Essay by Kishoore Ramanathan
Art by Karen Zhang
In her contemporary novel Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson employs a unique technique throughout the text in which the narrative voice changes and digresses to discuss biological processes – which I will refer to as biological-soliloquies. Biological-soliloquies are dramatic deviations from the regular voice and narrative style that speak directly to the reader and evade plot mechanisms through a discussion of human anatomy. These varied messages—denoted by the same wave passage breaks that are present within the novel—find themselves interspersed throughout the text. All together, biological-soliloquies are part of Robinson’s unique style where these short passages that are universally experienced find themselves interwoven between a cultural tapestry of intergenerational trauma from residential schools, family dynamics, and the Indigenous Haisla people’s experience.
Although there are a number of biological-soliloquies that depict the physical setting of the text through analysis of the ecology, biogeography, or general atmosphere of the text, this essay will trace the recurring trend of biological-soliloquies that speak anatomically of the human heart. In this essay, I will argue that Eden Robinson integrates biological-soliloquies that are distinct in form and voice, in order to immerse colonially-minded readers into the narrative of the Haisla people. Following the further definition of the technique of voice used by Robinson, each biological-soliloquy will be traced in chronological order, and conclude with an analysis on how this style of voice finds homage within Canadian cannon.
Often seen in the sphere of drama, a soliloquy is a passage in which characters express their thoughts and feelings in a solitary expression, while all other actors in the story freeze and are unable to hear the words uttered by the character. Popularized by Shakespeare during the Elizabethan era, this device was often used to paint his characters for all members of the audience and drew all eyes upon a singular character who was better understood after the delivery of the soliloquy (Corcoran 11). Robinson’s narrative voice throughout the text maintains the first-person perspective of Lisamarie Hall, however, there are breaks from the text that deviate to omniscient second-person narrators, who speak directly to the reader. Finding that all of these textual events dictate events relating to the human body or the ecological setting of the story, I termed them “biological-soliloquies”. Similarly, to the theatrical soliloquy, these biological soliloquies draw readers into the text, for all readers have some understanding of the world around them and the organs within them. Like a fish drawn to bait, the average reader who may not have the best understanding of Haisla ways of life can connect with the universal experiences portrayed by biological soliloquies. This connection can deepen the reader’s understanding of how indigenous families struggle to cope with intergenerational trauma. The biological-soliloquies are interspersed throughout the text and thus continue to play this role of drawing readers back to the important and meaningful content throughout the story.
Imagine Your Heart:
Throughout the novel, biological soliloquies occur in various forms. One of these forms is through connection to the audience through depictions of the body. Ma-ma-oo is an important character who carries much weight on her shoulders and passes on qualms of generational knowledge of the land and the environment down to Lisa. Additionally, she is a survivor of trauma, having dealt with an abusive husband and lived with the guilt of surrendering two of her children to the residential school system. When Ma-ma-oo is struck by a heart attack we find the story littered with soliloquies of the heart. After Ma-ma-oo takes Lisa to pick blueberries, they spent time discussing Ma-ma-oo’s sister’s (Miyamus) death at the hands of a cyclone. Following their local escapade, the biological-soliloquy begins:
Make your hand into a fist. This is roughly the size of your heart. If you could open up your own chest, you would find your heart behind your breastbone, nested between your lungs. Each lung has a notch, the cardiac impression, that the heart fits into. Your heart sits on a slant, leaning into your left lung so that it is slightly smaller than your right lung. Reach into your chest cavity and pull your lungs away from your heart to fully appreciate the complexity of this organ (163-164).
In the opening to this soliloquy, the narrator guides the reader to visualize and estimate the size of one’s heart. In describing the exact bones that reside within our chest cavity, the imagery of our ‘slanted heart’ guides the reader through the physical path of locating the heart. Guided into the heart, the reader is encouraged to imagine their own physical heart, a biological machine that continues to work regardless of however much we may concentrate on it. This poetic soliloquy ends with the description of major human blood vessels:
The bottom of your heart rests on your diaphragm. The top of your heart sprouts a thick tangle of large tubes. Your heart is shrouded at the moment by a sac of tissue, a membrane called the pericardium, which acts like a bubble wrap by both protecting your heart and holding it in place. […] Shooting down from the aorta—the large tube arching on top of your heart—are two large arteries that branch out like lightning forks over the heart muscle. Behold, your heart. Touch it. Run your fingers across this strong, pulsating organ. Your brain does not completely control your heart… (163-164).
Scientific terminology is used to illustrate internal organs, such as the diaphragm, pericardium, and aorta. This differs significantly from the Haisla vocabulary that is often passed on from Ma-ma-oo to Lisa. Instead of learning about the traditions, struggles, and plight of the characters from the speaker, we are taught about our own anatomical hearts. Although the reader can understand that Ma-ma-oo had struggled with heart issues near the end of her life, this is not directly reflected in the biological-soliloquies as there is no reference to her condition. Additionally, there were other situations in which medical professionals explained to Ma-ma-oo what was happening to her body, but this is conveyed through dialogue. The soliloquies parallel Ma-ma-oo’s health, and may perhaps serve as foreshadowing to her struggles, however, they are perhaps false in depicting her demise as Ma-ma-oo eventually perishes from the shock and burning of a house fire.
The next biological soliloquy occurs after Lisa’s cat is introduced, and before Lisa remembers Ma-ma-oo teaching her about bear cubs, the Haisla language, and aunt Trudy’s disdain for her own mother. The segway into this memory of Ma-ma-oo is an explanation of the body’s method of pumping blood. The soliloquy begins with: “Pull your heart out of your chest. Cut away the tubes that sprout from the top. Place your heart on a table. Take a knife and divide it in half, lengthwise. Your heart is hollow” (191). This instructional procedure for examining one’s heart is again a direct order and forces the reader to visualize their own physical internal organ emerging from their chest cavity. Furthermore, the soliloquy explains the process of blood oxygenation and how our pulse functions, both concepts that we learn through understanding our circulatory system (191-192). This short passage even includes a physical action to complete:
Put your heart back in your chest. Plug your ears with your fingers and listen carefully. You should be able to hear a rhythmic lub, dub, lub, dub. The sound you are hearing is not the heart muscle itself, but the four valves in your heart closing. At the beginning of systole, your heart goes lub. This is the sound of the two valves that let blood into the lower part of your heart slamming shut. As the end of systole, your heart goes dub. The two valves that let blood out of your heart have shut. If your valves don’t close properly, your heart murmurs (191-192).
Transported away from Haisla territory to a fictional life-sciences lab room, the reader is guided through an activity to hear the pumping of their heart and is allowed to enter their own headspace before returning back to the text. The narrative voice continues to ‘teach’ us about our cardiac system and serves as a non-tangential plot break. There is no inherent mechanism of the plot behind their occurrences, and therefore can be considered ‘breaks’ from the text.
After the anniversary of Mick’s death, when Lisa and Ma-ma-oo go out to the water by Kitlope, Lisa is found sleepwalking by Aunt Kate. After being examined by a doctor at the hospital, Lisa meets Pooch and eventually returns home. As a precursor to death, the next biological soliloquy follows and a passage occurs in which the details of a heart attack are detailed. Again second-person narration is used, warning “If you pinch off one of these arteries, your hand will tingle. You have blocked the artery and your muscles are starving for oxygen, giving you pins and needles. […] These unpleasant pins and needles in your chest are episodes of angina pectoris, often shorted to angina” (268-269). A new technique of scientific writing is additionally introduced, as the Latin name of a medical condition is given, italicized and matched to the correct capitalization. And yet, the passage is fear-invoking and vivid with imagery:
If the plaque breaks off and blocks the arteries the send blood to your heart muscle, your heart will starve. This is a heart attack. All heart attacks cause damage to your heart muscle. The severity of the attack depends on where your artery is blocked. If one of the smaller branches is blocked, you will have a tiny heart attack. If a main branch is blocked, you will have a severe heart attack. (268-269).
Heart disease is incredibly common across the globalized world, and the struggles of dealing with one’s cholesterol—such as Ma-ma-oo’s love for natural salt—are common worries among healthy Canadians. Again, although Ma-ma-oo does not perish at the hand of this heart condition, it is one that many are familiar with, and may find sympathy for. As a novel that sets out to engage with the greater Canadian discourse, and make the general public aware of the various struggles and trauma Indigenous peoples have faced.
Lie Down and Never Get Up:
The final biological-soliloquy concludes the book with a description of the temporary passing of a body. After Lisa finds herself spilling blood to the voices she hears coming from the forests, the final soliloquy begins:
Remove yourself from the next sound you hear, the breathing that isn’t your own. It glides beneath the bushes like someone’s shadow, a creature with no bones, no arms or legs, a rolling, shifting wormshaped thing that hugs the darkness. It wraps its pale body around yours and feeds. Push yourself away when your vision dims. Ignore the confused, painful contractions in your chest as your heart trip-hammers to life, struggles to pump blood. Ignore the tingling sensations and weakness in your arms and legs, which make you want to lie down and never get up. (366)
This final narrative passage displaces the reader, as it speaks of the failing of the body in the second person narrative to the reader. The text shows that Lisa’s struggle to reach her parents on the rescue mission for Jimmy has failed and that Lisa’s connection with the spirits has remained strong enough for her to continue to hear them intensely. But as the spirits call to her from monkey beach, the final biological-soliloquy demands us to consider the physical pain she is enduring. The diction and imagery are blatant and animal-like, allowing for easy visualization of the physical and mental pain Lisa faces. As the spirit “wraps its pale body around yours and feeds,” we might imagine a great serpent or wisp clenching us in its grasp. We are told to “[ignore] the confused, painful contractions in your chest”, again alluding to the relationship with our heart that the text has constructed through the first three biological soliloquies. Finally, we are commanded to imagine a pain that “make(s) you want to lie down and never get up”. This dark ending before the final part of the book is viscerally gruesome and allows for the universality of experience. Regardless of our background or mental state, this style and voice grants all readers access to the pain Lisa feels.
Through a linear analysis of biological-soliloquies, it becomes clear that the voice and narrative style of the text have elements that draw in all human readers, regardless of their relations, beliefs, or experiences with Indigenous cultures and other heavy subjects present within the novel. Canadian literature, no matter how diverse our narratives may be, is comprised and existent within a system that directly benefitted and was established by the colonial authorities of our near-distant past. It is important to acknowledge and recognize this fact, as this text undoubtedly critiques this system, while also existing within it. As a narrative that is written by a minority author, about a marginalized culture- the story plays a role in conversing with the greater central voices of Canada. Due to the cultural nature of the book, there is a colonial anthropomorphic sense of othering generated due to the interspersed usage of the second-person narrative.
Candian canon, in all its patchwork and with its multicultural glory, is deeply rooted in the imperial structures left by Canada’s colonial past and perhaps it is the adoption of Monkey Beach into canon that may illuminate why universality in writing is important. As one of the six finalists in the 2000 Scotiabank Giller Prize competition, it is interesting to note that Robinson’s novel stood out as the sole Indigenous narrative among five other novels detailing various topics ranging from responding to a natural disaster crisis in the South Pacific (Burridge Unbound), the investigation of victims of the Sri Lankan civil war (Anil’s Ghost), or historical rivalries during the Fur Trade (The Trade). As the finalist on a panel judged by three caucasian authors, Monkey Beach explored the complex topic of Indigenous history, and did so with culturally-gray areas that were left for Margaret Atwood, Alistar MacLeod, and Jane Urquhart to mull over (Scotiabank Giller Prize Page). Award-winning Indigenous works often rise to popularity through the interconnection to the main-stream reader, seen in examples such as Richard Wagamese’s Canada Reads 2013 finalist Indian Horse about an Ojibway boy who is an astonishingly good hockey player, Tomson Highway’s 1988 Governor General’s Award for English-language drama nominee Rez Sisters about seven women who complete in “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD”, or Michelle Good’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction 2021 Winner Five Little Indians about children who escaped the residential school system but must face their childhood trauma through adolescence. Each of these texts are similarly well recognized and well-integrated into Canadian canon, and also share the same aspect of a running motif that blurs the line between distinct Indigenous cultures and Indigenous history, and that mainstream history of the dominant post-imperial society. Therefore, perhaps Canadian canon, which is regarded for its diversity and integration of global cultural diasporas, must be cognizant of this universality and ensure that publicized and awarded texts not only create connections with the reader, but also challenge, contain, and withhold such relations.
“2000 Finalists.” Scotiabank Giller Prize, 20 Aug. 2021, scotiabankgillerprize.ca/2000-finalists/.
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Cumyn, Alan. Burridge Unbound. McClelland & Stewart, 2002.
Good, Michelle. Five Little Indians. CELA, 2021.
Hughway, Tomson. The Rez Sisters. Fifth House, 1988.
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. Vintage, 2000.
Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Vintage Canada, 2001.
Stenson, Fred. The Trade. Douglas & Mcintyre, 2000. Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse: A Novel. Milweed Editions, 2018.