Home » Author Interview: Jordan Abel
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Author image courtesy of the author.
Jordan Abel is a queer Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. He is the author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize). Abel’s latest book NISHGA (McClelland & Stewart) is a deeply personal and autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence and the often-invisible intergenerational impact of Residential Schools. NISHGA was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Wilfrid Eggleston Award for Nonfiction, the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize, the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, and the winner of the inaugural VMI Betsy Warland Between Genres Award. Abel’s next project, a work of fiction called Empty Spaces forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in 2023, attempts to understand land through fiction and is a novel about colonization with no characters.
Uche Umezurike: Your poetry engages with elisions and erasures of Indigenous lives, and part of the project of NISHGA is to break the silence around colonial violence in Canada. What do you find troubling about such silence?
Jordan Abel: There are many silences in NISHGA. Some of them are textual silences. Some of them are ethical silences. In some ways, these silences respond to the silences around colonial violence as you say and in other ways they might respond to silences around lateral violence in our communities. The silence around colonial violence is deeply frustrating for me because I feel like there have been so many powerful and devastating works that have attempted to break that silence. Here I’m thinking about works like Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes that I recommend to almost all my students that are trying to find their way into Indigenous Literatures. It’s not just that book either. There are so many. And yet that silence continues to linger.
NISHGA contains a mosaic of textual and visual source materials, and bricolage and reappropriation are parts of your tools, so I wonder what you find compelling about multi-genre works.
I’ve often described this book as a problem-based book where the problem is figuring out how to talk about intergenerational trauma and the afterlife of Residential Schools in Canada. Whenever I think about genre here, I immediately am drawn back to that initial problem. Whenever the genre changes gear between concrete poetry and memoir, or academic talk and found document, etc., those are also moments where I am attempting to answer that central question from a new angle.
Could you tell us a bit more about what you look for or overlook as you research the archives, given their centrality to your creative process?
I used to scour the internet for archival materials. Certainly, that was the case for my work on Un/inhabited and Injun. But for NISHGA I really was interested in working with what was in front of me and what I had access to. The archive I was working with for NISHGA was really just a box of photos and scraps of paper and loose legal documentation. There was so much there and yet there were so many gaps. At one point in the process, I did consider moving outwards to include other archives, and I honestly just don’t think I had the energy for that. Perhaps that would have made it into a different book. Perhaps there’s still another book there. What I tell my students, though, is that whenever you’re working with found text or archival materials as a creative writer, you have to be able to answer the questions: Why this material? Why now? Why you?
You have spoken elsewhere about how you found writing NISHGA excruciating. Where do you turn to for strength as you attempt to relive intergenerational memory and pain?
Honestly, I felt like the only way I could deal with it was just by walking away. I often walked away from that book for days or months at a time. Sometimes I didn’t have any intention of coming back. If I had done this work outside of my PhD program, I do think it would have never been finished. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
There is this section in NISHGA where you recount a job interview experience, and a professor asked, “What’s new about this?” It reminded me of a passage I read in Black Water by David A. Robertson where someone dismissed his experience after he did a reading. What do you hope will stick with readers of NISHGA?
I hope that people who read the book will understand how Residential Schools continue to impact Indigenous lives. I think many people want to continue to think about that violence as being contained in the past somehow. That it doesn’t seep into the present or the future. But truthfully, it’s a violence that cannot be contained. So I’m hopeful that people will see/listen/read that in NISHGA and will carry that forward with them when they think about what it means to exist in Canada.
NISHGA ends on a note of openness and a recognition of shared vulnerability. You say, “I wish we could all talk to each other.” What steps can we take on the individual and collective levels to make this happen? What role can literature play in this project?
Literature creates communities. A friend of mine once said that including a book like A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt on a syllabus could be lifesaving for someone. That really stuck with me, and I think it’s true. Some books really make a huge difference in some lives. For me personally, the books that have really resonated with me recently and the books that have created that dialogue within community are works like Tenille Campbell’s nedí nezų (Good Medicine), Matthew James Weigel’s Whitemud Walking, Molly Cross-Blanchard’s Exhibitionist, and Selina Boan’s Undoing Hours. As writers, we talk to each other through our writing in addition to talking to each other on Twitter or Instagram or at a reading or a conference or wherever. As readers, I think we have been given an invitation to be part of many conversations. The thing we can do as individuals is to encourage each other to be a part of these conversations either by writing or reading or both.
Uche Umezurike is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021) and Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021).