This is another excellent example of magic realist writing by a member of the North American native peoples. In this case the writer is from the Canadian Haisla people who live in British Columbia. Monkey Beach is full of the detail of the Haisla life, which is a significant part of its appeal. The book, like its heroine, at once embraces elements of Haisla tradition and mysticism and at the same time faces the hard realities of life. Not least of those realities is the legacy of abuse experienced by Lisa's uncle and aunt in the residential schools that a generation of Haisla children were forced into. One of the aspects of the book which I admired was the way Eden Robinson did not overplay this, relying instead on the reader's intelligence to work out what happened to Mick and how that was still impacting on him and his behaviour.
It is generally accepted that an important element in magic realism is the portrayal of a world in which the spiritual life of an indigenous people comes up against the dominant rationalist beliefs of the colonizer. But, as I have noted elsewhere in this blog, there is also a role for magic realism in the portrayal of psychology. It seemed to me when I read this book that the magic realism here was as much about Lisa's psychology as a cultural clash. Lisa is a feisty teenager with a tendency to confront rather than flee. But when it comes to the "gift" of foresight, she tries to ignore it. When something terrible is going to happen she is visited by a little red-headed man. I was reminded of Graham Joyce's Toothfairy when I read about Lisa's visitor. Lisa's resistance results in a crisis when she blames herself for her grandmother's death and she runs away from the ancestral homeland to the big city, where she sinks into a cycle of hedonism and self abuse. Eventually saved by the ghost (?) of her cousin, she returns home and in so doing starts to rediscover herself, seeing a Sasquatch on the road:I felt deeply comforted knowing that magical things were still living in the world.
The monkeys in the title are the legendary Sasquatch or bigfoot, who appear throughout the book, but always in our peripheral vision. Robinson's writing in some ways is more "realist" than in other novels I have read tackling similar subjects. At times the magic is so vague as to make it unclear whether it is not just a dream or Lisa's imagination. Lisa herself is unclear. I liked this ambiguity and felt it to be an accurate portrayal of real-life magic.
The book is told in a series of flashbacks. These are at times confusing, but so they should be - we are inside Lisa's head as she travels not only to a real location but also to a legendary one. Her journey is a mystical one, she is travelling to the land of the Sasquatch, to the land of ghosts and the dead. As she nears her destination the tone and style of the writing changes. Some people might find the shift somewhat abrupt and thus might find the ending unsatisfactory. I didn't, though I could also have done with more knowledge about the beliefs and customs which lie under the text, as I felt I was missing out on some things which are significant.
The novel was first published in 2000 and now has been digitized and published by Open Road Media as an ebook along with two other books by the same author. I received my copy from the publisher in return for a fair review.
The Haisla measure of intelligence is slightly different from that of mainstream culture. Three main indicators are an ability to trace your family roots back to mythic times, not having to be told twice and being able to replicate an action after being shown how to do it. By most Haisla measurements, I am “special.” I can vaguely remember my immediate family and get fuzzy on the stories. Anyone who has taught me (or tried to teach me) Haisla knows you can tell me twenty or so times and I might remember a word or phrase. I have a vague idea of how to live a traditional life but would probably starve if I had to catch and cure my own fish and berries.
I enjoyed school because it was the first place where people considered me smart. I was much better at remembering things that were written down and in learning from books. After high school, I went to the University of Victoria for my Bachelor of Fine Arts and then immediately began grad school at the University of British Columbia for my Master of Fine Arts. I began writing my first novel as my thesis, and then switched to a collection of short stories so that I could use my novel as a grant application for the now defunct Explorations Program. My thesis became my first short story collection and I immediately began writing my novel, a coming-of-age story set in on the northwest coast.
I ran into problems early. First, the main character was a young woman named Karaoke, about whom I’d written in a short story in the collection called “Queen of the North.” Karaoke was traumatized by the events of the short story and lay flat on the page. Next I dithered on whether or not to set the novel in Kitamaat Village or to emulate Margaret Laurence and make up a place. I’d kept Karaoke in the Village and it had been an uncomfortable experience. An entire novel seemed daunting. In the end though, the story lost its context and much of its zip when taken out of the Village so I decided to consult with my aunties on the stickier issues, like Haisla copyright.
I knew I couldn’t use any of the clan stories—these are owned by either individuals or families and require permission and a feast in order to be published. Informal stories that were in the public domain, such as stories told to teach children our nuyem, could be published—unless they had information people felt uncomfortable sharing with outsiders, such as spiritual or ceremonial content. I wanted a couple of scenes at a potlatch, but wasn’t sure what I’d have to do to have it included in the novel. A cousin of mine said although most traditional people were uncomfortable talking about the potlatch itself, what the people were doing or saying while the potlatch was going on was a different story. It turned out better for the story because I’d had three exposition-heavy pages that were reduced to a quick transitional paragraph, while the tensions between family members and the children playing around them, oblivious, came to the forefront.
In these early stages of writing Monkey Beach, I was invited to a Haisla Rediscovery Camp in the Kitlope Valley. The program sought to reconnect Haisla youth with the traditional ways of learning. If I wrote a short piece, I could participate in the program for free. I jumped at the opportunity of a working vacation that would help me nail the locations in the book. The Kitlope Valley is a remote, untouched watershed with glacier-fed rivers and high, bald mountains. The boat ride took three hours and I rode out with the elders and a dendrologist who was recording culturally modified trees. The camp included myself, some researchers, elders, camp cooks and sixteen sixteen-year-old boys. We transferred into a jet boat at the mouth of the Kitlope River because the river was too shallow for the diesel seiner to go up.
In the mornings we split into small groups and travelled the territory, learning our stories and traditional ways of living. We’d gather wild rice on a mud flat or follow animal tracks or learn about the families that had lived here before depopulation from smallpox and flu epidemics forced them to move to the main reserve. In the evening, we did chores, ate dinner and then were supposed to gather around the lakeshore for cultural sharing around a campfire so that we could teach the others in the group what we had learned that day. The boys were keenly feeling the lack of television, and the batteries for their games and Walkmen had died, so most of their cultural sharing involved recreating scenes from the recently released Wayne’s World. By the end of two weeks, although I hadn’t seen the movie yet, I could recite most of the dialogue and plot points.
Excerpted with permission from The Sasquatch at Home by Eden Robinson. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2011.
Haisla/Heiltsuk novelist Eden Robinson is the author of a collection of short stories written when she was a Goth called Traplines, which won the Winifred Holtby Prize in the UK. 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 half-way through writing the manuscript, Robinson gave up a two-pack a day cigarette habit and the more she suffered, the more her characters suffered. Monkey Beach won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Son of a Trickster is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize. She recently won the Writers Trust Fellowship. The author lives in Kitimat, BC.
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