Monkey Beach: The Function of Flashbacks

Throughout Monkey Beach, author Eden Robinson effectively alternates passages transitioning between the present and flashbacks of Lisamarie’s life. It is through these flashbacks that Robinson is able to offer the reader a deep insight into Lisamarie’s childhood and upbringing. By placing these flashbacks in between passages of the present time, the reader is able to connect the past with present and understand how Lisamarie’s past relationships and her experiences in life shaped her thinking, personality and mindset in the present tense time frame. Through these techniques of flashback used by Robinson, it is also very apparent how large of a role time plays in moulding characters, especially that of Lisa.

By employing flashbacks, Robinson foreshadows significant portions of what happens to Lisamarie in the present tense time frame. In part two of the book, one of the flashbacks sees Lisa and Ma-ma-oo talking intensely about the little man that Lisa sees in her dreams. This is very significant because in this moment Ma-ma-oo acknowledges that Lisa has the ‘gift’. “Ah, you have the gift then. Just like your mother” (153) she says to Lisa quietly when asked about the Little Man she sees in her dreams. Discussing the topic more, Ma-ma-oo assures Lisa that those visions are real. The usage of flashbacks like these help the reader understand a lot more about Lisamarie and her mind. Early in the novel in the present tense time frame, we see Lisa dream about seeing Jimmy at Monkey beach. She thinks to herself, “I wish the dead would just come out and say what they mean instead if being so passive aggressive about the whole thing” (17). At this point in the novel we are not certain about what is it that she is talking about. Through the usage of the flashback of the conversation Lisa has with Ma-ma-oo, the reader gets a confirmation of their suspicions of Lisa’s gift and powers. It is also through this difference in the time gap between the flashback and the present time that the reader understands a depth of the character building and shaping up that has taken place.

It is now clear that Lisamarie, fully aware of the powers that she posses, uses them to talk to spirits and to take her closer to Jimmy. Another instance in when Robinson explores a flashback in Lisamarie’s life well into her teenage years that gives us more insight into her troubling state of mind. After a drugged-out night in East Vancouver, Lisamarie woke up to encounter an angry and disappointed looking Tab who goes on to try and feed some sense into Lisa’s head and to urge her to get her life together. Some point during this exchange, Lisa questions if the whole thing is just a hallucination. “…tossing the pack to her. It went right through her body. Startled, I watched as it hit the ground and bounced” (301). It is a mystery to the reader if this exchange is real or just another dream.

Such an episode is also very similar to the time when Lisamarie saw Jimmy standing on Monkey Beach and she questions its meaning. She thinks to herself, “I used to think that if I could talk to the spirit world I’d get some answers” (17). These flashbacks play the role of foreshadowing as they almost declare what is to happen ahead in Lisa’s life. Switching to the present tense time frame, towards the end of the novel, Lisa has another encounter with Ma-ma-oo where she warns Lisa that “[she] [has] come too far into this world. Go back” (372). This is a very ambiguous moment as it flirts in between reality and visions. The present-tense time frame here helps us understand better that the encounter with Tab in the flashback could have been of a similar kind.

Throughout the novel, Robinson switches from flashbacks to present times, not only to give the reader a deep look into Lisamarie’s upbringing and childhood, but to take the reader to a higher understanding of how the conversations, interactions and memories that Lisamarie had encountered over the years, have a deeper meaning and are closely related to her current state of mind in the present tense as she goes out in pursuit of Jimmy. This gives the reader a sense of how time has played a role in shaping up Lisamarie’s mindset and her thought processing as she encounters and interacts with the spirits.

The Power of Naming: Monkey Beach as Associational Literature

The novel Monkey Beach, written by Eden Robinson, can be called an example of what Thomas King has named “associational literature” (King p.14) because, even though the novel includes issues which are directly connected to the impact and repercussions of colonialism, it does not place the colonizer at the center of the story. Essentially it is not in reaction to the issues of colonization but is instead a construction of Aboriginal based reality. The novel is written using a traditional orature style which emphasizes an Aboriginal worldview instead of revolving itself around a “non-Native expectations concerning the glamour and /or horror of Native life”. ( King p.14) The first page of Monkey Beach opens with the crows speaking to Lisa “in Haisla”. (p.1) Nobody else in her family shares her shamanic abilities and her mother teases her about it being a “sign” that she needs “Prozac”. (p.3) This introduction represents the overarching and repeating issue that weaves throughout the entire novel: the difference between Native and non-Native realities. Robinson grounds the novel in the Native mindset first by using the traditional oral style of including information and teaching as part of the storytelling and second by using the Haisla language itself as an integral component of the narrative.

Lisa’s grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, represents traditional Haisla knowledge and culture.Following the Aboriginal worldview, shenot only acts as Lisa’s mentor throughout the novel but she rootsthe Native perspective into reality.Ma-ma-oo speaks the Haisla language, harvests the traditional foods, and teaches the old ways through her stories and actions.While Lisa and Ma-ma-oo are out digging up “Oxasuli, a powerful medicine [that]…protects you from ghost, spirits, [and] bad medicine” (p.151), she tells her granddaughter about the “tree spirit…a little man with red hair…[who would] lead medicine men to the best trees”. (p152)This is the same little man who has been visiting Lisa since she was a very young girl.This moment in the novel creates a space for the readers “reality” to shift from the non-Native to the Native perspective by allowing room for, and the possibility of, an alternative reality to the Eurocentric one.The contrasting and competing of realities becomes especially dramatic during the scene with the psychiatrist, Ms. Jenkins.Lisa is able to see “the thing…whispering in [Ms Jenkin’s] ear…its legs wrapped around her waist” (p. 273) and at the same time she gives Ms. Jenkins the “normal” answers, saying only what the doctor wants to hear.It becomes clear that the non-Native view can not”consider the issue of spirits and visions beyond allegory, symbol, or symptom”. (Castriciano p.805)Robinson uses the power of traditional knowledge to emphasize the reality of Lisamarie’s experiences. Rather than using these supernatural beings as a means to express repressed “collective trauma [and the] dark stain of colonialism” (Mrak), a psycho-analytical interpretation that David Gaertner calls “white noise of European culture” (p.47), she presents these creatures as real and in doing so maintains the reality of the Haisla culture itself.

In the traditional style of oral history and storytelling, Robinsonincorporates education as a main component of the novel and teaches the reader both directly and indirectly about Aboriginal knowledge, ceremony, and attitudes. She gives detailed informationabout where to find, and how to process, traditional foods such as qoalh’m, oolichan, native berries and others. She offers an inside view of rituals, like how to speak with the dead, and her characters demonstrate the Aboriginal conception of the natural world as living being by showing respect, giving offerings, and, as Lisa’s mother says, being “polite and introducing yourself”. (pg.112) The world is portrayed not as passive screen on which to project our drama but as a beautiful land and seascape that is not only “a breathing character” teeming with life, but is also inhabited by ghosts, spirits, and animals who interact with the human world. (Bridgeman) Robinson uses the traditional Haisla names as she speaks about the world. The use of the Aboriginal language reinforces the idea that two different world views are occupying the same space and it emphasizes the Haisla culture as autonomous and complete. Robinson explains that “Haisla has many sounds that don’t exist in English, so its not possible to spell the words using English conventions… English sounds are formed using the front of the mouth, while Haisla uses mainly the back”. (p.193) This supports the idea that there are not only different realities at play but that English itself is incapable of expressing or capturing what is “Haisla”. As Ma-ma-oo teaches Lisa stories of b’gwus and the shapeshifters she says “to really understand the old stories…you had to speak Haisla”. (p.211)

Throughout the entire novel the power of words, names, and language are emphasized.When Lisa attends her uncle Mick’s funeral, his relative Barry is singing “an honour song, [but she is not able to] understand anything they [are] singing”. (p.141)The same thing happens when she accompanies Ma-ma-oo to Octopus Beds where they build a fire to give offerings and speak with Ba-ba-oo, Lisa’s long dead grandfather.Lisa is still an outsider because she has not yet learned her own language, she still is living in the European space, in the front of the mouth.It is not until the end of the novel that Lisa finally is able to hear and understand the Haisla language, to comprehend and integrate her own heritage.Instead of ignoring or avoiding the Haisla reality, Lisa embraces it in an attempt to find out what has happened to Jimmy.When she cuts her hand to feed the spirits on Monkey Beach she makes the transitionfrom one reality into the other.In this final scene Lisa is able to journey into “The Land of the Dead” and use the information that her grandmother has taught her.Here she sees and speaks with her grandparents and her uncle Mick, she also has a vision of what happened to her brother Jimmy, and, most significantly, she is able to understand the words the people are singing “even though they are in Haisla”. (p.373)In this moment of understanding the transformation from one reality to the other has been completed.

Robinson’s novel can be called associational because it presents a narrative in which the protagonist struggles to negotiate between the opposingworldviews of Native and non-Native and shifts away from a typically Western psychological interpretation of meaning, a binary dichotomy between good and evil, and a projected clear cut happy ending.It is Robinson’s use of traditions and her continued framing of Lisamarie’s visions as reality which keeps the novel from sliding into what Joan Thomas has called “a glorious Northern Gothic” taleand keeps the novel firmly planted in the back of the mouth.

Works Cited

Andrews, Jennifer. “Native Canadian Gothic Refigured: Reading Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach.” Essays on Canadian Writing 73 (Spring 2001): 1–24.

Bridgeman, J. M. “Witnessing Creation.” Rev. of Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson. January Magazine March 2000. 26 Jan. 2008 http://januarymagazine.com/fiction/monkeybeach.html.

Castriciano, Jodey. Learning to Talk with Ghosts: Canadian Gothic and the Poetics of Haunting in Eden Robinson’s Monkey BeachIn: University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 75 Issue 2. 2006, p801-813. 13p Language: English, Database: Project MUSE

Gaertner, David.Something in Between” Monkey Beach and the Haisla Return of the Return of the Repressed. By: Canadian Literature , Summer2015, Issue 225, p47-63, 17p. Publisher: Canadian Literature

King, Thomas. “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English, 30.2 (1990) 10–16.

Mrak,Anja. Trauma and Memory in Magical Realism: Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach as Trauma NarrativeIn: [sic], Vol 3, Iss 2 (2013); University of Zadar, 2013. Language: Croatian; English, Database: Directory of Open Access Journals

Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Roupakia, Lydia Efthymia. On Judging with Care and the Responsibility of an Heir: Reading Eden Robinson’s Monkey BeachIn: University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 81 Issue 2. 2012, p279-296. 18p Language: English, Database: Project MUSE

Thomas, Joan. “Glorious Northern Gothic.” Rev. of Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson. The Globe and Mail 22 Jan. 2000: D9.