JULY 12, 2021
ONCE UPON A TIME, I decided to start answering the question “Where are you from?” with “The middle of the Pacific Ocean.” I never followed through, though I still think it’s a good answer. I have spent so much of my life bouncing back and forth between the United States and India that, for me, the concept of home is more like a stationary probability distribution — a phrase that I filched from a statistics paper once, and which is likely to make less sense to most people than “the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” After all, the latter at least counts as a place.
All of which is to say that the central themes of Kazim Ali’s Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water resonated so strongly with me that I cannot pretend to be objective about how much I loved the book. I was captured by its compelling themes of global desi homelessness and what it means to love places that are not our own — what it means when none of the places we love are our own, but we belong to them anyway.
Northern Light is a mixture of memoir and environmental nonfiction that plays with the conventions of both. The book follows the author’s visit to his childhood home in Northern Canada, after an absence of 40 years. Ali spent his early years in a company town called Jenpeg, which no longer exists, next to an Indigenous township called Cross Lake, which still does. In the mid-1970s, Ali’s father worked as an electrical engineer helping to build a hydroelectric power station on the Nelson River, just upstream of Cross Lake. Manitoba Hydro, the company in question, promised that the dam would not impact Cross Lake — a promise that it soon broke, as water levels in the lake adjoining the community began to fluctuate, and local ecosystems unraveled. Four decades on, Ali is horrified to discover that Cross Lake has suffered from a suicide epidemic among the local Indigenous youth. He travels back to learn about the community’s struggles, and also to search for some elusive ideal of home.
Kazim Ali is a poet, and a professor of poetry at the University of California at San Diego. Of Indian and Pakistani origin, he grew up between the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Much of his poetry over the past two decades has touched upon the complexities of life as a queer, brown, Muslim American. These reference points are relevant to Northern Light because one of the issues Ali wrestles with (quite frankly) in the book is where, within this constellation of identities, he gets the right to tell the story of his childhood home. Does he even have the right to call that place home? This question becomes especially pressing when Ali learns that the now-demolished Jenpeg sits on “Treaty land” — land the Cree never ceded to the Canadian government.
This is not a book with easy answers. The people of Cross Lake welcome Ali with open arms — “You came home at last!” one exclaims. But he does not free us from his own discomfort, as the son of someone who worked on the dam that changed the area’s landscape and ecology. And although Northern Light begins by asking what caused the suicide epidemic among Cross Lake youth, Ali does not approach that question like an investigative journalist might, wresting unpleasant truths from a reluctant landscape. Rather, he chooses not to quiz community members about their ongoing traumas, adopting the role of listener instead. The result is a warm, empathetic portrait of “a community that is at this very moment reinventing itself,” of people who carry grief but also limitless plans for the future, who have been hurt badly by the Canadian government but are also filled with strategies for how to get what they have been legally promised in order to revitalize their community.
Along the way, Ali gives the reader a crash course on Canada’s history of problematic relations with its Indigenous communities. The book is not exhaustive on that subject, and does not intend to be. But for me, a non-Canadian, the brief contextual snippets were eye-opening, to the point where my notes in the margins frequently degenerated into repeated exclamation marks. I had not known, for instance, that the last of the residential schools where Canada tried to forcibly assimilate First Nations children was still around in the 1990s. Neither had I ever heard of the so-called “Sixties Scoop,” a practice that lasted until the 1980s, wherein thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families to be placed in foster care with White parents. Nor did I realize that Canada contains wide swathes that are not, in fact, Canada, but land never ceded by Indigenous communities: resource-rich lands where the Canadian government tries to exert control in a variety of complex, legally questionable ways.
Such research-driven nonfiction is not Kazim Ali’s typical genre. In order to get a better sense of his usual style, after putting down Northern Light I picked up his 2009 book, Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. Bright Felon is a book of poetry that could also work as a cascade of one-line stories, driven by the pressure of things unsaid. The book travels back in time, through a series of cities the author has lived in across the world, in order to reach the shattering moment when he comes out as gay to his conservative parents. The approach in Bright Felon is both very different from and highly reminiscent of Northern Light: in each text, there is a fixation on home, and on the wound of perpetual geographical displacement in the second-generation immigrant. In both, the ideal of truth loses some part of its power and meaning when exposed to the unforgiving light of day. As a result, the twisting journey to the texts’ respective revelations is as important as the revelations themselves, if not more so.
Which is not to say that Northern Light is in any way obscure. The prose is far clearer, the issues more cleanly expressed, than a more technical book might achieve. But comparing the book to Ali’s poetry helped me crystallize several aspects of Northern Light that kept coming to the fore as I read, going against my usual expectations for a work of reported nonfiction. One was how the book plays with subjectivity: Ali does not hide his own face as an interviewer, nor try to deny his own stake in the narrative. Which felt to me like a deeply important step, given how the pretense of objectivity has been misused by colonialist authorities to tell precisely this kind of story. Ali describes in luminous detail the impression this remote area of Northern Canada left on him as a child, while also making it clear that, through his family, he feels complicit in the region’s troubles. Even so, he never slips entirely into memoir mode. Ali makes himself visible while shifting the reader’s focus to Cross Lake, again and again, saying that where the story of Cross Lake is concerned, he as the author is not the point.
What then is the point? That brings me to the other unusual aspect of Northern Light, which is how the book makes meaning. As I read, I kept wondering why it was so easy for Manitoba Hydro to break its promises to the community of Cross Lake. Why did the community have to keep litigating to get promised funds? Why were the kids committing suicide? The seeds of answers are here, but major ones only show up as relative asides toward the end. A few times, I found myself scribbling frustrations in the margins about “burying the lede.”
But then, interrogating my own frustrations, I looked slantwise at the book, and realized that I was reading it wrong. To signpost a work with ledes assumes a kind of narrative omniscience. And though that approach may help guide the reader through moments of confusion, it also limits the reader’s job to think past expected structures. Instead, Northern Light forces the reader to keep thinking and engaging, throughout. That demand for engagement helps the book cut through the reader’s own baggage, based on every other story they have heard about an Indigenous community in trouble.
And every reader has such baggage. I was reminded of my own by a CBC documentary on the teen suicides in Cross Lake, whose structure repeats all the tropes I realized I had unconsciously expected while reading Northern Light. As the camera zooms in on crying Indigenous teenagers, tragedy feels inevitable, the seldom-seen White interviewer extracting terrible secrets (precisely the strategy that Ali did not take). The documentary covered many of the same issues as Northern Light, but its tragic inevitability also absolved the audience of any responsibility to think more deeply about what was going on.
By carrying us along on his journey to understand his love for a place, and by refusing to extract the “truth” of tragedy from what he encounters, Ali draws readers into his own complicity, his own complex, frustrated love. We get invested in a community that is trying to work past centuries of colonial trauma, to give their kids a home worth living for. As a reader, I developed an amazed respect for every individual described so delicately within these pages. Kazim Ali ends by promising to help facilitate stories about Cross Lake written by the people of Cross Lake. I would love to read those stories.