Q&A: Eden Robinson on her latest novel Trickster Drift, dysfunctional family dramas and mixed identities
'I think hybridity is built-in and it's a part of our culture, makes us flexible'
Indigenous authors over the last three generations have been claiming an increasing amount of space within the Canadian literary realm, where they are able to represent themselves, their cultures and their stories.
Award-winning Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson (Monkey Beach, Blood Sports, Son of a Trickster) has just released the second novel in her Trickster trilogy and is in Toronto for the Toronto International Festival of Authors.
The Trickster trilogy follows Jared, the son of a Trickster and also a Witch, while he tries to navigate adolescent challenges with a dash of magic, horror and comedy.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Who do you write for?
A. My cousins. For the Trickster series, I was picturing my younger cousin in my head when I was writing. What would interest them? What kind of stories would they like to hear and what would I like to leave? I really love trickster stories and I wanted the trickster that I grew up to live in my fictional world.
Q. Many cultures have a trickster figure. I'm Anishinaabe we have Nanabush, so what does the trickster (wee'git) mean to you?
A. The wee'git stories that I grew up with just remind me of family. I come from a family of storytellers and they're all really good and I'm an OK storyteller. I love writing because you can edit to make yourself sound smarter or more put together. Because I'm not as strong with oral storytelling, I gravitated to writing as a way to sort of compensate for my lack of oral storytelling ability. I remember my dad loved telling wee'git stories because the trickster is a lot of fun.
Q. Where do you draw influence from when constructing your family dynamics?
A. A variety of sources. It's also a personal bend of mine; I like dysfunctional family dramas. Most of the families that I write have kind of skewed dynamic like Jared and his mother. They have a more peer-to-peer relationship, but she still is his mother. She's a third generation residential school survivor, so her all her coping mechanisms are geared toward a very hard world and she's trying to impart that knowledge on Jared to save him from some of the grief that she went through. But they butt heads about the way they see things. I wasn't expecting her to be a regular character in the books, but she kept coming back and I just loved their banter and those odd moments of tenderness because they really do want to be in each other's lives. They just don't know how to do it.
Q. Why do you bring spirits and different beings from your own culture into the present with your writing?
A. They're alive in our traditional stories but a lot of the younger generation is watching Riverdale and Game of Thrones so they're not seeing these characters in the modern time. I wanted to see what they would do if they were running around and do it in such a way that it would appeal to kids that hadn't necessarily grown up with the same stories.
Q. The first novel in the trilogy is Son of a Trickster, so why Trickster Drift as a title for the second? What is the drift?
A. The drift part is the he's sliding into a world that he was trying to avoid. He's not going to willingly accept his inheritance. He's the son of a trickster but he's also the son of a witch, a very powerful witch. So the kind of supernatural being that Jared ends up being at the end of the series is very different from his father and his mother. But he has to find his own path because he's not like anything else that has come before. The role that he's playing, which tricksters have always played, he's a bridge between humans and the supernatural. When his parents' marriage fell apart, he was often the caretaker for both of them.
Q. Do you think that kind of hybridity you're bringing out speaks to the way that some Indigenous people with mixed identities feel?
A. Very much so. I think there was a mythical world where we were all pure Haisla or all pure Heiltsuk. We were always intermarrying. It wasn't just Haisla. It was Haisla-Nisga'a or Haisla-Tahltan. We were never one thing and one thing only. We always had multiple personalities and multiple connections. So I think hybridity is built-in and it's a part of our culture, makes us flexible and we can adapt to modern times far easier then we're seen to. In most of the representations by non-Indigenous people we're torn between the traditional and the modern and that's never a place we really inhabited. All cultures are fluid. I love those places where everything starts to mix and one set of minds bumps into another set of minds.
Q. How do you navigate the Canadian literary realm as an Indigenous author?
A. Mostly I ignore it until I absolutely have to go into it. I've been publishing for 26 years now and when I was first starting my career, I heard a lot about what I should be writing and the way I should be writing. I think most writers do and as I got older that seemed to matter less to me.
Q. Do you think there is more space for Indigenous authors to share their own stories than there was 20 years ago?
A. There's more space. There's also more of an audience, for Indigenous writers telling Indigenous stories and even Indigenous writers writing stories that aren't particularly specifically Indigenous. At the beginning of my career, I was expected to be an expert on everything Indigenous and I kept saying that's not really my role. With the rise of the new generations of writers that have come after me there's less expectation that one Indigenous author will represent all of Indigenous writing and there is more acceptance for a broader scope.
Q. What is encouraging about seeing Indigenous authors become more visible?
A. It's really wonderful with the emerging writers coming out now because they're versed in social media. We're three generations in with our writers. We've reached a sort of tipping point where we have a very large diverse Indigenous writing community. Things are still a little dark politically, but what gives me hope is these amazing young writers who are just fearless about speaking truth to power. They don't have the same sort of inhibitions that I had at their age. I'm looking forward to reading the things that they come out, like their novels, their hybrid poetry and their screenplays. It's an incredibly exciting time. It's wonderful that I can't keep up with all the Indigenous writers that are coming out now.
Eden Robinson will be in conversation with Cherie Dimaline about Trickster Drift on Oct. 24 at the Studio Theatre of Harbourfront Centre for the Toronto International Festival of Authors.