Pointing Into the Thicket

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Jordan Abel, Timeless American Classic.  Ottawa: above/ground press, 2017.


I am writing this while we are in the midst of a heated and painful debate about voice appropriation and Indigenous authors that we surely all hope will, in the end, be useful and productive.  Access to publishing is a relevant issue at all levels of publishing, even the micro level, but those of us who read chapbooks can rely on rob mclennan to provide a host of interesting voices with his busy above/ground imprint.

Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer who lives in B.C.  He writes in the afterword:

The pieces in Timeless American Classic are all derivations and creative distant readings of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans.  This project was in part inspired by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s argument (in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States) that Cooper’s novel plays a role in reinventing the colonial origins of the United States, and in creating a narrative that was “instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide.”  Ultimately, this project seeks to disrupt the colonial logic in the novel by displacing (and reorienting) the text itself in order to expose the problematic representation of Indigenous peoples.  The project is also deeply inspired by current digital humanities techniques of visualization, machine reading, and algorithmic allocation.

My first thought was that Cooper’s 1826 novel was not really on our Canadian radar as a significant text, but my second was that anything that influenced the standard American narrative must surely be an influence on us here in Canada.  There are various ways of exposing or upending that narrative. One is through protest, newspaper editorials, film, etc. – in other words, through the media in ways that reach a large number of people.  But another way is quieter, its canvas smaller, Timeless American Classic being an excellent example of that.  If small-circulation chapbooks matter at all, then they matter here as well.

Abel’s method, as I make it out, is two-fold.  In the first, he draws out phrases from Cooper’s novel that contain the word “Indian” and isolates them in parallel texts with the word itself running forcefully down the centre.  Here is a reproduced example:

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The second way is to create a kind of visual collage, either by overlapping sentences or by (as in the following example) employing different text sizes and directions and grey scales:

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I don’t know much about “current digital humanities techniques” or “algorithmic allocation” and it’s more than likely that some of the results of this text play is lost on me. I find both quite effective visually and that their general impact is strong.  I find it much harder to actually read every word on a page (am I supposed to?); rather, my eye skips from here to there, picking up a word or phrase.  Is it ironic that the collage-like pages are so visually appealing?

The book begins with a useful quotation from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz so that, all in all, this modestly-appearing chapbook provides a powerful introduction to both the influence of a “classic” text and the way in which that influence might be challenged.



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