In Conversation: Cecily Nicholson and Jordan Abel

Poetry, private archives, intergenerational trauma and accountability
In Conversation: Cecily Nicholson and Jordan Abel

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Poets, Cecily Nicholson and Jordan Abel engage in a conversation for Rungh.

CN: I want to start off by saying I appreciate your work. And I think many of us do. You've realized lots of accolades and achievements in a broad sense, but within the writers' community many people value your work and presence as well, in a really kind way. Seeking to be alongside, to study the work, it has a special call to it, to take part in the act of reading. It engages in a challenging way. It takes practice to read your work.

There are many elements of your approach that resonate for me. Particularly, as a Black woman, as a former ward of the state as I've talked with you a bit about—displaced, raised rurally, surrounded by white settler farming community… [both laughing], like, I think now oh my god this is a version of hell, but anyway, a survivor like so many of us, ongoing—I recall my early searches. They began pretty young, at libraries, for informational text, text with images because of course I didn't have the internet, searching mainly for faces that looked like mine as that's as vague as it was for me at one point.

What was common in our experience was that in the absence of people and community we learned early on to seek out literature, to seek out voices, in my case music, in your case also art, that might emulate or be open to histories that connect to us, and that that was a matter of necessity.

I appreciate very much your ongoing project in the recounting of your reading of Totem Poles by Marius Barbeau, the underpinning for the The Place of Scraps as many know, and further in the methodology you're fleshing out even more in your recent work.

Formatively, and now I'm going to quote you a bit, as the "first imperfect glimpse [you] had into Nisga'a culture" in part how you understand being an "intergenerational survivor of residential schools" and all the ways you come to use these bare resources growing up, to determine for yourself what it means to be Nisga'a.


"a lot of Indigenous writers and thinkers who are thinking about …how to confront colonialism but also how to move forward as Indigenous peoples … are thinking about returning to Indigenous knowledges and returning to Indigenous community, returning to Indigenous languages, and Indigenous traditions and allowing those knowledges and languages and cultures to inform our artistic practices or our practices in life or even our academic practices"


Your poetry is deft in its repurposing of the archive and that's a common thread throughout the work. As we've talked about before however, "the archive" from some vantages is not accessible, has been erased, is illegible, is framed in ways that are profoundly violent or insulating or never formed in the first place. At best it will always be incomplete.

In your own work critically—for Indigenous peoples of the Americas—as it starts out with it's dedication, addressing genocidal colonialism, residential school, intergenerational trauma, you are making clearer and clearer some of the disruptions you personally have experienced. In your new work could you talk about the use of your own archives—like I just started to call it the personal archive—documents: the interview, public talks, family correspondence, court document.

How did you come to approach your poetic work this way? What have been some of the challenges or surprises?

JA: Yeah, thanks so much for the amazing question. I do think you're right when you say the archive is the kind of through line that runs between all of my work and in this case—I like the term "personal archive" because that tends to be what I've gravitated toward here. And I think for my other works which are also deeply personal in some senses, but, you know, also impersonal because of the kind of archives I work with. The western novels are an archive that I engage with because of the misrepresentations of Indigenous people and because of the complications surrounding race. And my engagement with this is personal but the archive is somewhat impersonal.

I just found that when I was working with this material, and, when I was working with the idea of this book, and the idea of the book was just to talk about what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools for me personally. And that's actually been a really difficult thing to talk about in part because of the way I've experienced it.

I go into some of this detail in the book so far, but I talk about how I was separated from the Indigenous part of my family at a very early age and unable to connect back with the Nisga'a community and with my family until much later on in life and that absence of Indigenous community and culture and knowledge is actually a product of intergenerational violence. So, when I think about that and I think about how to address that, and even how to think through it myself, as a human who's attempting to locate my own position within Indigeneity and also within community, or position in relation to Indigenous community, as I said, that absence is a really a difficult thing to deal with, you know the actual absence of my family.

But there's also a silence that happens there too which is something that I think the work I've sent you so far hasn't quite addressed but a lot of the stuff that I talk about or a lot of the stuff that comes up in the personal archive is stuff that my parents never really talked to me about or if they did it wasn't in very great detail. So, the information that I learned through the personal archives actually informs how I understand my own position in relation to intergenerational violence. And a lot of that information is deeply personal and is in a large part about the physical and the sexual abuse that was in my family history that stems from, that I argue that can be seen in relation to my grandparents' experience in residential schools.

CN: I'm sorry to interrupt, but it needs to be read in relation to that maybe? Like you said "can be read" but does it need to be read in relation to that history?

JA: That's an interesting distinction. Yeah, I think that's how I'm reading it. Yeah.


"there's never too late of a point to reconnect to some sense of meaningful community in the context I think, as you describe, in relation to indigeneity, community and nation"


CN: I guess I'm just inviting you to circle back to your framework or your logic present in the work, that this is a part of intergenerational trauma—to maybe soften that sense of objectivity, you know that kind of academic mode where it's like, "if you care to read the data relative to…"—I think you're taking a stronger position in there and I think it's the right, it's righteous. Anyway, sorry to interrupt!

JA: No, no, that's okay. I think that there's something I've actually been thinking about, I think especially in relation to all the conversations that have been happening right now in popular culture surrounding sexual violence. And I think as a writer like one of the ways I'm thinking through it is that I want to, like I don't want to excuse the physical and sexual violence that I'm talking about in this work, but I do want to draw a connection between that violence and the legacy of violence that stems from Indian Residential Schools.

CN: Absolutely. I had wanted to talk to you about "accountability". I'm struck by your reference to it and I'm thinking particularly of the passage, I believe it's on page 28 or around there, and it's a thread of thoughts:

I'm telling you about my life because I am accountable not only to the Nisga'a community, / but I am also accountable to the communities of intergenerational survivors of residential schools / and the communities of urban indigenous peoples. / I'm accountable to the communities of dispossessed Indigenous peoples who are not able to find their way back to their communities because of an ongoing legacy of colonial violence. / I am accountable to myself / and I hope to talk openly about my subject position within the scope of Indigeneity.

Listening to this work based on your personal archive I'm trying to get a sense of how it connects to your notion of accountability. It strikes me that the statements are emphatic, they're issued as fact. There's not a question or a longing, like "I wish to be accountable", you're mapping out a clear statement of position related to a breadth of affinities, if you will, in some ways close to my heart, just thinking of the community I'm situated in, as a worker in the downtown eastside of Vancouver through the years, this, very much characterized by dispossession and displacement within the ongoing colonial violence here, is a breadth of urban Indigenous peoples.

So, thinking about that and thinking about "accountable" this deliberate language given the climate we're talking about, not just relative to sexual violence but in many ways in the pressing back against the institutional, the canonical, the (bear with me) racist-colonial-classist-heteronormative-ableist, as well as patriarchal and misogynist influences within literature, art, academia and the social order which continues to determine our conditions.

So, your statement stands out clearly and I think also vulnerably and I admire it. Could you talk further on the notion of accountability, what does this mean for poetry and art practice for you? How does that connect to your sense of community? I'm trying to get a sense of that actually, what kinds of solidarity stand out to you – both in terms of what you participate in, and what you might contribute to – and how is accountability actionable in your experience, in what ways is it done? I'm interested in your answer and I'm also thinking of the interview that you had with Sachiko in January this year.

I feel like you all touch on some important things to think through within a writer's community about working alongside each other and what we do in moments, like the Denman Island Festival [both laughing], like, we should have talked more about that! It was a very challenging experience and I could hear the way it was for you and I think more subtle for me the kinds of racism that tend to play out but, damnit. Anyway, so yeah, just asking if you can talk more on accountability and solidarity. How is accountability actionable in your experience. I think many are trying to think this through, to continue in relevant and grounded ways. What does it actually mean, to do this work?

JA: My starting place in thinking about accountability in this way is actually a process of reading, and I was reading a lot of Indigenous writers and theorists who were talking about, some of them were talking about literature, but some of them were talking about Indigeneity more broadly and one of the more popular kind of tracks of thought for Indigenous peoples right now, it kind of surrounds resurgence and what I mean by that is there a lot of Indigenous writers and thinkers who are thinking about you know, how to confront colonialism but also how to move forward as Indigenous peoples and many of the places that they land are thinking about returning to Indigenous knowledges and returning to Indigenous community, returning to Indigenous languages, and Indigenous traditions and allowing those knowledges and languages and cultures to inform our artistic practices or our practices in life or even our academic practices. So, there's this movement towards Indigenous communities. And one of the things that I felt as I was reading all this stuff was that many of the authors don't really go into very much detail in suggesting how you might do that if you aren't already deeply connected to your community or you don't already have pathways in and I began to realize that there they were talking about a thing that I wasn't necessarily welcome in.

CN: Right.

JA: Or if I was welcome in it, there are pathways to get there that are not clear to me. I realize that my own personal experience of Indigeneity is often an experience of isolation and dispossession and I realize that there are a lot other communities of intergenerational survivors of residential schools and communities of urban Indigenous peoples out there that have very similar experiences to me, and may or may not be articulating, like, this push toward Indigenous knowledge, resurgence, and nationalism in the same ways that I am but they might be experiencing it in the same ways. So, as I'm thinking about this I'm thinking about all of the communities (including urban Indigenous peoples and intergenerational survivors) that aren't addressed in a lot of this writing, and they aren't addressed as community or as people even.

And I think that is the really difficult thing for me to confront, and those communities really just deserve to be thought of and to be written about or to be dealt with or engaged with and I think that's not happening at a high enough level. And/or that signal needs to be boosted. So, when I'm thinking about accountability I'm thinking about those people and trying to find a way to engage them. And when I'm thinking about how to make that accountability actionable I think as a writer my first impulse is to write about my experiences and hope that those experiences are useful experiences for other people to think about and maybe that those experiences will help them articulate their own experiences in relation to community, to indigeneity.


"I'm very hopeful that people in similar situations, with similar experiences of dispossession and isolation in relation to Indigeneity come to this work and that they find it useful. But you know, I'm also hoping that non-Indigenous people will get a better sense of the impact and legacy of violence that is still very much around and hasn't really gone anywhere but is often very invisible"


CN: Mmhm. I'm sure it will, I've no doubt it has already, Jordan I mean, I think about what it would have meant for you to come across your own text in a library at a young age you know, like it's just a hopeful thing sometimes looking forward and thinking about what new archives, what new document, what new literature, what new forms are now available or that we can share. And that we can look back on, that it's not just a youthful thing, there's never too late of a point to reconnect to some sense of meaningful community in the context I think, as you describe, in relation to indigeneity, community and nation. [pause] Ok. Well listen, I only had one last trailing kind of question. I don't want to be too long ‘cause I want to keep this fairly tight in terms of transcription! [both laughing] ‘Cause I'm like…

JA: Totally…

CN: this is the downside of doing an interview! I guess, ahh, I've got to think of how to reframe it, but I was thinking about this work about ourselves, about when we're writing about pain or trauma and what can we do to not have that simply consumed or absorbed. And I don't mean necessarily by the solidarity we're trying to build within community, in the case you describe.

JA: Right.

CN: I mean more about an audience that has centuries of experience of consuming racialized bodies, Indigenous peoples, in this violent way. So how does storytelling contribute to goals of education in this case, as you identify that as being a critical part of projects of decolonization and anticolonialism. You talk about the part-time-ness of being an educator in your recent work so I'm just wondering, how else does the work, work if not just in terms of education, and in particular how does it play a role in being accountable to yourself? I wondered after and appreciated that statement of being accountable to yourself.

JA: Yeah. [pause] It's, there's a lot there.

CN: Yeah. And if it's too much that's cool too.

JA: No no no, that's cool. So I read something the other day—and unfortunately I cannot remember where I read it, who wrote it, or whether or not I'm going to misquote it—but I believe it was an interview with an Indigenous writer who, when asked about who they imagined their audience to be, said that they were primarily writing for Indigenous peoples, but I don't mind if other people overhear. And I think that's an interesting way to think about it. Because I think that the community that I was just talking about, those are the communities that I'm very hopeful that people in similar situations, with similar experiences of dispossession and isolation in relation to Indigeneity come to this work and that they find it useful. But you know, I'm also hoping that non-Indigenous people will get a better sense of the impact and legacy of violence that is still very much around and hasn't really gone anywhere but is often very invisible.

Whenever I hear conversations about residential school violence there's inevitably some asshole who just comes out and says, "why can't Indigenous people just get over it". That person exists in every conversation about residential schools it seems and it's really frustrating, but I do think it represents a section or a group of Canadians who deeply misunderstand or don't care to understand what that legacy of violence actually has done, or what it might look like. And I'm not necessarily saying that I intend to change their minds because that's a monumental task [laughs] and I'm sure they will never even look at this text. But I hope that it does help illuminate.

CN: Sometimes in those moments maybe the work isn't for you to educate that mind, it's to create content and materials for others who can call that person to account in a different way. So maybe they're not going to transform, at least they're not going to be allowed, again just referring back to your conversation with Sachi, they're not going to be allowed to ask that question and dominate.

JA: Right.

CN: Because the conditions of the social space, other people are also going to hold them to account. Yeah, so that notion of being accountable to yourself…?

JA: Oh!

CN: I'm still trying to hear how you take care, I guess, I'm asking.

JA: Yes, so I'm, thanks for bringing that back up again. I've been thinking through that notion as well and what it means to be accountable to myself and I think it has a lot to do with openness and transparency and honesty. Accountability is rooted in those principles somehow. And as a statement of poetics, one of the goals of this book is to be able to lay everything out in as clear and honest a manner as is possible. Also, I want to think about holding myself accountable in a way that is relational. It can be difficult to discuss certain formations of Indigenous existence and life experience in a way that is open, honest, and transparent.

To be honest, I often think about the ways that Andrea Smith and/or Joseph Boyden have discussed their own positions in relation to Indigeneity (or lack thereof), and subsequently how they both (in different ways) refused openness, honesty, and transparency. When I talk about trying to hold myself accountable, these are the examples that I am thinking about. I want to talk about my own position within (and in relation to) Indigeneity in such a way that illuminates the complexity and diversity of Indigenous existence.


Cecily Nicholson is the administrator for Gallery Gachet, an artist-run centre and mental health resource in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. She is the author of Triage, Wayside Sang and From the Poplars. View bio.


Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from British Columbia and the winner of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize for his poetry collection Injun. His creative work has recently been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry, The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation, and The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century. Abel is the author of Injun, Un/inhabited, and The Place of Scraps. View bio.


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