When Jordan Abel moved from Ontario to Alberta, while still a teenager, he was struck by the province's obsession with western culture – cowboys and Indians. As a so-called Indian himself – Abel is Nisga'a – he was taken aback. He hadn't really been familiar with the genre, and now, suddenly, the people around him were obsessed by it – even other Indigenous people were "very strongly associated with that kind of western vibe," he says.
"Indigenous peoples dressing like cowboys I thought was really, really difficult. That was an image that always stuck out to me to be weirdly heart-wrenching. Because whenever I'd see a western or read a western, it was impossible to relate to because the Indigenous peoples are the enemy."
Those books – pulpy fare with titles such as Pardners, A Texas Matchmaker, Good Indian and Hopalong Cassidy's Rustler Round-Up – became the source material for Abel's latest book, Injun: a long poem about race, racism and appropriation. Using 91 public domain western novels published between 1840 and 1950, Abel uses the words of the colonizers to create an anti-colonial document – and a new narrative.
The book is dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, as are his first two books, The Place of Scraps and Un/inhabited. For Injun, Abel searched through the novels –about 10,000 pages of source text – for the term "injun." There were 509 results. Abel separated out each of the sentences that contained the word – giving him 26 pages of text – and then using a variety of methods, cut and paste (sometimes quite literally) the text to create the book-length visual poem, as he explains in his afterword.
The project was not easy in any way. In addition to the pain of encountering the offensive term again and again, Abel says support for the project was not universal. He submitted part of the manuscript while an MFA student at the University of British Columbia's creative writing program, but he says that, aside from a couple of professors who championed the work, encouragement was lacking.
Abel wasn't looking for vindication, but if he had been, this is a pretty sweet taste of it: Injun is one of three books on the Canadian short list for the prestigious and lucrative Griffin Poetry Prize, the winners of which will be announced on June 8 in Toronto.
"The fog of tedious overdramatization clears and the open skies of discourse can be discerned. What does it mean to arrange hate to look like verse? What becomes of the ugly and meaningless? Words are restored to their constituent elements as countermovements in Abel's hands, just as they are divested of their capacity for productive violence," part of the jury's citation reads.
"To me, it's really surprising that my book would end up on that list because it's highly critical of this genre," Abel says. "One of the critiques of modern prize culture is that it's very white and also works that are experimental tend not to do well."
The two winners – there's both a Canadian and an international short list – receive $65,000 each, while finalists who participate in the short-list readings on June 7 receive $10,000 each. The other works on the Canadian short list are Violet Energy Ingots by Toronto-based poet Hoa Nguyen and Silvija by Ottawa-based poet Sandra Ridley.
This year's ceremony comes as a nasty dispute over cultural appropriation and Indigenous literature has gripped CanLit the past month.
"One of the things I'm commenting on [in this book] is appropriation embedded within colonization," Abel says. "It is maybe kind of bizarre that I have written this book about appropriation more or less at the same time this other thing is happening."
Abel, 32, was born in Vancouver and raised in Barrie, Ont. and Lethbridge, Alta., by his mother – "a white settler lady," he calls her in our interview. His father is Nisga'a; Abel did not meet him until he was 22 and they are not currently in touch – their relationship broken by what he calls the legacy of violence of Canada's residential schools. Both of Abel's paternal grandparents went to residential schools and the effects have been devastating. "He's not a part of my life in a big way because of the legacy of violence from Indian residential schools," he says. "These are complicated things to talk about. So the way I generally describe myself is I position myself within indigeneity as being an intergenerational survivor of residential schools and an urban Indigenous person."
Abel did not come to poetry until he was completing his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Alberta. His now-wife, Chelsea Novak, suggested he take a poetry class, and he liked it. Starting his MFA at UBC, Abel waffled between fiction and poetry. But poetry won out.
Abel wanted to take on Marius Barbeau, the early-20th-century ethnographer who studied First Nations cultures in the Pacific Northwest, but also acquired their treasures, which wound up in distant museums. Abel had visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto as a child where he encountered totem poles that he later discovered had travelled, because of Barbeau, from the Nass River Valley – Nisga'a territory.
Abel tried to tackle the project through historical fiction, non-fiction, lyric poetry. None felt quite right. Conceptual poetry did. Using Barbeau's two-volume work Totem Poles as source material, Abel could carve up Barbeau's words as Barbeau had carved up Indigenous communities by removing these treasures.
"I grew quite attached to the possibility that came along with poetry and I felt like I could more adequately describe the things that I was trying to talk about," Abel says.
The result was Abel's first published book, The Place of Scraps, which went on to win the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. His second book, Un/inhabited, explores similar territory to Injun.
"My connection to the Nisga'a community and Nisga'a knowledge and Nisga'a understanding is actually still pretty tenuous and difficult to access," he says during our interview.
Is that something you want to learn more about, I ask – your Indigenous heritage?
"It's something that I write about. All of my books are about that to a certain degree."
Shortly after our interview, another issue blew up. The editor of the Writers' Union of Canada's Write magazine resigned after publishing an editorial – in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing – that called for a cultural appropriation prize. Then in a bizarre bit of Twitter activity, former National Post editor Ken Whyte began collecting pledges for a cultural appropriation prize.
"It was quite painful to watch that," Abel says. "I find it really tiring and difficult to continue to kind of have this debate."
But then Abel was able to watch the dollar amount grow ever higher in an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for an emerging Indigenous writers' prize, which passed $100,000 this week. "That response, I think, was really quite affirming – that the Internet wasn't just made up of people who are awful and wanting to support the appropriation prize, but in fact there are actually a lot of allies that have made very meaningful and thoughtful contributions – and also monetary contributions," says Abel. "I think that's really kind of fantastic."