SFU alumni Dr. Jordan Abel on reimagining academia and literature

A look at the Nisga’a poet and a recap of A Conversation with Jordan Abel

Photo courtesy of SFU Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Written by: Emma Jean, Staff Writer

Dr. Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a poet, writer, and professor, doesn’t often get the chance to talk about his dissertation process. As an SFU doctoral graduate himself, he was the first speaker of SFU’s Supervision in the 21st Century series focusing on the future of graduate research, in the event A Conversation with Jordan Abel. He told the audience that he was very “intrigued” to be asked to discuss it and had a lot he wanted to contribute. 

Hosted by the Department of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Dr. Abel discussed how he developed his Ph.D. dissertation at SFU to go beyond convention and incorporate photography, poetry, and autobiography to fully capture the complexities of his research and experience. Out of this process grew the book, Nishga

As someone who finds poetry a beautiful but baffling art form, Dr. Abel’s event intrigued me as he not only understands his craft but has mastered it. I also wanted to hear Dr. Abel’s perspective on higher education as a Nisga’a person in academia, on the West Coast, and in the world at-large. As a settler interested in reimagining higher education, I think it’s necessary to listen to Indigenous voices in this realm. 

Joining Dr. Abel in conversation was Dr. Deanna Reder, a Cree-Métis Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies and English Literature at SFU and member of Dr. Abel’s Ph.D. supervisory board. 

Telling the virtual audience he was “super stoked” to be joining them from his home on Treaty Six territory, Dr. Abel joked, “[being] in my basement with my X-Files poster behind me is not quite the most professional background [ . . . ] but there you go.”

Since many graduate students were in attendance, both the audience and Dr. Abel were glad to discuss his dissertation process. Drawing inspiration from Natalie Loveless’ book How to Make Art at the End of the World, he discussed how a reimagined version that went beyond writing “books that aren’t books” could benefit not only the research and project itself, but its full accessibility outside of the academic world.

“[Making our research public], whether it be through an academic book or a creative book or an art show, is [something] that allows us to expand our vision of what our research might look like and how we might ultimately present it. It really reminds me a lot of the ways we discuss form in poetry, which is to say that, in poetry, the form and the content should be activating each other.”

Abel continued, “The form needs to respond to the content, and the content needs to respond to the form; just having the form as a [conventional] dissertation is perhaps too narrow to accommodate all of the many ways in which our research may take form.”

Considering Dr. Abel’s body of work, it seems natural that his dissertation would transcend genre. His previous works have taken settler-colonial accounts of Indigenous life as source material, peeling back the layers to make poetry from their words in order to find the meaning and consequences of the original pieces. 

For his 2013 book, The Place of Scraps, Dr. Abel used an 18th-century ethnographer’s accounts which attempted to erase First Nations cultures on the Pacific Northwest under the guise of documenting them. In his 2016 book, Injun, which won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, he deconstructed western pulp novels, creating his own poetry out of their words, to call attention to their racist portrayals of Indigenous peoples.

Nishga, however, is structured differently. Set to release on May 18, 2021, the work uses Dr. Abel’s own family as his source material to describe the “afterlife of residential schools” and the intergenerational trauma that it left on his family — his grandparents were survivors of the schools.

“There was no alternative [for] me than writing about [it] personally. I think for other people in other circumstances, [they] could imagine a way to write about [ . . . ] the wake of violence that ripples outwards from residential schools in a way that isn’t personal. For me, I couldn’t even imagine what that would look like.” He continued, “I’ve experienced it in such a particular, embodied way that the only way I could even understand it was to try to understand my own experience.”

As Dr. Reder puts it, looking at one’s own life to find material is “an Indigenous intellectual tradition. 

“How else are you going to write about anything without relying on the autobiographical, given the almost absence of Indigenous histories in the academy, but of course, in the world?” she said. “[It’s a] necessary assertion of [saying] ‘Hi! I’m here!’”

While Dr. Abel is now an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta teaching Indigenous Literature and Creative Writing, he says a position like that was far from certain when he began his postgraduate studies.

“When I began my Ph.D., I had no idea whether or not there would be a job waiting for me at the other end and, based on the job market at the time, there might possibly be no job at all when I finished my Ph.D. in my field. That was a moment where I really realized that I have neither the time nor patience to write a book that isn’t a book. I was really hoping that the Ph.D. would be a place where I could do work that was meaningful for me in some way regardless of the form that it took. I think Nishga was a project that really grew out of that discomfort,” he expressed.

In turn, Dr. Abel tentatively sees what grew out of Nishga as his next project: a series of written landscape portraits inspired by those he wrote for his dissertation. 

“It’s really strange to write but I’ve been really slowly and steadily working on it for the last few years, and it’s only been the last six months or so that it’s felt like a substantive project that may actually become its own book. I feel like I very often don’t want to say ‘this is my next project’ because you never know whether or not a project will just collapse in on itself,” he laughed, “but his one looks like it might be my next one. I’m spending all my time writing landscapes and thinking about what land looks like in fiction.”

Dr. Abel has an ability to thrive in the “slippery state between genres” to create academic and literary works that defy convention. Exposing the past to illuminate the present in his poetry, and expanding the academic definition of research to create a fuller understanding and display of it in his doctoral studies, makes him a fascinating, deeply insightful, and warm individual. His work will be incredibly worth following for many years to come.