“I was born on the same day as Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton: January 19. I am absolutely certain that this affects my writing in some way.”
One of Eden Robinson’s biggest literary influences has been Stephen King, whose books she read compulsively between the ages of ten and fourteen, when she started writing her own stories. “I was a bookworm, right from the beginning. When I got bored of classes, I’d skip them and go to the library.” Later, studying creative writing at the University of Victoria, Eden says she flunked in fiction and blossomed in poetry. “My first-year poetry professor was Robin Skelton. He was a bit late for class and showed up wearing a pentagram ring. I thought –hey, cool.”
As a young writer, Eden Robinson shares some literary territory with the likes of Michelle Berry, Michael Turner, Evelyn Lau and Andrew Pyper, none of whom shirks from portraying the bleaker sides of growing up in the seventies and eighties. As a Native Canadian writer, Robinson joins the ranks of novelists Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Richard Wagamese and Lee Maracle, non-fiction author and poet Gregory Scofield, and playwrights Daniel David Moses and Drew Hayden Taylor in describing Native traditions and modern realities with beautiful, honest language and biting black humour.
Robinson grew up with her older brother and younger sister (CBC-TV anchor Carla Robinson) in Haisla territory near Kitamaat Village, surrounded by the forests and mountains of the central coast of British Columbia. They were children of a mixed marriage–her Haisla father met her Heiltsuk mother during a stop in Bella Bella in his fishing days. Kitamaat, a Tsimshian word meaning “people of the falling snow,” (and not to be confused with nearby Kitimat town), is home to seven hundred members of the Haisla nation, with another eight hundred or so living off-reserve.
After earning her B.A., Eden Robinson moved to Vancouver to look for work that would allow her to spend time writing. A late-night writer, she ended up taking “a lot of McJobs” –janitor, mail clerk, napkin ironer. She decided to enter the masters program at the University of British Columbia after having a short story published in its literary magazine PRISM international. Traplines was the young woman's first book, a collection of dark and brutal stories that feature a deadpan, gritty humour. While Eden was finishing work on the book, her paternal grandmother died; Eden feels the knowledge of real grief affected her writing. The book was published in 1996 and won the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize.
Eden holed herself up in her Vancouver apartment to write Monkey Beach. Though she had written a novella before (Traplines is composed of just four stories, one over 100 pages long), Eden had to work hard at the structuring of her first novel. The result is compelling and complex; The Washington Post called it “artfully constructed,” the National Post deemed it “intricately patterned.” Critics in the US, the UK and Canada were unanimous in their appreciation of the book.
Eden Robinson has become one of Canada’s first female Native writers to gain international attention, making her an important role model. Monkey Beach evinces a love of her culture – Robinson maintains that if you don’t grow up on Oolichan grease, you’re not going to learn to love it, never mind make it; and if you grow up on supermarket vegetables, you’re not going to learn when and where to find salmonberry shoots. She has used her celebrity to draw attention in Time magazine to the Canadian government’s chipping away at Native health care, and to the lack of subsidized housing for urban Natives. This limited housing leads to overcrowding on reserves, where there is little access to jobs. Robinson argues that Natives forfeited rights and land for just these types of government services. Eden Robinson has been a Writer-in-Residence at the Whitehorse Public Library, and will be working with the Writers in Electronic Residence program, which links schools across the country with professional writers. She enjoys travelling, and supported herself with travel writing in Europe before the publication of Monkey Beach.