This series of questions further elaborate on the key themes of the previous page. These questions may serve as models for students who are looking for good research and essay questions, or examples of the kinds of questions a teacher may ask on an exam.

Haisla Culture

  1. Culture and Representation: In Close, very close, a b’gwus howls: The Contingency of Execution in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, Rob Appleford discusses how Robinson deliberately obscures elements of Haisla culture in Monkey Beach. Appleford argues that Robinson writes against the possibility her novel would be read as a transparent document of Haisla community:

    While the Haisla beliefs deployed in the text can be seen as helping to articulate a non-Othering indigenous subject position, they also can be seen as problematizing any attempt to understand the novel as an exercise in atavistic “neo-traditionalism.” (97)

    The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols and Modern Storytelling by Eden Robinson

    The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols and Modern Storytelling by Eden Robinson. University of Alberta Press

    Appleford reads Lisa’s ambiguous connection to the b’gwus as an example of “less an orientation toward than a profound alienation from what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be the truly ‘authentic’ and conceptually coherent Haisla culture” (99).

    What can we make of Appleford’s reading, in light of Robinson herself explaining that she omitted clan stories and certain aspects of Haisla culture from her novel because of “Haisla copyright” (Sasquatch 31)? What ethical issues might arise for writers seeking to represent Indigenous cultures for a wide audience? Does it matter whether or not an author is part of the community they are writing about? Explain.

  2. Cultural Specificity: In Indigeneity and Diversity in Eden Robinson’s Work, Kit Dobson responds to Appleford’s article and other critical readings of Monkey Beach. Like Appleford, Dobson also engages with Robinson’s decision to obscure elements of Indigeneity in Monkey Beach, but Dobson considers this in the context of the Canadian book market. He argues that Robinson’s deliberate omissions of the details of Haisla life cause the novel to lose its cultural specificity. This refers to the characteristics that could identify Monkey Beach as an overtly Haisla text. As a result, Monkey Beach can be marketed and taught to readers as a quintessentially Canadian work. Dobson worries that this seemingly universal quality opens up Robinson’s work for easier co-option into the canon of Canadian literature. Dobson’s argument stems from critiques of Canadian multicultural policy by scholars such as Smaro Kamboureli. In her influential study of diasporic literature, Scandalous Bodies, Kamboureli argues,

    The Multiculturalism Act … recognizes the cultural diversity that constitutes Canada, but it does so by practising a sedative politics, a politics that attempts to recognize ethnic differences, but only in a contained fashion, in order to manage them. It pays tribute to diversity and suggests ways of celebrating it, thus responding to the clarion call of ethnic communities for recognition. Yet it does so without disturbing the conventional articulation of the Canadian dominant society. (82)

    Dobson applies Kamboureli’s argument about the Multiculturalism Act to the way readers of Canadian literature receive Monkey Beach. If Monkey Beach is accepted into the Canadian literary canon, Dobson suggests her work may be appropriated as a celebration of diversity rather than a critique of Canada’s colonial history:

    if [Robinson] doesn’t maintain her cultural specificity, her absorption into the colonial nation-state may take place through the process of voiding the resistant ethics and aesthetics that such specificity might be said to represent. (56)

    Ultimately, Dobson calls for readers to be attentive to the “silences” in Robinson’s work to avoid making assumptions based on her position as a Haisla and Heiltsuk writer.

    Dobson treads a difficult line in considering the expectation that Indigenous authors make anti-colonial statements in their writing. These expectations tend to especially circulate around writers considered to be part of marginalized groups, such as Indigenous people, people of colour, women, and LGBTQ people. Why might this be the case? Why might this be problematic?

Mythology and Spirituality

  1. Pathologization: In the novel’s opening scene, Lisa wakes to hear crows, saying in Haisla, “La’es—Go down to the bottom of the ocean” (Monkey Beach 1). When she shares what she heard at the breakfast table, her mother responds, Clearly a sign, Lisa, … that you need Prozac (3). This is the first instance in the text where Lisa’s gifts are pathologized—treated as if they are a medical condition—by another character. What other ways of understanding Lisa’s supernatural encounters are presented in the novel? In what ways might Robinson be playing with stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and mysticism?

Setting and Environment

  1. Land and Tradition: Consider further the characters’ relationships to their surrounding environment. Do you think Robinson deconstructs or reinforces stereotypes about Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land? How is this related to the ways in which she juxtaposes depictions of modern Haisla life with older ways of living?
  2. Oolichans: In The Sasquatch at Home, Robinson details the importance of oolichan fish to the Haisla community, which is also explored in Monkey Beach. As Robinson explains, in recent years, industrial activity in the Kitlope area has threatened the oolichan population: “If the oolichans don’t return to our rivers, we lose more than a species. We lose a connection with our history, a thread of tradition that ties us to this particular piece of the Earth, that ties our ancestors to our children” (23).Consider the ways in which the novel depicts the “outside” world encroaching on the Haisla community. Does Robinson challenge or reinforce the notion that Indigenous cultures are “vanishing?” How has Lisa’s community adjusted to changes in the surrounding environment? In what ways does Robinson portray cultural knowledge being passed down from generation, aside from the oolichan rituals?

Works Cited

  • Appleford, Rob. Close, very close, a b’gwus howls: The Contingency of Execution in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach. Canadian Literature 184 (2005): 85–101. Print. (PDF)
  • Dobson, Kit. Indigeneity and Diversity in Eden Robinson’s Work. Canadian Literature 201 (2009): 54–67. (PDF)
  • Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Knopf, 2000. Print.
  • Robinson, Eden. The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols and Modern Storytelling. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2011. Print. Henry Kreisel Lecture Ser.