Does Jordan Abel really need an introduction? He’s one of the most exciting poets in Canada, and I am so grateful he took the time to chat with me about the hardest things. I think it’s devastating that Jordan’s answer to my usual question went straight to racism. As writers and audience members and organizers of festivals and readings and makers of literary culture, we need to do better.
Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from BC. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD at Simon Fraser University where his research concentrates on the intersection between Digital Humanities and Indigenous Literary Studies. Abel’s creative work has recently been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry (Tightrope), The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation (Arbiter Ring), and The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayword). Abel is the author of Injun, Un/inhabited, and The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award). He’s on Twitter at @jordoisdead.
Before we get started, can we just watch a video of Jordan doing his bloody awesome thing?
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Jordan. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
JORDAN ABEL: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever articulated this before. Or at least not in this way. But I think one of the hardest parts of being a writer is dealing with discrimination. For me, this manifests mostly as racism. But, that being said, I know numerous other writers who have experienced other forms of discrimination based on gender, sexuality, age, ability and class. I think, what’s so difficult about dealing/coping/resisting individual acts of discrimination is that we, as the targets of those discriminatory acts, actually have to deal with it. Really, we’ve got no choice. Whether we want to or not we have to deal with it. It’s exhausting.
So, for example, I went to the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival this year. I was a bit unlucky because I got the first slot on the first day and almost the last slot on the last day. So I was, more or less, committed to being at the festival for the duration. Literally, the first question I got after finishing my first performance was about how much white blood I had in me. I think she actually said, “how much white blood do you have in you?” In response, I said “my blood is red” and moved to the next question. Later the next day, I was having conversation with my friend who was also an author performing at the festival and the same person came up to me again. This time, she told me that the last Indigenous writer to come to the festival had killed himself and that I shouldn’t kill myself. Which was a totally fucked up thing to say. My friend was shocked by this interaction, and did his best to intervene. But, needless to say, it was a situation that I wanted to remove myself from as quickly as possible. If I didn’t have another event that I needed to stick around to participate in, I would have just left. I mean, that’s also the difficulty of that kind of festival in a remote-ish place. But I guess that’s another issue.
SM: First of all – UGH. I am sorry that you were treated so badly. I send you many hugs.
This experience makes me think about how hard it is to be a racialized person in general – how (white) people’s curiosity about difference leads them to make stupid, hurtful conversation. It’s really no comparison to your experience, but as an example, I get grilled on my ethnicity whenever I give my name at Starbucks for a coffee order. Baristas stare at my face like I’m a dog at the dog park and they’re trying to guess my breed. “My father was Japanese-Canadian,” I finally say, and their faces light up. “I knew it!” they say, like they’ve just won a prize, and that prize is my degradation. Then they continue to grill me on whether or not I speak Japanese, and why not, and what a shame that is, and I’m just like, can I have my latte, please?
I’m wondering if one could come up with some sort of set statement to say before public appearances, to let (white) people know that people of colour aren’t up a race conversation. You say your friend was there and tried to intervene – I would like one of those friends with me, always. Maybe we can hire handlers who can field these conversations for us.
As a writer whose books bring Indigenous identity and issues into a usually mostly-white reading and performance space, have you developed any strategies to deal with these unwanted conversations? Have organizers or moderators showed any kind of sensitivity to the issue of you being an Indigenous person walking into a mostly white room?
JA: Ah, I totally hear you! For some reason, some people – and here I want to say mostly white people but some racialized people too – project on us and/or expect us to perform their expectations of us. What’s so strange about that, I think, is that we very often don’t fit those expectations/projections. And, I would argue, that is because those expectations/projections are deeply flawed. I always feel this acutely when the subject of language comes up. So I’m glad you brought that up! I feel like I have often had similar experiences to the one you described. Often people will ask me what it was like growing up in Nisga’a territory or ask me if I speak Nisga’a. I didn’t. And I don’t. Although I really would love to learn at some point. Actually, at the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival this year, my second event was a Q&A with a few other authors, and the host of the event interviewed each of us individually. And the first question he asked me was “what was it like growing up in Nisga’a territory.” In all fairness to the interviewer, I was a somewhat last-minute addition to the festival because of a cancellation so I don’t believe he had as much time as he would have liked to prepare. But what really frustrated me about that question (and about that assumption) was that it carried with it this flawed belief that all Indigenous peoples are born in their home communities. That all Indigenous people grew up speaking an Indigenous language. Or even just had a close connection somehow to family and friends that still live in that community. This assumption is totally flawed. I grew up on the other side of the country from my community. I grew up with the settler side of my family in Ontario. I honestly did not even meet another Nisga’a person (with the exception of those that I met when I was an infant) until I was 22. For me, personally, that has always stung a bit. I would have loved to have a closer connection to my community when I was growing up. Even now I would love to. But none of my family lives there anymore. In any case, when that question comes up – when they ask me about my experience growing up in my community or my ability to speak the Nisga’a language – it opens up a gaping hole in my heart. All of this leads me to wonder why they ask us questions like that in the first place. And I think the reason is that they genuinely don’t understand what it means to be Indigenous, to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools, or to experience life as an Indigenous person in a primarily urban setting. Or, even more generally, they don’t truly understand non-white, non-settler experiences.
Coming back to your question, though, I’m not sure if I have had that many moderators/organizers who have helped me deal with questions like this. For poetry readings, I’ve found most organizers are really hands off once they introduce you. The way I’ve experienced it is that once you step up to the microphone, the whole floor is yours until you walk away. In an academic context, though, I do find that moderators of panels (and/or fellow panelists) will often step in if things start to go sideways. I really think your solution is the most enjoyable one, though. To basically have a friend/unwanted-question-bodyguard by your sides all times to bat away unwanted topics/inquiries.
All that being said, though, I would say that my fellow writers are the people that always seem to come through in helping me navigate difficult situations.
SM: I’m glad you have found support in your fellow writers. I really hope our community catches on that adding an Indigenous name to the bill isn’t enough in the work of reconciliation and decolonization. If it were up to you, what mechanisms would we need to put in place to decolonize a reading/performance space?
JA: You know, as much as I’ve complained here about frustrating and ignorant questions, I do honestly believe that education is the key to decolonization. I mean, I think it would be such a dream if everyone that walked into a reading/performance space was deeply considerate, intelligent and knowledgeable about race/gender/sexuality/class/ability. And here I should say that I’m pretty sure that most people are. But there are obviously some that are not. I guess the question (at least for me) then becomes whether or not the reading/performance space is also an educational space. And further to that if the role of the performer is also the role of the educator.
Honestly, I’m not totally sure how to feel about this. In my other non-poet life, I am an occasional educator. And in the classroom, I always tell my students they can ask me anything. And I’m pretty sure I’ve reassured them with the old cliché that there are no dumb questions. Do I cease to be an educator when I leave the classroom? I don’t know. Maybe? I’d love to be a full time educator with the type of students that want to ask me questions all the time. But the truth, like I mentioned above, is that I am an occasional educator. An educator in a precarious employment position. My employer (when I have one) is barely paying me to teach inside of the classroom let alone outside of the classroom. So when I’m in a reading/performance space, my intention is primarily to be there as a writer. After all, they (presumably) invited me there as a writer not an educator. And the work I do is also work that I’m interested in, and work that I hope others are interested in too. And, yeah. I think it’s possible to learn some stuff about Indigenous history from my work. But does that mean that I need to be (or am supposed to be) a general educator about Indigenous experience in Canada? Maybe? I don’t know. I mean, I think that’s not my first choice in that kind of environment. I would much rather be answering intelligent and thoughtful questions about my creative work. You know: the kind that some of my other writer-friends get to answer. But if I am forced to answer a question (or address a comment) that requires intervening in some kind of troubling (in my case mostly racist) discourse, then, yeah, I definitely will do my best to make that intervention happen.
SM: A room full of people who have done the work to decolonize – from the organizers to the audience to the fellow writers on the bill – sounds like a dream. A dream I feel the urgency as a non-Indigenous person to work to make a reality, especially now more than ever.
If you could offer some words of advice to a new Indigenous writer about to walk up onto the stage in the mainly white room, what would it be?
JA: I feel like my advice would be this: you don’t owe anyone an explanation about who you are, what you do, or how you do it. If you want to talk about it, that’s cool. If you don’t, that’s cool too. I say this because I often feel like I get caught in this trap. Maybe because my work seems to invite questions like “how can you possibly read this?” and/or “is this even poetry?” and/or “what is this?” My reaction is often to try to answer these particular questions. And I think that might be a mistake. The people who read poetry, who are engaged with contemporary work, who are thoughtful . . . those people never ask this type of question. They ask better questions. The people who ask me “is this even poetry?” My feeling is that those people haven’t read any poetry that’s been published in the last 50 years. So, yeah, I would say you don’t owe anyone that type of explanation.
So, folks. What are you going to do to decolonize our literary culture?