The history of the Canadian residential school system is a blot on the nation, a stain that is proving all but indelible. The discovery last week of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried beneath the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia is a horrific reminder of the schools’ terrible legacy. But it is not just direct victims of the residential school experience who are heir to its ongoing trauma; legacies of violence and displacement passed down through subsequent generations create ongoing locations of hurt for innumerable Indigenous people and families. This is a subject that preoccupied Griffin Poetry Prize winner Jordan Abel; the necessity to confront the inheritance of intergenerational pain in his own family led directly to his latest book, the multivalent memoir NISHGA, which McClelland & Stewart published in May. “The thing that I really wanted to talk about was intergenerational trauma and the afterlife of residential schools,” says Abel of his new work. “And I think that’s such a complicated, difficult story to tell.”
Difficult not simply because the material is imbued with the history of colonial violence and attempted genocide on the part of white European settlers. The subject has a very personal resonance for Abel, who identifies as a Nisga’a writer from British Columbia. His grandparents were survivors of the residential school system and while Abel himself had no experience in the schools, the trauma that gets passed down through generations in Indigenous families and communities has affected him profoundly.
“It was definitely the most challenging book I’ve ever written,” Abel says of NISHGA, “and one of the most challenging experiences in my life.”
Abel’s father, the Nisga’a artist Lawrence Wilson, was the son of residential school survivors. The abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual – Abel’s grandparents experienced at the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School was inevitably passed down to the next generation, and the next. Wilson was emotionally and physically abusive to Abel’s mother, Catherine; in 1987, he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl. That same year, he abandoned Abel and his mother and disappeared. Abel was two years old at the time; his first memories are of Ontario, the province to which his mother decamped to be with family and secure employment.
“The way that colonial violence impacted me in particular was by way of disconnection,” Abel says. “Growing up without my dad’s presence in my life, without Nisga’a language, the Nisga’a culture, and also without being on traditional Nisga’a territory. That was all this gaping hole in my life.”
It was a hole Abel was determined to fill – or at least address – by way of confronting the family stories and personal history he admits not having spoken about in the past as a survival mechanism. His approach to dealing with this subject, which began as a PhD thesis at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, is to combine found material – court records, excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, artwork, and photography – alongside original prose and concrete poetry to create a symphonic work with individual parts put in conversation with one another. In many ways, this marks an extension of the author’s past creative work, including the 2017 Griffin winner, Injun. “I see NISHGA as being a part of my previous artistic trajectory,” Abel says.
Throughout his literary career, Abel has demonstrated a formal adventurousness that locates his work at the interstices of poetry, prose, and image. Abel’s first book, The Place of Scraps, was published as poetry, but Abel is not content to confine it to one particular literary genre; he sees the book as sitting at the intersection of erasure poetry, creative nonfiction, historical fiction, and photography. A similar multi-genre approach gets taken up in NISHGA, though in this case the publisher is tagging the book as memoir.
The path to what would become NISHGA began with the found documentation that forms much of the narrative. As Abel was working, he was also involved in giving talks across the country, transcriptions of which appear throughout the finished book. “I ended up putting in the transcriptions of some of those artist’s talks as placeholders,” he says. “As I got deeper and deeper into the process, I began to realize that I actually didn’t have the emotional capacity to return to some of those sections.”
What Abel came to realize is the transcripts on their own contain sufficient emotive power to allow the intended meaning to come through. This is especially true in those white spaces where Abel falls silent on the recording; on the page, these empty lines serve as a kind of liminal space where the reader is invited to contemplate resonance and nuance in the surrounding text. “I couldn’t do the thing that I’d originally planned,” Abel says. “But the thing that was there was actually doing the work that I’d wanted it to do anyway.”
The juxtaposition of elements – both text-based and visual – is inextricable from the meaning built into the story Abel is telling in NISHGA. The various pieces, fragmentary and evanescent on their own, grow in nuance and implication when placed alongside one another, an effect that was very much front of mind for Abel as he was assembling the manuscript. “You encounter document after document that you kind of piece together. And the reading practice is adjusted accordingly,” he says. “There is something that is accomplished by some of the found documentation – and I’m thinking specifically about the photographs and some of the concrete poetry – that can’t be articulated as well through prose or through text.”
One key document Abel employs is a book called Totem Poles by Canadian ethnographer and anthropologist Marius Barbeau, which Abel discovered in a library after deciding to research his Nisga’a background. Abel credits Barbeau’s book – which in NISHGA he calls “a deeply distorted colonial representation of Nisga’a knowledge and Nisga’a worldviews” – with offering him a doorway onto his own cultural heritage. Though the fact of discovering this heritage in the pages of a book by a white settler writer was something of a double-edged sword. “I felt these incredible feelings of shame and frustration,” Abel says. “But also [it was] this kind of turning point in my life, where I felt like I had learned something profound about the way the world worked and the way I fit into it. And I had to speak to that in some way.”
The way he decided to speak to his unease was by incorporating Barbeau’s text in an erasure poem that first appeared in The Place of Scraps and is reproduced in NISHGA. Erasure poetry, for Abel, provides an opportunity to reclaim language and stories that have been appropriated or otherwise misused by white writers, while simultaneously offering a mechanism to visually represent the ways Indigenous voices have been silenced over centuries. “I think that’s a powerful act, to confront that kind of text and to turn it and shape it for my own purposes,” Abel says. “It in some ways replicates the way those colonial practices worked.”
One of Barbeau’s most egregious transgressions involved a Nisga’a totem pole that the anthropologist “essentially stole” from the Kincolith community Abel’s grandparents came from. In NISHGA, Abel writes of seeing this totem pole on display in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and not realizing its connection to his own history. The recognition of the totem pole’s relevance to Abel’s own family heritage was humbling, but Abel is also cognizant of the way in which the artifact’s placement in the ROM conveys to white viewers the sense that Indigenous people and culture are consigned to some distant past, rather than remaining relevant in the 21st century present. “When you go to the museum and see the totem poles next to Ancient Egypt and dinosaur bones, there’s a way in which you’re invited to see all of those things as being equally part of the past.”
This, combined with a recognition of Western nostalgia for an idealized past, informs much of Abel’s writing, underscoring the extent to which Indigenous voices and experiences are either exoticized or suppressed altogether. “Nostalgia is everywhere in North America,” he says. “On the other side of that are Indigenous Peoples just literally trying to continue to exist.”
The question at the beating heart of NISHGA is: what does it mean to exist as an Indigenous person if you have been the victim of intergenerational trauma, displacement, loss of language and cultural inheritance? This question is exacerbated by a Canadian state that pays lip service to reconciliation while not implementing policies that will even provide the country’s Indigenous Peoples with basic necessities such as clean drinking water. “To me, the root of the problem is colonialism,” Abel says. “As a country, our approach collectively toward Indigenous people is very lacking.”
Abel shows, through his multimedia, polyvalent narrative, the way this lack negatively affects multiple generations of Indigenous families, replicating trauma and hurt that gets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. If there is a catharsis to be found in these pages, it is perhaps in Abel’s own dogged pursuit of his identity, and his recognition that dispossession as a result of government policies he had nothing to do with does not render that identity any less legitimate. “Going home is not only a geographical space, but a physical space,” Abel says. “It’s also a journey that will be with me, I’m pretty sure, the rest of my life.”