Ottawa Writers Festival: Hope blooms in Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster

Eden Robinson. Photo: Arthur Renwick

The first thing that strikes you about Eden Robinson is her laugh. It’s infectious, joyous and always ready to break out.

She seems to be a genuinely happy person and that sunny outlook shines through the hard times in her latest book Son of a Trickster. Even though the hero of the book, a teenager named Jared, is beset by life’s trials and tribulations, he still manages to survive with surprising optimism, forbearance and hope of better things to come.

The novel is the first in what will be a trilogy, Robinson says, as Jared makes his way through the chaos created by the Trickster known as Wee’git. The Trickster is a mythological figure in Indigenous cultures across North America.

“Union regulations state that if you are an Indigenous writer you have to write one Trickster story,” Robinson said with a chuckle.

“We have a society of very strict hierarchies. We have lots of rules, there are lots of things that were forbidden and the Trickster listened to none of them.

“He is always funny. He is our sacred fool.”

There are even rules around using Trickster stories. Some are in the possession of a chief and to have access to those, Robinson says, you have to either give the chief a gift or throw a potlatch. Also, in the hierarchies of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, some people can hold a potlatch ceremony and some can’t. Robinson can’t. Because of these constraints she is working with Trickster stories that are in the public domain.

Why a Trickster story now then?

“Stories come to you when you are ready for them. Originally I didn’t want to write a Trickster story because everyone does write them. I didn’t know what I could bring to them and then Jared came.”

Funny how characters can take over a story.

“I thought originally that it’s a Trickster story so I should write it from the Trickster’s point of view. That really didn’t work. I wrote about 20 pages and the Trickster’s voice didn’t work. It was kind of like writing from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes, not Doctor Watson. There was a little more arrogance than I was willing to spend the novel writing.

“Then I tried to write from Jared’s mother’s point of view and even in that incarnation she was pretty feisty. I was not writing a wrestling book.”

In the process of considering all these possible viewpoints, she finally decided that “maybe I should write the book from Jared’s point of view.

“I always have a bit of trial and error when I’m finding my narrators. When you find the right one it’s pretty simple. The writing takes off.”

And then the story’s location shifted. She originally had started the book in Vancouver.

“I was very haunted by a scene in which Jared arrives, alone, in Vancouver on a Greyhound bus.”

In very very early drafts, she says, the teenager was in Vancouver flashing back to his home in Kitimat, B.C.

“The flashbacks became overwhelming so I split it up. I realized I had to set the first section in Kitimat and that just expanded into a book.”

Now Jared’s story will be broken into three novels.

The book is a coming of age story as well as a Trickster tale. “It’s also a sobering up book. I’ve got a lot in here. There are little bits of lots of people that I have met. I have trouble fictionalizing real people. I need to create crazy characters who develop along lines that I did not expect.”

And because young Jared is one of the 535 children of Wee’git life can be tough for him, she says. Still he is a surprisingly happy, caring, good  guy. He’s a good neighbour. He keeps the sidewalks shovelled.

“He gives me hope. He is like a lot of good kids that I have seen who have come out of really shitty situations.”

After Robinson’s highly successful novel Monkey Beach was put on the curriculum in First Nations high schools, “I toured around North in support of it. I went to a lot of Indigenous communities and a lot of Indigenous High schools.

“I would do workshops for the 30 kids in the class. And they would just create these crazy characters and send them on crazy adventures. That’s where some of the energy of the Trickster came from.

“Once you unleashed these kids, they just went everywhere. I learned a lot about sexting, for example. It was the kind of energy and honesty I wanted in Son of the Trickster.”

These days Robinson lives two doors down from her parents in Kitimat.

“It’s like any small community everywhere. There are problems and there are amazing moments.

“The community comes through. And that’s part of how Jared becomes a good kid. There are people who  take care of him and whom he wants to take care of.”

There is a bigger message, she believes.

“When people are talking about “the Indian problem” and they say it’s too big and we can’t handle it … You have to have more hope than that. People are amazingly resilient.”

Fed up with waiting for change, Indigenous artists are just going ahead and and doing their own thing, she says.

“Some neat stuff is happening. Younger writers, millennial writers just come right out say they are fed up with the BS and that gives me hope.”

She knows that there is damage in First Nations communities caused especially by the residential schools experience. But here too, people are taking care of themselves.

“A lot of survivors have done the work of healing themselves, without a lot of support. The compensation good but throwing some money at something doesn’t the issues go away.

“Having met a lot of extraordinary people makes me want to get a little better.”

In a matrilineal society, such as is found in the Haisla First Nation, women are strong figures.

Jared’s mother might be example No. 1.

“She was supposed to be just a walk-on character. She wasn’t supposed to have a role except to explain why Jared was wandering around by himself.

“She was seduced by Wee’git and as a result is trapped in a lot of her pain. She has not processed any of it. She is in a state where she doesn’t believe needs help. She wants to be tough and on her own, but  mom and Jared started interacting on paper the relationship was a lot more tender than I was expecting.

“Despite the dysfunction she loves him. That was unexpected.

“I grew up around a lot of fierce women and so I have a fierce women as characters. I’m having trouble writing soft women. I am a gentle little lamb, unless you try to run a pipeline through my territory.”

Then the warrior comes out. Robinson spent more than a decade in the fight against the Northern Gateway pipeline that was to travel right past her First Nation.

“I learned a lot more about diluted bitumen oil than I ever wanted to know.”

Son of a Trickster has snagged Robinson another spot on the annual Giller Prize shortlist.

“This is a glorious, unplanned thing. It has a dark tone so the nomination was unexpected. When I made long list we had celebratory pancakes.”

And there was a family party for making the shortlist. If she wins maybe that potlatch will happen after all.

Son of a Trickster
Eden Robinson (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author is on a panel at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.