Research Profile: Jordan Abel

September 15, 2015

PhD student Jordan Abel, of the Nisga’a Nation, is a prize-winning poet who is using his three-year $54,000 Graduate Aboriginal Entrance Scholarship to study the poetics of decolonization.

“Decolonization is about recognizing that settler colonialism is a structure, not an event,” says Abel, “and that Indigenous people need to destabilize that ongoing structure of colonialism.”

Abel earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC but chose to pursue his PhD at SFU for the chance to study under English professors such as Stephen Collis, Sophie McCall, Jeff Derksen and Clint Burnham. As well, he says, “SFU is very welcoming to me as an Indigenous person. I really appreciate all of the resources I have access to now, such as the Indigenous Student Centre. It’s amazing.”

For his PhD thesis he is studying how decolonization is reflected in the works of contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous poets. His interest in the topic is reflected in his own poetry. In 2014 his poetry book, “The Place of Scraps,” published by Talon Books, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for B.C.’s best poetry book. It is about appropriated anthropology, and centres on early 20th-century anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who studied First Nations communities and subsequently purchased and removed their totems and potlatch items.

Abel has just completed a second book, Un/inhabited, published by Project Space Press, in which the poetry is constructed entirely from public domain western novels available online through Project Gutenberg. He copied and pasted all 91 western novels into a single Word document, then searched for words related to the political and social aspects of land, territory and ownership. “Each search query in the book represents a study in context,” he says. “How were specific words deployed, what surrounded those words and what was left over once they were removed? “Ultimately, the book is an investigation of the interconnections between language and land. It looks at the public domain as a landform that is subject to all the things that landforms can be subject to, such as inhabitation and extraction.”

Abel says his work helps Indigenous people recognize different modes of decolonization. It also helps him in his own quest for “personal decolonization” as he strives to discover how to become a contemporary Indigenous person in an urban, non-Indigenous environment.

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