Jordan Abel doesn’t typically wear suits.
The 32-year-old Nisga’a poet and Robson resident had to be convinced by his wife Chelsea to put on something nice for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize gala earlier this year, so when his name was called for the $65,000 grand prize he found himself wishing he’d stuck with his typical look, complete with skateboard shoes.
“Everybody got so dressed up, it was this fancy thing and I felt so uncomfortable doing that. I never, never, never wear suits,” Abel told the Star, during a conversation just before Nelson’s Canada 150 celebrations.
“I try to be myself as much as I can, and in a moment like that, well, I regretted it a little bit. I prefer just existing like I normally do, you know?”
The book that earned him the Griffin, Injun, is Abel’s third work of anti-colonial poetry, following The Place of Scraps and Un/inhabited. His work is innovative, experimental and deliberately resistant, aimed at destabilizing the politics of cultural appropriation.
All three of his books are attempts at reconnecting with his Nisga’a community, which he was severed from as an inter-generational survivor of residential schools. He’s aiming to “describe a position within indigeneity that is disconnected from community via the violence of colonialism. My writing, in Injun in particular, is resistant writing.”
For that manuscript, Abel used text gleaned from 91 pulp western novels published between 1840 and 1950, and compiled them into one giant document. He then searched for particular words, like “Injun,” removing sentences in clusters of three to five words and then repurposing them into a long poem. This makes Injun itself a politically charged work of reverse cultural appropriation, so winning the prize in a year so rife with controversy over that subject felt a little strange to him.
“I do think it was surprising to be recognized for this award at this time, in part because its the year of Canada 150 — celebrating colonialism — and likewise it’s also been a year for celebrating appropriation,” he said.
During the national controversy over an editorial written by Hal Niedzviecki in Write magazine, in which he proposed the idea of a “Cultural Appropriation Prize,” the literary community was split over the very concept Abel had dedicated his career to. He found himself dismayed to see what he considers racist ideologies being proudly touted by fellow writers.
“What’s been made really clear to me this year is there are a lot of people who have really f***ed up ideas about what cultural appropriation is and what colonialism is, and they’re absolutely willing to defend those positions,” he said.
So he doesn’t really feel like celebrating.
“Canada 150, Canada Day, Canada itself, they’re all products of an ongoing state of colonialism. I think of Canada 150 in particular as being a celebration of indigenous genocide. These aren’t my words, other people have articulated the same thing better than I have, but there’s no place for indigenous people in celebrating Canada.”
And if people are serious about engaging with First Nations voice, he said there’s no shortage of exciting work being done by indigenous authors. He admires Leanne Simpson, Glen Coulthard and Joshua Whitehead, and feels their names should be better known.
“When I talk about indigenous literature and the names I put on the table aren’t recognized, or people aren’t familiar with them, my response is to suggest that reading is a political choice. I think what everybody needs to be conscious of is what we read, why we read, and we need to rethink our reading practices to include not just dead white male writers but to include gender equity as well as racial equity.”
He believes indigenous voices are finally being heard, and hopes that his will only get louder.
“It gives me hope. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about my work over the past few years and there are a ton of people who are interested in resistant writing, who are interested in anti-colonial thinking and resisting the architectures of colonialism, and the more people we have in resistance the better we’ll ultimately be.”