Kwey! Yowtz! Hello! I’m Arlo (they/them). I’m 18 years old, I’m from Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg and Haisla First Nation, and I’m in the Literature profile of the ALC program. In my essay, I examine themes of Indigenous Science Fiction present in Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue,” as well as her portrayal of intergenerational trauma within Indigenous communities. As an Indigenous student, having the space to explore these topics is very important to me and I would like to raise awareness on these issues, so I’m grateful to the Dawson English Journal for giving me the opportunity to do so.
Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue” and Breaking Down Intergenerational Trauma
By Arlo Price
For over five centuries, the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have been experiencing every stage of grief. First contact and all proceeding events have left a scar on every generation of Indigenous peoples, and the effects these scars have can tangibly manifest in everyday life. Every time we experience violence, every time we are repressed by colonial force, we carry it with us. The ongoing and intentional nature of colonial occupation means that we are less likely to ever be able to rid ourselves of these painful experiences that we carry, resulting in our passing it down to our children, who pass it down to their children, and their children’s children, and so on. This is called intergenerational trauma. Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue” is the story of a young Haisla man who copes with his experiences with colonial violence, both first and second-hand, through illegal BDSM performances. Throughout the story, we are shown examples of traumatic events, the forces behind them, and the way trauma can affect a person’s actions. Our main character Wil and the men of his immediate family each experience separate, intensely traumatic events, and each event is caused by the same colonial force — the “Peace Officers”, whose job is to violently impose “Adjustment” on the Indigenous Canadian population. The aftershock of experiencing government-designated brutality vitally changes each of the three men in distinct ways, and each of their responses to “Adjustment” represents a way in which intergenerational trauma can manifest itself in modern Indigenous lives and communities. Robinson uses themes of Indigenous speculative fiction to mash together places in time in order to illustrate the proximity one feels to past traumatic events when they are in the cycle of intergenerational trauma. “Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson supports the idea that trauma can transcend time and affect multiple generations.
Robinson uses intentional anachronism in “Terminal Avenue” to literalize the experience of intergenerational trauma. She uses Native slipstream to bring forth events like the Oka Crisis and the government ban on potlatches so that they occur within the characters’ current realities. Wil’s brother Kevin, for example, “ran away and joined the Mohawk Warriors. He was at Oka on August 16 when the bombs rained down and the last Canadian reserve was Adjusted” (211). While this event has occurred within many people’s lifetimes, its presence in the story still alludes to the ageless effects a violent affair like the Oka Crisis can have. Kevin experiences “Adjustment” first-hand, and though the rest of his family does not, the trauma from his experience and his subsequent betrayal of his family and people by becoming a “Peace Officer” irrevocably transforms him and his relationship with them. Another depiction of Robinson’s use of intentional anachronism is Wil’s community participating in cultural gatherings which are outlawed in the “Terminal Avenue” universe, and are written as Wil’s fondest childhood memories. For example, when “His father held a potlatch before they left Kitimaat, […] They had to hold it in secret, so […] Camouflage nets will be set up all over the beach so they won’t be spotted by planes” (213). What there is left to remember of Indigenous cultural practices are no longer outlawed in modern day Canada, but the fear of discrimination and the pain of losing countless traditions to centuries of erasure still remains. The memory of Indigenous existence being a criminal offence is alive and well, and speaking of it in the present tense comes more naturally than speaking of it as ancient history. Robinson intentionally writes these events anachronistically to emphasize the way violent trauma can transcend the time period in which it occurred.
Eden uses the ironically named “Peace Officers” as a symbol not for law enforcement itself, but for the colonial force they represent, which is the source of the initial traumatization. In the story, Peace Officers are the sole perpetrators of the colonial violence endured by Wil, Kevin, and their father. They are the common denominator in each character’s individual trauma, and they are the tools of the oppressor used to prevent all attempts at decolonization, for instance, when Wil’s father is “Adjusted” for keeping ceremony and tradition alive in secret: “He was there when the Peace Officers came and took their father’s statement. When they closed the door in his face and heard his father screaming. […] Wil watched his father withdraw into himself after that, never quite healing” (211). The criminalization of culture and the violent enforcement of its illegality is how genocide is implemented, and the Peace Officers are explicit in this message. Because no one in his family has been left unscathed by the abhorrent actions of Peace Officers, Wil comes to the realization that he’s always thought that one day, his first-hand experience with “Adjustment” would inevitably arrive: “The Peace Officers begin to match strides until they move like a machine. […] He can’t move, even as they roll towards him, a train on invisible tracks” (208); “In the silence that stretches, Wil realizes that he always believed this moment would come. That he has been preparing himself for it” (213). These are the ways that colonial violence reinforces Indigenous trauma, and the oxymoronically named Peace Officers are how Robinson expresses this. When Wil loses his father and brother to the Peace Officers’ “Adjustment,” Wil loses himself as well and only becomes privy to his loss in the moment his fear comes true. Colonial violence happens everywhere we turn, in various forms, and every Indigenous person living in western society has felt some kind of loss due to intergenerational trauma and colonial violence. Peace Officers serve as antagonists to epitomize this experience.
Finally, we will discuss the juxtaposing reactions our main characters have to their “Adjustment”, and how “Adjustment” irreversibly alters their lives and communities. When Kevin becomes a Peace Officer in response to witnessing the Adjustment of Oka, he dies in his family’s eyes: “He walked through their mother’s door one day, wearing the robin’s egg blue uniform of the great enemy, and his mother struck him down. She summoned the ghost of their father and put him in the room, sat him beside her, bloody and stunned. Against this Kevin said, ‘I can stop it, Mom. I have the power to change things now’” (208). When Kevin chooses to wear the uniform of the oppressor, the very same oppressor responsible for his father’s suicide, he has committed an unforgivable betrayal against his family. Wil thinks of Kevin’s becoming a Peace Officer as his personal method of self preservation, his own way of adapting instead of “becoming dead like his father, talking and breathing and eating, but frightened into vacancy, a living blankness” (212). Kevin’s adjustment starkly juxtaposes his father’s, and there’s a certain symmetry between the two opposing sides. His father is traumatized into the spirit world following his “Adjustment” and subsequent suicide, whereas Kevin is traumatized into the arms of their common oppressor, going so far as to become them. Wil, on the other hand, lies somewhere in between. In response to the trauma surrounding him, he adheres to his masochistic tendencies and engages in colonial fetishization of Indigenous dehumanization, but in its own way, his performing in the club can be considered an act of rebellion. While he is degrading himself for the entertainment of colonizers, he is doing so consensually and he is even taking pleasure in it: “My poor virgin. It’s not pain so much as it is cleansing. […] he discovered that it wasn’t just easy to do terrible things to another person: it could give pleasure. It could give power” (210). Practicing BDSM can be therapeutic for many people, as the difference between BDSM and true violence is consent, and that alone can flip the narrative on its head. He processes his inherited trauma by taking dominion over the terms of brutality, while simultaneously preparing himself for when it is his own trauma and is no longer of his own volition. Wil reclaiming his pain, Kevin succumbing to and joining the powers that be, their father using his own mortality to escape the immortality of trauma — each of their responses to traumatic events reflects their ideas of self preservation. Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue” is a guide to breaking down intergenerational trauma, not by speaking to the concept itself, but by presenting individual characters and their experiences with trauma through Native slipstream, symbolisms of oppressive colonial force, and the broad spectrum of its after-effects. Representations of intergenerational trauma are important to help people who are affected by it understand what they are experiencing, especially for Indigenous peoples, and “Terminal Avenue” is an example of how addressing trauma is necessary for the healing process.
Robinson, Eden. “Terminal Avenue.” Walking The Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon, The University of Arizona Press, 2012, pp. 205-214.