As It Happens

Jordan Abel's book about intergenerational trauma will be there when you need it

Jordan Abel wants you to know that you don't have to read his new book Nishga if you're not ready. The subject matter — residential schools, dispossession and intergenerational trauma — might be too much to handle. But he hopes that people will find it when they need it.

The award-winning Nisga'a poet explores his own family history and Indigenous identity in Nishga 

Writer Jordan Abel is shown during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto in 2017. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

This article was originally published on May 20, 2021.

Jordan Abel wants you to know that you don't have to read his new book if you're not ready.

The award-winning Nisga'a author opens his new autobiography Nishga with an open letter that serves as a sort of content warning for the difficult subject matter to come. It's addressed to "all my relations," by which he means his family, his communities and all Indigenous Peoples.

"It's a book that was really difficult for me, and I think it potentially could be difficult for others too," Abel told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It's a book about intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession and the afterlife of residential schools. But it's also a book about sexual and physical violence, lateral violence, depression, suicide and self-harm. And so I think depending on where you're at at any given moment, you know, this might not be the book for you at this particular time."

But for others, he says, it might be exactly the book they need in this moment.

"I also wish that somebody else had written this book, you know, so that I could have read it earlier in my life and understood my own life better. That didn't happen. But hopefully that can be a thing and a moment that other people have," he said.

"I really hope that the people who need this kind of book find their way to it."

'Fractured' families 

Abel is no stranger to writing about Indigenous issues. He teaches Indigenous literature and creative writing at the University of Alberta. His book Injun, which is comprised of poems based on 91 Western novels, won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017.

But Nishga is personal in a way that he hasn't quite attempted before. 

"This is one of those books that I've been trying to write my whole life in a lot of ways," he said.

"It's a book about my life and my parents' lives … and my grandparents' lives. And, you know, it's one that I never intended to write, but also, it felt like I was always moving towards this moment where I would have to find some way to write about intergenerational trauma."

No ordinary autobiography, Nishga weaves Abel's prose alongside images of archival documents and snippets from other works and writing. Photos and illustrations sit between poems like visual sinew. Images of Abel's family and history are superimposed over stunning Nisga'a artwork, including paintings by Abel's own father, Lawrence Wilson. 

"This book is being published as a work of creative nonfiction, but I see it as a multi-genre work," he said.

The first page of Abel's Nishga shows text and images silhouetted in the book's title. Abel says the book is a 'multi-genre work' that makes use of images, poetry, art and more. (Penguin Random House Canada)

If the final product feels fragmented, that's because so is Abel's family and identity — something he says is common among Indigenous people living under colonialism. 

He never knew his grandparents, who are both residential school survivors. He no longer has any tangible connections to Gingolx, the Nisg̱a'a community in B.C. that they come from. He didn't meet his father until he was 23.

So to understand his own history, he had to go on an excavation mission. 

Part of that meant visiting the site of the former Coqualeetza Residential School in B.C, where his grandparents were taken, and pouring through available documents about the school's history.

"It's been a very difficult place to return to, both spiritually and physically," he said. 

The violence that ripples outwards from the Coqualeetza Residential School really has fractured family. And I think that's most likely a very common experience for a lot of people who are in my position.- Jordan Abel, author of Nishga

Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. 

Abuse and neglect were rampant in the schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 6,000 children died from disease, malnourishment, suicide, failed escape attempts and more. 

But Abel doesn't know much about his grandparents' experiences. He found pages and pages of receipts for the school's lumber purchases — but nothing with his family's faces or names. 

"There's all of these layers of depth and history that I would have loved to dive into, that I would have loved to just learn a little bit more about my grandparents and especially to learn more about their experiences at that school in particular. And those documents simply just weren't available to me," Abel said.

"Part of the understanding that I've come to is that … the violence that ripples outwards from the Coqualeetza Residential School really has fractured family. And I think that's most likely a very common experience for a lot of people who are in my position."

Questions left unanswered 

When Abel was a young man, he says he thought meeting his father would address all the unanswered questions he had about who he was and where he came from. But when he finally got his wish, it left him wanting more. 

"When I met him that one time when I was 23, that was a huge turning point for me personally, for a lot of different reasons. But one of those reasons was that I realized all of the questions that I wanted to ask my dad and all of the stuff that had been building up inside for those 23 years, it was bigger than just him. And that was ultimately the path that, you know, led me to this book."

The cover Abel's new book, Nishga, an autobiographical account of intergenerational trauma. (Penguin Random House Canada )

In the end, Nishga asks more questions than it answers. For example, what does it mean to be Nisga'a? What does it mean to be Indigenous? What counts as lived Indigenous experience?

"I think those questions are still really good ones. And I'm still asking them today, and I don't know if there's an easy answer to any of them," Abel said.

"I hope they're questions that we all continue to ask, and that we also show kindness to those Indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed from their homes and communities, who have been severed from their home territories and, you know, who are trying to find their way back home."

What "home" means is another question he's still trying to unpack.

"I still haven't quite figured out what that is," he said, "be it like a geographical place or, you know, a spiritual place. And finding my way through that, I think, has been a challenge, and is the challenge of this book, and I think will continue to be a challenge for me moving forward."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now