The Nisga’a writer was named the Canadian recipient of the lucractive literary award for “Injun” (Talonbooks), a long poem about racism and the representation of indigenous peoples.
The Vancouver poet, who resides in Castlegar, B.C., constructed the text from 91 western novels in the public domain from writers spanning the 17th to 20th centuries.
In a recent interview, Abel said elements of appropriation in “Injun” were meant to comment on how appropriation functions as a mechanism of colonialism.
The subjects of cultural appropriation, free speech and colonalism have been the source of contentious debate in the wake of a controversial opinion piece published in Write magazine, which appeared to endorse unauthorized use of indigenous knowledge and traditions. Hal Niedzviecki then resigned as editor of the magazine and apologized for his article in the Writers’ Union of Canada publication.
“It’s been an immense struggle, especially in light of all of these conversations about appropriation that are not new but have been recently renewed,” Abel said during his acceptance speech at the Griffin gala.
“I think this is a win for all the people who have fought and continue to fight against appropriation, and for those who continue to fight and resist the architectures of colonialism that we continue to fight,” he added to loud applause from the audience.
In an interview following his acceptance speech, Abel said there seems to be “an urgent kind of interest” in work that resists colonialism. Still, despite the accolades, he was still in a state of disbelief that he had won the grand prize.
“I’ll have to let it sink in. It kind of seems completely unreal right now in this moment,” said Abel, who is completing his PhD at Simon Fraser University with research focused on digital humanities and indigenous literary studies.
“I never thought my work would be under consideration for a prize like this, so it’s an incredible honour to hear that people are interested in resistant writing.”
British poet Alice Oswald won the international prize, also worth $65,000, for “Falling Awake” (Jonathan Cape/W.W. Norton & Company).
“It’s really, I suppose, an experimental study of what it’s like being alive,” Oswald said of her collection in an interview following her victory. “A lot of the poems tend to be about the natural world because I’m a gardener, and that’s what inspires me.”
Judges Sue Goyette, Joan Naviyuk Kane and George Szirtes each read 617 books of poetry from 39 countries, including 23 translations.
The Griffin is billed as the world’s largest prize for a first-edition single collection of poetry written in or translated into English.
The Griffin Trust was founded in 2000 by chairman Scott Griffin, along with trustees Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson and David Young.
In addition to the grand prize winners, each finalist also receives $10,000 for participating in Wednesday evening’s readings at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.
The Canadian finalists also included Saskatchewan-raised, Ottawa-based poet Sandra Ridley for “Silvija” (BookThug) and “Violet Energy Ingots” by Toronto-based Hoa Nguyen (Wave Books.)
The international short list also included American writer Jane Mead for “World of Made and Unmade” (Alice James Books), “In Praise of Defeat” by Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi, translated from French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Archipelago Books) and British poet and philosopher Denise Riley for “Say Something Back” (Picador).
Celebrated American poet Frank Bidart was announced as the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award recipient.
© 2017 The Canadian Press