Award-winning Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s third collection, Injun, is a long poem about racism and the representation of indigenous peoples. Composed of text found in western novels published between 1840 and 1950 – the heyday of pulp publishing and a period of unfettered colonialism in North America – Injun then uses erasure, pastiche, and a focused poetics to create a visually striking response to the western genre.
After compiling the online text of 91 of these now public-domain novels into one gargantuan document, Abel used his word processor’s “Find” function to search for the word “injun.” The 509 results were used as a study in context: How was this word deployed? What surrounded it? What was left over once that word was removed? Abel then cut up the sentences into clusters of three to five words and rearranged them into the long poem that is Injun. The book contains the poem as well as peripheral material that will help the reader to replicate, intuitively, some of the conceptual processes that went into composing the poem.
Though it has been phased out of use in our “post-racial” society, the word “injun” is peppered throughout pulp western novels. Injun retraces, defaces, and effaces the use of this word as a colonial and racial marker. While the subject matter of the source text is clearly problematic, the textual explorations in Injun help to destabilize the colonial image of the “Indian” in the source novels, the western genre as a whole, and the Western canon.
About the author
Jordan Abel is a Nisga'a writer from Vancouver. He is the author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize). Abel's latest project NISHGA (forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in 2020) is a deeply personal and autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence and the often invisible intergenerational impact of residential schools. Abel recently completed a PhD at Simon Fraser University, and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.
- Winner, Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize
“Jordan Abel’s book of poetry, Injun, destabilizes Western texts and forces us to engage in a new conversation with the literature that has been a cornerstone for writers, readers, and critics for hundreds of years. … Injun is an artful exploration of the brutal colonialism that informs which voices are priviledged. … Injun isn’t just good; it is singular and essential.” —vallum
“In Injun, Abel carefully un-writes ninety-one Western novels in the public domain … While Injun is conceptually difficult and, indeed, demanding in the most productive of ways, the remarkably condensed, although potent, lines that Abel un-creates from within the body of such a disturbing collection of texts are demonstrative of his unique ability to converge conceptual, political, and affective registers seamlessly. … Injun recasts the book as a textual object … It is no wonder that Abel has received so much critical attention, as he is one of the most innovative and thrilling poets writing today.”
“The poet breaks words, even as lands and languages have been broken by colonial power. Fragmented and fugitive pieces lie at the heart of Injun. … Injun nevertheless has the same astonishing impact as his earlier work in re-establishing the presence of Indigenous culture against silence and absence. Techniques of collage and pastiche restore the margins, invert dichotomies of paleface and redskin, and rearrange legends, myths, and rituals. … Injun’s brackets alert us not only to what is enclosed, but also to what has escaped.”—Malahat Review
Brilliant ideaAs a poetry book, I think this is a little above my comfort level. But, as a word-based art piece and project, it's freaking brilliant.
Before reading the poems, skip to the back of the book and read about Abel's process. He searched for the word "injun" in public domain western novels and used what he found to make this collection. The poems focus on racism and the representation of Indigenous peoples.
If you take his focus and process in context, the poems become something so much more than words and I realized that it wasn't just about reading each poem individually, but about seeing them together as one big, broken up message.