A book about life that was a lifetime in the making
By Cory Schachtel | October 18, 2021
Imagine growing up across the country from where you were born, from where your people, on your absent father’s side, are from. As an adult, you find out your mother escaped your father, who was wanted for sexually assaulting a minor, and that all your grandparents survived residential schools. Your first research into your people comes from the “now-debunked work of a dead, white anthropologist.” You become a successful poet, and at an initiative to honour the work of a respected chief, he tells you that you aren’t really of your people, because you pronounce their name wrong.
Jordan Abel was born in Vancouver, raised in Ontario by his mother (Abel is his mother’s surname), and now teaches Indigenous Literatures and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta. His first book of poetry, The Place of Scraps, explored the work of anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who, in an attempt to preserve Pacific Northwest Indigenous people’s culture, actually helped destroy it by purchasing its artifacts to re-sell to museums. Abel’s newest (fourth) book, NISHGA (usually spelt “Nisga’a” and, despite what Chief Robert Joseph says, acceptably pronounced both “Niska,” with a hard “K,” and “Nishga,” with a “sh” sound), further explores Barbeau’s work, Indigeneity, residential schools and Abel’s relationship with his father, the first Nisga’a person he ever met.
The book contains overlayed and interspliced photos and artwork, historical quotes, affidavits and court orders, interviews with Abel and speeches he’s given, as well as short passages beginning with “I remember” that help piece it all together. Reading that, or flipping through the book, might make it seem scattered. But what’s varied in form is consistent in focus, as 36-year-old Abel looks back on the impressive study he’s already completed in his previous books. “The questions of what it means to be Indigenous, but dispossessed from your home territory, language and culture, and to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools — I lived with those questions before I could even ask them,” he says. “And this book is made out of a number of artists talks where I talked about my previous writing. So part of the catalyst for this book was in the act of talking about my previous writing projects.”
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He transcribes those talks into timestamped stanzas, including the pauses, so that when he talks about his father being raised by people who came from an environment of institutionalized sexual and emotional abuse, or “the shadow presence of residential schools” in Indigenous literature, you can almost hear the audience take a breath.
In person, Abel is upbeat, even when talking about the heaviest parts of NISHGA, including suicide, and the effects the book has already had on his life. “I’m glad it’s out in the world now, but there are such mixed feelings, because it’s my most personal book. My relationship with my mom is never really going to be the same. And I say in the book that I wish I hadn’t been the one to write it, I’d prefer to just read it. But it’s the book I wrote.”
Early in the book, in an interview with poet Sachiko Murakami, Abel talks about having “no choice” but to deal with discrimination, which sounds like the most succinct way of summing up the racist onslaught Indigenous people face every day. As we unearth more unmarked graves, non-Indigenous Canadians are beginning to confront that history, but “as Indigenous people, we’ve been saying this shit for years. Non-Indigenous Canadians are obsessed with the reconciliation part of Truth and Reconciliation, but there are still people denying the truth part.”
The truth is, as Abel explains in the book’s final transcribed speech, the story did not turn out how he hoped. And part of him still wishes he wasn’t the one who’d written it. But while waiting for its release, Abel became a father. “Those questions we started with, about being Indigenous but dispossessed from your language, land and culture — my daughter won’t have to struggle with asking those questions in the same way that I did. And some of the answers will already be there, and she’ll have her own questions. But it feels to me that something has moved forward in some way, and she’s made me realize that.”