Reviewed by Anri Wheeler
Kazim Ali begins his memoir, Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (Milkweed Editions, 2021), “I’ve always had a hard time answering the question, ‘Where are you from?’” Being asked this question, an experience with which I deeply relate, is a common thread that ties together those living in diaspora. Ali’s book charts his attempt to answer this question, on his own terms, by returning to Jenpeg where he spent his early childhood. And yet, Jenpeg, a town in the Canadian province of Manitoba, no longer exists.
Before leaving on his trip, Ali calls his friend Layli Long Soldier. Speaking of settler colonialism in what is now called North America, she says, “We are only at the chronological beginning of this trauma.” Reading this while Covid-19 is ravaging India, where both of Ali’s parents were born, I could not help but read an added layer of significance into this line, one that Long Soldier could not have anticipated.
The book’s first two chapters detail the history of Ali’s parents migrating from India to London (where he was born) and then to Canada. They also establish the history of Jenpeg, neighboring Cross Lake, and the Pimicikamak people on whose unceded land Ali grew up, though he did not know this at the time. Ali’s father had been hired to help build a hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River. Northern Light is just as much about the damage this project has done to the waterways and boreal forests Ali once called home, as it is about his search for an answer to the book’s opening question.
The remaining 14 chapters of Ali’s memoir are a chronological retelling of his week-long return to Manitoba. We hear of a cluster of Cross Lake youth who have recently died by suicide, meet Pimicikamak Chief Cathy Merrick, and learn about the deep and lasting trauma of the residential school system and the current epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous youth. Each of these threads is important, though many lack a depth of exploration. Much of the book reads like a detailed travelogue.
There are many powerful lines that hint at an interiority that is never fully breached. Ali asks, “Is this how people who live in the same place their whole lives feel all the time, that the earth and air around you holds your history?” Later, he writes of “being the ‘other kind’ of Indian, both kinds wearing a name given to us by outsiders, names to which we do not belong.” Such moments are brief portals, interspersed throughout more factual histories and retellings.
The book ends, beautifully, where it begins. At first, I found myself wishing that some of the answers we get in the final pages had come sooner. Then I was reminded of how deeply I have been trained to read for the Western arc of a story, with its conflict and resolution. What Ali does, often imperceptibly, is to decolonize this structure. His story is cyclical, like the rhythms of the land and the water that are both backdrop to and main characters in his story.
Early in his travels, Ali evokes Toni Morrison: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I could not help but think of my own favorite Morrison quote from Beloved: “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” So much of Ali’s book is about eschewing that which has been ascribed to him and, like the water in his Morrison quote, finding his way back home.
Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water will push you to consider what home means to you. It evokes the transformative power of revisiting a place from your past in order to reencounter yourself. In Ali’s own words, “We belong to the places of our earliest griefs, belong to where we left our dead, and belong to places where those younger than us were born…Places do not belong to us. We belong to them.”