Lanterns buried: Injun by Jordan Abel

From the mid-60s through the mid-70s, I attended a small rural school west of Calgary, Alberta in western Canada. Treaty 7 land, though no one called it that. Children were bussed in from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation (though no one called it that either). The majority would not last beyond grade 5. This was the era of the Sixties Scoop when children were pulled from their homes and placed in foster care, and the wounds of the Residential School System (which was still in operation) ran deep. All we knew was that our friends disappeared one by one. And what did we know of the Indigenous populations of our region? Nothing. In school, when it came time to learn about “Indians,” we studied the Iroquois. The “people of the longhouse” are, let’s say for the sake of argument, about 3,000 kilometres off target.

I am also old enough to remember watching old Western movies and reruns of The Lone Ranger on TV on Saturday afternoons, and to have played “cowboys and Indians” without a second thought. Yet wise enough that, several decades later, when I took my own children to the library to see a screening of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, I was absolutely ashamed and horrified by the depiction of the native characters in the film. I had a long talk with the kids afterward, insisting that it was not acceptable to entertain those offensive stereotypes under any circumstances. But it is only in recent years that the full force of the need to address the impact of colonialism at home and elsewhere has really started to settle into my consciousness in a profound way.

My most important role now is to listen.

One of the most exciting young Indigenous voices here in Canada today belongs to Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. His book Injun, the winner of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize is a vital examination of racism and the language of hate. However, for anyone anticipating conventional verse, that expectation is quickly undone in this inventive exercise to reclaim a dehumanizing and insulting slur and undermine the mythology of the West that still holds a romantic appeal. The decorations and themes of the annual Calgary Stampede in my hometown may have been toned down and “corrected,” but the subtext of the spectacle is still intact.

Abel’s work stands, as a reflection of his academic study, at the intersection of the Digital Humanities and Indigenous Literary Studies. He mines documents in the public domain to create what might be imagined as a “revisioned” literature. His third collection, Injun, is a powerful and necessary project of reclamation in the face of a long history of racism, an inventive exercise in decolonial poetics that takes as its initial source material 91 western novels. Using Control+F, he searched these texts for the word “injun” and came up with 509 results.  As he explains:

After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five- word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would arrange a page until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.

I am aware that many are apprehensive about poetry at its most conventional. They may be wondering what it is like to enter into the territory claimed by Injun. The 26-part title poem, “Injun” runs from strangely lyrical couplets, to the increasingly disjointed and abstracted, and back again to verses formed with fragmented, wounded words. Roughly two thirds of the way through, at its most dispersed, the text flips over and the final sections are read upside down. The format, in itself, speaks to the legacy of colonialism: peoples disrupted, dispersed, almost destroyed, slowly healing. It is not “easy” to read, nor should it be. But is not as difficult or inaccessible as it may sound. Part c), for example, reads:

Some fearful heap
some crooked swell

bent towards him
and produced a pair

of nickel-plated pullers
a bull winder of

dirty tenderness*
that stiffened into

that low-brow ice
that dead injun game

Later, section u) begins:

             th e  d ayki     cksup
lik         e a pa  ck of wo       lves
o              n the         c     ut

    bu   zza            rds
ar     efin              e b     irds
th       at a   refo           ol    ed
b      y m    y    re           dsk   in*
sc  ent

The poem is followed by “Notes.” In this part, faded fragments of sentences containing words marked by numbered notation in the preceding poem (asterisks here, i.e. tenderness, redskin) are aligned by the specific word in bold print, offering an interesting indication of context. As one might expect, a selection of passages containing words like warpath, squaw, or scalped, leave an ugly taste in the mouth.

The final part, “Appendix” is effectively an extended prose piece, created, I presume, by running through the stream of sentences harvested from the source material and digitally erasing every occurrence of i-n-j-u-n. Thus, the very texts that have arisen from and perpetuated a white mythology of the Wild West, are sifted and distilled to create a condensed narrative that is difficult to read without flinching. There is a delicious irony in the repurposing of this material in this way. But the blank spaces solve nothing. They only serve to render visible the ugliness of hatred and racism, and the resulting erasure and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of language from this “canon” of Western pulp fiction, becomes a sharp commentary on appropriation and how it functions as an instrument of colonialism.

An important and experimentally powerful work, Injun is much more than an exercise in abstraction and recombination. It is a defiant act of reclamation, another step toward the recovery of identity. Nonetheless, it is also a commanding example of the ability of digital tools to assist in the creation of literature.

To that final note, the methodology employed here holds particular interest to me with respect to a project I’m working on to honour my father using material salvaged from his Russian literature collection, the translations of which are almost certainly in the public domain. I wish I had been paying more attention to the Canadian poetry scene before I met Jordan Abel a few weeks ago here at Wordfest. I knew he had won a major award and we talked about writing and poetry as I drove him from the hotel to the venue and back for a sound check, but had I been more familiar with his work beforehand I would have engaged in a serious discussion of technique! All the same, he is a great guy, and an exciting talent to watch.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “Lanterns buried: Injun by Jordan Abel”

  1. I have a copy here on my shelf here, all the way down here in Australia, you’ve prompted me to promote it up the hierarchy in the “upcoming” to be read pile. I bought this a while ago when I had read about the research approach and thought the subject matter and the experimentation would slot nicely into my reading agenda.
    A very well written piece Joe, I’d never have the depth of language to explain how you have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tony. I always feel I lack the language for writing about poetry that you have. But I am determined not to let that stop me. This is an innovative piece and will have resonance for you given your understanding of and passion for Indigenous issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating piece Joe. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable about the stereotypes in Westerns when I was growing up – maybe as a non-North American the problems with the portrayals seemed more obvious. Obviously a very important act of reclamation going on here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In the province I live in, history is not part of the curriculum. There is a strong movement, to change that, but we have a long way to go. The process of Reconciliation is helping to change the conversation and understanding around Indigenous issues.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The late Kevin from Canada used to say that there were many things that Canada and Australia have in common, and the issue of facing up to a shameful history is one of them. We too have a long way to go, not helped by some truly awful politicians who have pandered to the racism of denial.
    Re the language of poetry reviews: bouquets to both of you I say!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My time in the Northern Territory really brought home the parallels. Our recent readers’ festival had a good diverse representation of Indigenous Canadian writers (plus Witi Ihimaera from NZ).

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  4. This is a wonderful review. I’m intimidated my poetry but I find the methodology here so fascinating. Reminds me of a poem in Even This Page is white that was made of the comments section of an article about Kanye West!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating review. After following Lisa’s blog for a few years now, I can’t help seeing the similarities between Australia and Canada on this topic.
    Experimental poetry in English is a no go for me but I enjoyed reading your review and learning about this project.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Emma. Australia and Canada share many of the same post colonial concerns. And here, of course, we have both English and French colonial history. I was in central Australia this year, on a trek that raised funds for Indigenous women, and was quite struck by the similarities when talking to the women about their history. (Also had a totally awesome day with Lisa in Melbourne!)

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      1. I remember reading about your trip. It seemed fantastic.
        I’m currently preparing mine and I’m buried in tourist guides, trying to imagine our tour. I hope I’ll get to meet Lisa too.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought this was a fascinating collection – and I think you’ve described it and presented it tremendously well – but my reader’s heart still belongs to his The Place of Scraps, perhaps because it was the first of his which I read, and I had no expectations, so I stumbled into this fragmented mess of presence and absence, which should have sent me scurrying away at quite a pace (as I’m not a very adventurous reader, really, voracious and enthusiastic, but not experimental) but pulled me in, instead, insistently and determinedly. He changed the way I look at the world and I hope you’ve encouraged many people to give Injun a try!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t read Injun yet, but have his previous two. Place of Scraps is brilliant. I return to it often and teach it any opportunity possible. He’s so smart, but also so kind and sweet in person. I want the absolute best for him–he’s a good one!

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    1. It’s a very impressive work, and I’m happy to see something like this recognized by The Griffin Prize. My project with my father’s collection is not fully defined but involves using constraints to extract material and create literature that honours him yet allows me creative expression which, in contrast with the very personal work I write, affords distance (there is a double meaning in that alone).

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