On Nishga, Empty Spaces, and Experimental Art: An Interview with Jordan Abel

by Joseph Shea-Carter

Joseph Shea-Carter is a PhD student in Literary Studies in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph where he researches seemingly disparate pieces of poetry, film, and radio on the peripheries of mass culture that foreground material changes within or beyond the supposed spatial limits of contemporary political, social, and cultural institutions within Canada. He has a BA and MA from the University of Toronto where he studied Literature and Philosophy.

During the Summer of 2021 I interviewed the Nisga’a poet and writer Jordan Abel to mark the release of his genre-defying autobiographical book, Nishga. Penguin Random House describes the book as a “meditation that attempts to address the complicated legacies of Canada’s residential school system and contemporary Indigenous existence.” During our nearly two-hour conversation I talked to Abel about the painfully personal nature of the book, testimony, its temporal experimentation, his upcoming work, Empty Spaces, “ambient reading,” and resistant, experimental art. The interview was conducted over Zoom and then edited for clarity.


Joseph Shea-Carter: Nishga is a deeply personal book about your experiences as an intergenerational survivor of residential school and, as you say, of being “doubly dispossessed” from Nisga’a land and knowledge. At the same time, the book also contains an assortment of evocative academic extracts from a variety of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars. Could you comment on your reason for pairing the conceptual with the personal throughout the course of the book? 

Jordan Abel: I was trying to articulate the precise experience of what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools and I found it to be an incredibly difficult, slippery subject to tackle. I think this book could have looked different in different circumstances. I began writing this book when I was in my PhD at Simon Fraser University with the intention of having it stand in for my dissertation. As I was pitching the project and speaking to my supervisors, it became clear that while there was a lot of support for the idea of the book, the personal alone wasn’t going to be enough for them. They didn’t say it exactly in those words, but sometimes they did express they wanted more thorough grounding in particular kinds of research that would help shape the project. A lot of that reading and research was something I was engaged in and thinking about anyway.

At some point, I decided that I should lead partly in that direction, and once I started that process, I realized that some of the things that I wanted to write about and articulate were things that other non-academic writers hadn’t really touched upon in the same way that some academic writers had. There was a lot of material that came from traditional kinds of scholarship that I found really beneficial to shaping the book and the arguments that appear within the writing. In particular, I am thinking about Sam McKegney and Michelle Coupal. I talk about [both] in Nishga and [both] have done amazing scholarship on Indigenous literature/s that I think really helped to open up the idea that residential schools haunt all Indigenous literature/s in Canada, including my own writing. So those academic influences were important in addressing some of those moments. The way that the book is shaped through fragments, documents, and pieces was more of a creative strategy than an academic strategy that benefited the book in a lot of ways because it allowed me to move between academic and personal contexts fairly fluidly.

Joseph Shea-Carter: You brought up Indigenous literature/s … there is a significant section in Nishga where you claim Indigenous literature/s are often considered and taught as a form of testimony. You write that a work might be considered a testimonial if it was written to testify the deeply painful “complexities, ambivalences, and contradictions” of the experience of residential schools. You then proceed to reference thinkers who believe modern forms of testimony produced for the purposes of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission are constrained or perhaps, interpreted, by non-Indigenous narratives bound by what you suggest are the “boundaries of testimony that were originally shaped by the TRC.” I think it might be worth asking the same question you pose in the book: “What does testimony look like outside the TRC’s boundaries”? In my own limited interpretation, I think Nishga itself could be considered a form of testimony …

Jordan Abel: I posed that question and hoped that readers such as yourself would come to the conclusion that I myself lean towards, which is yes, Nishga is a form of testimony because the book centres the experiences of my family, of myself, and to the afterlife of residential schools. I do think it looks different to the more “official” versions of what testimonies look like for the TRC.

In terms of other Indigenous literature/s, I think it is on par with the ways some other books have attempted to grapple with the really difficult project of trying to write about residential schools and our relationships within and outside them. So, I really do think the book functions as a testimony. From there, we can think of how we respond and witness testimony. How do we witness Nishga? How do you understand it? Since the book came out, a lot of people have contacted me to say that they’ve read it and that it did something. In almost all cases, they were hesitant to say that they liked it or enjoyed it in the same way you may do with another piece of literature. I think there is a way that writing that speaks to Indigenous experiences functions as testimony.

… yes, Nishga is a form of testimony because the book centres the experiences of my family, of myself, and to the afterlife of residential schools. I do think it looks different to the more ‘official’ versions of what testimonies look like for the TRC.

JSC: At one point in Nishga you mention that you wrote the book because it was something you wished you were able to read earlier in your life. Can you imagine or have you ever thought about what it would have been like if you read Nishga or a book like it at an earlier stage in your life?

JA: I think about this all the time. I think if I had read a book similar to Nishga earlier in my life, I think I would have had a lot more questions answered or even asked for me more quickly.

Like what it means to be Indigenous but be dispossessed from your land or disconnected from your nation, or to be primarily living in urban centres disconnected from other Indigenous communities—these were questions that took me some time to arrive at in my personal life. It didn’t occur to me to even ask these questions for the longest time, and I think even now I still struggle with the answers sometimes. I’m not quite sure what the pathway forward is all the time or whether these questions even have answers. But I think I would have benefited from hearing these questions early in my life even if there aren’t firm answers—to know that I was allowed to ask these questions and linger and live with them would have been substantial and helped a lot in my personal life in moving forward and understanding what it means to just exist in this world.

I wrote in the book that I wished someone else had written the book so that I wouldn’t have had to suffer with it, and I still feel that way. I still feel like I would have preferred not to be the one to do this and I would have been very happy if someone else had. It was overdue for me in a lot of ways to do this book and I think this book was overdue. The book would have been something we really should have had earlier which is such a strange thing to say, because I also recognize we can only write the books that we can write. I am acutely aware that the kind of writing that I do is the only kind of writing that I can do. I guess that answer is full of contradictions [laughs] but I think that makes sense in this context.

I wrote in the book that I wished someone else had written the book so that I wouldn’t have had to suffer with it, and I still feel that way. I still feel like I would have preferred not to be the one to do this and I would have been very happy if someone else had.

JSC: I’m reminded of a section in the book where you describe not really being exposed to Indigenous literature/s during your undergraduate studies. It begs the question: what are students, or, more broadly, are we exposed to? What are we reading? What sort of Indigenous literature/s are we reading? You tend to gravitate towards more experimental, avant-garde writing. I think exposing people, especially young people, to a diverse range of writing is so important.

JA: Yes, I think there is a huge problem in that we so often don’t encounter Indigenous literature/s at all or if we do, it may be just a book or two. As a teacher, I am trying to change that as much as I can. It is a personal space that I am existing in as a teacher, but I am always trying to teach Indigenous literature/s whenever I can as well as poetry and writing that defies genre boundaries and expectations. I really do think part of the problem is that this writing for whatever reason never makes it to the classroom. It is “too difficult,” “too queer,” “too real,” “too whatever.” I do think that non-Indigenous teachers are reluctant to teach Indigenous writing even if they want to because they feel like they do not have the expertise to do so, which is a difficult stumbling block we have to figure out. I say this knowing that currently there is an upward trajectory—for example, more and more students are reading The Marrow Thieves in high schools which is wonderful. I wish that was [taught in] my high school classroom. My hope is that the people who read Cherie Diamaline’s book will go on to read Joshua Whitehead’s Johnny Appleseed or Billy-Ray Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms and find their way deeper into the world of Indigenous writing. Nishga may be useful for some people—I do think it might be difficult for high school students but who knows how one may find their way to the book. 

JSC: I want to ask you about a formal component of your writing. I noticed that a lot of your work plays with time and space. Throughout Nishga, you include timestamps alongside excerpts of some of your academic speaking arrangements. In a way, these indexes of time simultaneously sequence your work and arrange it on the page … documented pauses produce certain absences within the page and, in turn, evoke a deeper, existential absence. Considering time does not exist within a vacuum but is inextricably connected to place and/or space, I can’t help but wonder what Nishga’s formal or informal relationship to time is. In some ways, I read the book as a culminative point in your professional and personal life—a sequential moment within your larger body of work, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a significant temporal moment for you personally. Can you address why you included time in such a literal and affecting way throughout the entirety of the book? I am tempted to think that text’s inclusion of Shirley Green’s essay, Looking Back, Looking Forward can be interpreted in several ways …

JA: This is really interesting and there are a number of ways to approach and respond to this question. The book is arranged in a nonlinear order where the reader is invited into these spaces of the past and the present and there is a near constant moving between the spaces. The book was written like this because the story of my life and the story of intergenerational trauma, at least for me, is a nonlinear one—it is one that is past, present, and future—whatever that wake of violence that ripples outward from the Coqualeetza Residential School to me and my family. The violence is so deeply impacting that there is no right way to put the pieces of our lives back together in a way that makes sense in a linear kind of fashion.

Secondly, some of the writing in Nishga is primarily about reflecting on my previous artistic endeavours. At the very, very end, there is [also] this gesture toward my next project which is [called] Empty Spaces. So, in a way, Nishga attempts to account for the entirety of my past, present, and future artistic career. So, there is that movement too.

JSC: When I first approached you to talk about Nishga you were working on Empty Spaces. How is or was the writing process? How do you feel about Empty Spaces now, especially since you are currently doing press for Nishga?

JA: Unlike Nishga which is a super painful and difficult book, Empty Spaces was not painful at all in the same way because it is not autobiography, it is a work of fiction, and it comes out of this conceptual project where I was working with James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. From the book, I pulled out all these descriptions of land, landscape, and territory. I then had the idea to write over, through, and around those descriptions. And I mean quite literally. I would take a sentence and add in my own words, or I would take out one of his [Cooper’s] words, or I would rearrange some of his words and add in mine—I would do all these different kinds of impurely conceptual techniques and practices to dislodge Cooper within his own writing.

Empty Spaces as its own project is very much about rewriting, writing over, writing through—just endlessly revising and constantly shifting, reconfiguring, and reorganizing things.

That was how the writing process began and then it grew beyond the initial scope when I was about 4000 words into the project. I realized there were several pathways that I could potentially follow. I had 4000 words where I [had] rewritten, rearranged, deleted, and added to Cooper’s text—what would happen if I did the same process again? So, I took the first 4000 words I had written and reversed the order of all the sentences and started with the last sentence and just started working backwards. I rewrote the 4000 words the same way I did with Cooper’s work. When I got to the end of those 4000 words, I reversed the order of all the sentences, and started rewriting again. Empty Spaces as its own project is very much about rewriting, writing over, writing through—just endlessly revising and constantly shifting, reconfiguring, and reorganizing things.

It is a really intense text that I am currently very fond of—probably because it is my recent project that I am working on—but I [also] think about what the reading experience looks like and it is very strange. You are reading sentence after sentence of these descriptions of landscape and the outside. Someone described the text as being hypnotic and I love that […] the text is always moving forward but looping back. I imagine the reading experience kind of feels like the listening experience of ambient music. [laughs] It would be “ambient reading.”

JSC: I love the sound of that kind of reading experience. Do you listen to music while you write?

JA: Oh yeah, I do often! When I was writing Empty Spaces, I was listening to a lot of ambient synth and avant-garde electronic music which really inspired me to write. There is this artist, Oneothrix Point Never … they really blow my mind and I love so much of their music and other musicians and artists in similar veins. They really inspire me a lot. Sometimes in Oneothrix Point Never’s music, there are these really amazing, soft, uninteresting moments with really intense repetitions—it doesn’t really sound like music sometimes or at least, it doesn’t follow conventional pop music. The music would be invested in particular sounds for an extended period of time that would push me outside of my comfort zone sometimes as a listener and I was trying to carry forward a similar feeling into my own work. As a writer too, I think it is really important to look to other art forms to see how other artists and musicians are dealing with certain ideas.

JSC: When I read your writing I often imagine it musically … there is a distinct rhythm and beat to it … as if you could layer it on top of something and create a sonic landscape.

JA: If you ever have musical recommendations, I’m happy to have them.

 It was a really difficult thing to reconcile; that I could still like those things and want to do similar things in a way that made sense for me as an Indigenous person. In a way I had to indigenize the form.

JSC: That might be a rabbit hole [laughs]. As a final question, do you have any words of advice for emerging writers or multimedia artists who may specifically be interested in creating more experimental, genre-defying work?

JA: Totally. It’s funny because my first love in literature and art was always experimental, avant-garde stuff and those tend to be areas that are dominated by whiteness. It was a really difficult thing to reconcile; that I could still like those things and want to do similar things in a way that made sense for me as an Indigenous person. In a way I had to indigenize the form.

When I was initially seeking out these pathways I was met with a lot of resistance, not only from professors but also classmates who were interested in other forms that were more traditional. I found it really difficult to find the right kind of mentorship and the right kind of guidance but eventually I did. I think it is worth seeking out people who share and understand your vision and want and are willing to support you in your vision. […] So, try to surround yourself with people who love and embrace the things that you do and who want to help you do cool, experimental, genre-defying work.


Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. He is the author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize). Abel’s latest project NISHGA (a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and a finalist for the Betsy Warland Between Genres Award) is a deeply personal and autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence and the often invisible intergenerational impact of residential schools. Abel recently completed a PhD at Simon Fraser University, and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta where he teaches Indigenous Literatures and Creative Writing.


Joseph Shea-Carter is a PhD student in Literary Studies in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph where he researches seemingly disparate pieces of poetry, film, and radio on the peripheries of mass culture that foreground material changes within or beyond the supposed spatial limits of contemporary political, social, and cultural institutions within Canada. He has a BA and MA from the University of Toronto where he studied Literature and Philosophy.

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