Jordan Abel is the UFV Writer in Residence this year. Abel is a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver, B.C. He holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and is pursuing his PHD in digital humanities from SFU. Abel’s third and most recent book of poetry, Injun, is an uprooting of historical racism in Canada. Injun is a very unique and striking poetry book, utilizing experimental found-text poetry to literally rewrite colonial history.
The UFV Writer in Residence program is a six week affair where a successful writer “resides” — i.e. spends most of their time — on campus doing readings and workshops, visiting classrooms, and answering every question that comes their way with deep consideration and a healthy dose of charisma. Abel’s poetry is available at the UFV bookstore.
Can you explain what is happening with this work, Injun, because I’m holding the book and it’s becoming blaringly apparent that there is so much more going on than simply the words on the page.
Yeah, I think it’s a necessary process to talk about how this book came together. Every time I do a public reading from the book, I also talk about how the work came together conceptually. The work is compiled from found text from a website called Project Gutenberg, which is a site consisting of public domain books, books that have their copyright expired. I went to the Western bookshelf section of project Gutenberg, which contains all of the website’s old, pulp, dime Western novels. There I found 91 novels that fit that description, so I took all 91 Westerns and copied and pasted them all into a single Microsoft Word document. That source text ended up being over 10,000 words long, and crashes my computer every time I try and open it. I began searching the text for words that related to race, indigeneity, racism, and discrimination. One of the words that I ended up searching for was this word “Injun.” I found that there were 512 sentences that contained the word Injun compiled within those 10,000 words of source text. From there I copy and pasted those 512 sentences into a separate word document, which ended up being much more reasonable; 26 pages. I printed out those 26 pages, took a pair of scissors and I cut up each page, and all of the bits of those pages created one section of a long poem. Within the book there are lettered sections, from A to Z, and each section represents one of those cut up 26 pages.
When I attended your presentation on campus during UFV’s literary arts week, I noticed that what you were doing with multiple voices and sound was very striking. You have so many different things going on with this book; what are your hopes and what are you trying to achieve with this complexity?
The book consists of multiple layers of meaning and text separated into multiple sections. So when I do a reading of this book, I’m trying to re-present this idea of multiple layers to attempt to communicate how these layers came together during the process of writing and reading the book. So my performance sounds like multiple layers of voice, some of them being distorted and some of them not being distorted. I think that throughout the performance of the poem there’s only a couple of sections with only one layer of voice; every other section has multiple layers, and so there is multiple different types of depth that you can hear or read, or not hear.
After experiencing your presentation, I don’t think I was alone in feeling some slight unease; the tension was palpable in the room. It was an uncomfortable feeling, with all of the multiple layers of dialogue and indecipherable sound. Are you purposely unsettling us?
I think that question comes up a lot when I do this performance, as it isn’t comfortable sometimes to listen to it and to hear it, and I think part of that is that it’s such a different way of listening than we’re used to. It’s not an everyday kind of listening experience and I would say that as the performer and the writer, my intention is not necessarily to produce discomfort; I’m not doing it solely to produce discomfort. I would say the main intention is actually to attempt to re-present the spirit of the text. So in this case, this is a book about racism. It’s a book about colonialism. It’s a book about colonial nostalgia and about the Western genre and the representation of Indigenous peoples and about the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples. So when I think about all of the avenues of meaning that the book has, a lot of those topics are uncomfortable. A lot of those trajectories are difficult trajectories. We know that these are difficult things to talk about, but important things, necessary things. I think there’s a similar discomfort simply in the reading process. These are difficult issues, and so my goal is to talk about these issues, and discomfort is a natural side effect of that.
So your goal is to expose this complex and difficult issue. Do you also feel like it’s a responsibility of yours being an Indigenous artist?
I’m not exactly totally sure to be honest. All of my writing does attempt to engage with the difficulties of colonization, and also attempt to examine contemporary indigenous existence. So I think that my writing necessitates a discussion about all of those issues including colonization. Those are the kinds of books I’m interested in writing. Those are the kinds of conversations I’m interested in having.
Can we talk about the contemporary indigenous existence? What was it like for you growing up?
This is actually a very interesting conversation. So I was born in Vancouver. I grew up partly in Vancouver, partly in Ontario, near Toronto. That’s my natural response. But if another Indigenous person is asking where I’m from or where I grew up, the response that is more common and what they probably want to know is what community I belong to. That is the Nisga’a community. My grandparents were both born in Kincolith, B.C. My dad was born in Prince Rupert. All of my family eventually moved south and ended up in the Lower Mainland. So when an Indigenous person asks me where I’m from, there’s a slight tension there because I want to tell them I’m Nisga’a, but during my lifetime my family has never lived in Nisga’a territory. There’s definitely an interesting tension there.
Do you ever talk to your parents or grandparents about where they grew up?
Both of my grandparents passed away before I was born, and I didn’t meet my dad until I was 23, and I had exactly two conversations with him. I asked him as much as I could during those two conversations, but I think it’s a difficult thing to work through. So I think that my familial connection with my indigeneity is very difficult to navigate.
Do you feel like you’re trying to navigate that with your art?
Absolutely. There is a certain way of thinking through all three of my books that point to an experience of indigeneity from the position of both urban indigenous identity and the position of an intergenerational survivor of residential schools. I think there’s ways to read into this in all of my writing. I think it’s really productive for me, or anyone going through something similar.
Do you feel like your experience of trying to reconnect to your heritage is a common one for Indigenous youth?
I think it’s a common experience. I know people who’ve had that similar experience. But I also know many people who have strong connections to their communities. When I think of indigenous writing, whether it be poetry or fiction or nonfiction, there are a lot of Indigenous writers who have very close connections to their community and their language, or multiple communities and multiple languages. So although there may be many people who are in a similar position as me, feeling disconnected or severed from their community through colonialism, I think those positions are in the minority, especially regarding the positions represented through indigenous writing.
When did you start trying to find your place in the world through writing?
Somewhere around five or 10, when I realized it was something that I could do, literally writing words on the page. It was just something that I really enjoyed doing. It happened very early in my life. When I was young I was much more interested in writing stories or narrative; poetry came in during the last year of my undergraduate degree.
What kinds of narratives were you writing?
The stories that I really got into were video game stories. I played a lot of really crappy old RPGs, fantasy games that I was obsessed with. The 3DO was this really crappy video game system, one of the first ones that had the CD drive. The company went bankrupt almost immediately after being released, and I stumbled across the system when it was on sale. I was playing this point-and-click adventure game that was really narrative heavy and I had an elementary school creative writing assignment. The game was full of dialogue, so I remember just copying dialogue from the game, word for word, and writing the scenes around that dialogue. In retrospect, it really suits my preference for the creative constraints of using found text, but at the time I was so excited because I was thinking “Oh man, I can totally steal all of this dialogue and nobody will ever play this game.” I’m sure that still nobody’s played that game.
You’re one of the contemporary Aboriginal artists that is really pushing the boundaries with experimental art. Is this a progression of aboriginal art that is happening with your generation, or am I just discovering it now?
The cut up method that I use in Injun is not new; William S. Burroughs was doing that half a century ago. There’s a long history of that, and other conceptual visual art forms that I looked to when seeking inspiration for my work. Maybe you’re speaking to the way that my poetry has come together both in the book form and the performance form that makes it seem cutting edge. I do know some other poets that are starting to experiment with performance art and using sound and digital tools to create some very interesting work, so maybe that is what makes my work seem progressive.
What do you think this new cutting-edge take on indigenous art is doing for the tradition of aboriginal storytelling?
I think that is where it becomes really interesting. Specifically for indigenous art and indigenous poetry; my writing and my performance art does stray far outside of mainstream indigenous poetry. Not that indigenous poetry is mainstream, because it isn’t, but there’s a certain aesthetic that holds a lot of indigenous poetry together. My work is pretty far outside of that. The thing that I hope it’s doing, which I guess could potentially be different than the thing it is actually doing, is allowing people to talk about the differences in the indigenous experience, to talk about the layers of complexity of being indigenous, to talk about how our work interacts with colonial forms of artwork, to talk about what’s possible in terms of art, what art can accomplish, and how the arts can be resistant to colonial narratives.
Do you think art is enabling you to accomplish your goal of reconnecting with your heritage?
The art that I’m making is attempting to grapple with that specific struggle. Whether or not the art I’m making is successful and ultimately moving me forward, I’m not actually sure. I think what it does try to do is identify and express that it is actually a struggle; that connecting with community and connecting with family is actually a really difficult thing to do for Indigenous peoples in my position, or it can be, because those connections have been impacted by a history of colonial violence in very particular ways, ways which have really disintegrated my familial connections. And I think addressing that, to talk to you on how colonialism has impacted me as an Indigenous person, and how it has impacted my relationship with my community are all really important things that don’t get talked about often enough. So I really hope that what I’m writing speaks to that experience somehow. As I continue to try and repair some of these relationships, and also try and move back towards community, my writing will represent that transition as well.
This theme of reconnection and rediscovery of traditions seems almost like an undercurrent in aboriginal art, surging back towards a place of healing. This seems like something that represents the power of art. What else could stand a chance to tackle such a feat?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.