s event find joy in everything. I’m looking forward to a lot of lively conversation and big belly laughs.