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Nishga

by Jordan Abel

Griffin Poetry Prize winner Jordan Abel (Nisga’a) presents readers with his fourth book, a multi-modal memoir and cultural document that uses the techniques of collage, overlaying, and juxtaposition – among others – to tell a story about intergenerational trauma and its wide-ranging effects.

While this is a memoir, it covers many generations, which sets it apart from other books in the category and complicates the very notion of what memoir can do. Simultaneously, Nishga is an extended lyric essay, in the vein of Claudia Rankine’s work. It’s part of a genre that expects meaning to accrue through what Amy Bonnaffons cites (in “Bodies of Text: On the Lyric Essay”) as featured elements: gaps in the text, use of white space, “nodes,” and “networks.” In some ways, Nishga is also a long poem.

What this ought to illustrate is that Abel’s book isn’t easily slotted into one genre; this choice to use many approaches – to be hybrid, complicated, and difficult to label – is fundamental to understanding the text. The slipperiness in Nishga allows the form to more fully represent traumatic content with a power that words or images alone might struggle to harness. There is no resolution here, only a struggling through trauma by way of art.

Early in Abel’s text, a section of an interview is interpolated between two photographs. Both images have been overlaid with others, until what accrues – here and elsewhere – is a kind of ghostly presence. Sometimes, superimposed images fade together, creating emphasis on the central figure. Other times, as in the visual following the segment of interview with Sachiko Murakami, the individual overlays are exceedingly clear.

Abel and Murakami’s discussion is about literary festivals (and everyday life) where “mostly white people but some racialized people too project on us and/or expect us to perform their expectations of us.” The visual that follows is striking. Three people hover in the background; laid on top of them is a close up of a boy’s face, his eyes bulging out unnaturally as if he’s carved out of wood. A hand holds the boy’s chin and ghost-like arms reach for him, surrounding him. In the compilation, the idea of people “project[ing] on us and/or expect[ing] us to perform” is echoed and deepened. Throughout Nishga, the photographs and artwork are unattributed, occasionally too blurry to comprehend, and structured to visually replicate the experience of accessing traumatic memory.

Elements in the images return throughout the book in different contexts. Eyes and masks reoccur frequently. Later in the text, the masks are revealed to be art objects created by Abel’s father. The intentional manipulation of visuals teaches the reader that this art cannot be viewed through a neutral lens but must be placed in the context of fragmentation and its effects.

For Indigenous peoples raised outside their communities and dispossessed of their languages and cultural knowledge, identity is often fragmented and interrogated. Abel’s chosen structure dramatizes how these sharply fractured edges are caused by colonialism. In response to the question “Where are you from?” Abel’s narrative reveals fissures: “‘I’m Nisga’a,’ [Abel] said. ‘My grandparents were from Kincolith.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve had to give that answer, but every time I do I can’t help but feel like it’s the only right answer, even though I’m not sure that it is.” Following scholar Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis), Abel asks his readers to “think through position rather than identity.” Doing so, he suggests, “importantly shifts the conversation about identity away from the problematic discourses of authenticity.”

After talking to his aunt about their family history, Abel writes, “I understood why my experience of Indigeneity was primarily based around confusion, disconnection, and isolation. … [E]ven though I never attended Residential Schools, my life had actually been profoundly impacted by an intergenerational trajectory of violence, and that violence perpetrated by those schools doesn’t just stop after the schools were closed or after the apology was issued.” In a section titled “An Open Letter to All My Relations,” Able writes, “While I ultimately hope this will be a book that helps people, I also want you to take care of yourself first. If now is not the time, there will be another time.” This is a caution to be heeded. Nishga is an exceptional work of art. It is also a work that will ask Indigenous readers to relive communal traumas as well as personal ones.

By contrast, the book demands that settler readers “destabilize [their] reading practice” in an attempt to “understand and relate to an Indigenous experience and an experience of intergenerational trauma.” Most importantly, it asks them to bear witness – “not only listen to and understand the testimony, but also carry it forward.”

Abel quotes Samantha Nock (Cree-Métis): “When we witness a story we are not only physically present, but emotionally and spiritually. … When someone tells us their story, that story becomes a part of us.”