Nonfiction Review by Paul Watkins

Jordan Abel, NISHGA (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2021). Hardcover, 288 pp., $32.95.

NISHGAWith vulnerability and bravery, Jordan Abel mines his past in relation to Canada’s legacy of colonialism and residential schools to ask difficult questions about Indigeneity and Canada that don’t always have clear answers. Framing his project (the book grew out of his doctoral thesis) in relation to “research creation”—an innovative form of cultural analysis that troubles the book or thesis—Abel takes an innovative approach to addressing what it means to be dispossessed and disenfranchised as an Indigenous person. Abel is known for his concrete and conceptual poetry—The Place of Scraps won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Injun won the Griffin Poetry Prize—and NISHGA applies his same creative skill to rework the memoir into something wholly unique, mixing and remixing art, legal documents, personal narrative, photography, transcriptions of talks, and concrete poetry. The book opens and closes with “An Open Letter to All My Relations.” These letters invite readers into a space of healing and prepare them for the painful subjects of “intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession, and the afterlife of Residential schools.” While these are difficult subjects to write about, especially from Abel’s subjectivity as an intergenerational survivor of residential schools, as well as his dislocation from his Nishga’a community, he does so with a level of deftness and care that makes the book essential reading for everyone living on Turtle Island.

NISHGA reimagines memoir and history in a truly generative way. The epigraphs at the start of the book from John A. Macdonald and Duncan Campbell Scott—architects of the Residential school system and the Indian Act—are juxtaposed with a 2018 Facebook post from Métis poet Gregory Scofield that details the importance of making space in the circle for those who have grown up disconnected. It is in these interstitial spaces (or perhaps what Abel defines as empty spaces) between history and its violent machinations and Abel’s quest for reconnection and home that contributes to the book’s complex approach to understanding contemporary Indigenous experiences. Abel’s work has always been about the shadow presence and impact of Residential schools (both of his grandparents attended Coqualeetza Residential School); for example, Injun deconstructs racist Westerns, but it also asks the reader to “relate to an Indigenous experience and an experience of intergenerational trauma.” While Abel’s conceptual poetics is politically motivated, his approach here, largely because of the memoir format, feels more personal and direct. Abel often reminds the reader of how painful it is to write this book, especially since the primary archive is his own family history. Part of the work is based on understanding why his father left and to understand his relation to Nisga’a community and cultural knowledge as he works his way home.

Much of the personal thinking comes vis-à-vis “Notes,” which feel a little like a play on ethnographic field notes, except the study here is Abel’s own history. In trying to understand his past better, the book dialogues with and incorporates his father’s art and Abel’s own conceptual poetics. This self‐reflexive approach is empowering given Abel first learned about his Nisga’a culture “through the nowdebunked work of a dead white anthropologist.” Throughout NISHGA we get Abel’s father’s art with appropriated text from James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 text The Last of the Mohicans. Abel works with the empty spaces (the work is aptly titled “Empty Spaces”) and Cooper’s representation of land as terra nullius and he does so to articulate Indigenous presence. Abel grapples with a deep admiration for his father as an artist and survivor, but also as someone responsible for his feelings of dislocation and the lateral violence of his life. We see this complicated negotiation in “Empty Spaces”, which opens a productive understanding of how absence is a kind of presence. Abel’s concrete poetry is not a mere exercise in style, but the form speaks directly to the feeling of dislocation and the intergenerational trajectory of violence that marks so many Indigenous experiences and which calls for a sustained national reckoning in Canada. That said, NISHGA is more than its working through documents of trauma, as it ultimately points a way forward through decolonial education, ceremony, and healing.

In an interview with poet Sachiko Murakami, Abel suggests “that education is the key to decolonization.” As an educator I tend to agree, and I’m sure Abel shares much of my skepticism that many Canadians are not ready to do the work, which involves moving beyond paternalism and allowing Indigenous people the sovereignty to determine their own futures. That said, it is also important to acknowledge that Indigenous people are taking charge of their futures and providing a path forward. As a settler reading and writing about this book, I often felt as if I was being tasked with the challenge of being witness to an experience that is outside my own. Moreover, as a non-Indigenous person it is important that I continue to find ways to challenge the settler colonial model in place. As readers we are called to hold these stories—with care—in our hearts.

As Abel writes in his closing “Open Letter,” “many people […] don’t recognize the kinds of privilege that come with having access to Indigenous knowledge and culture.” It is truly a privilege to read and learn from the historical, personal, and creative knowledge Abel gifts his audience in NISHGA. Abel shares so much of himself and I hope the process was ultimately healing for him. The book will help many people find their way home.


—Paul Watkins

As in The Malahat Review, 215, summer 2021