When Kazim Ali, a queer poet and writer born in London to South Asian migrants, recalls his early childhood, he is transported to the most unlikely of places — Jenpeg, a town "deep in the boreal forests of the Canadian North." As the site of a generating station built to dam the Nelson River and provide power to Winnipeg and other cities, Jenpeg also happened to be one of the most ephemeral of places. One day, it simply ceased to exist.
Sometime after the summer of 1979, the dam was completed, and the hundreds of workers and their families, among them 8-year-old Ali, his sister and parents, abandoned the makeshift town and moved elsewhere.
But there must be some truth to what writer Cynthia Ozick notes about childhood: "What we remember from childhood we remember forever — permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen." Because Ali, now living in "a drafty old Midwestern house in Oberlin," hasn't forgotten those memories sown in that far-flung Canadian town with its "dirt roads … tepid summers, chilly autumns, and dark, thunderous winters."
And there's the night sky. On clear, summer nights, Ali writes rapturously in his newly published book, "Northern Light," it was possible to behold "a whole panoply of celestial light."
Spurred by these memories — so irrepressible in light of Ali's perpetual search for belonging — and by a sense of urgency, Ali returns to the region of his early childhood as a kind of quasi-journalist and an unwitting agent of hope. A Google search reveals that Jenpeg was built on unceded land, close to Cross Lake, and owned by the Indigenous Pimicikamak (Cree), who evicted the generating station due to unfulfilled treaty agreements.
Ali also discovers that locked in a power struggle with the federal government, the Pimicikamak are still very much an aggrieved people, their land and water — the sources of their livelihood — ruined by the dam. Most worrisome, too, is the spike in suicides among the young people living there.
Part personal narrative, part chronicle of history, "Northern Light" reads mostly as an in-real-time account of Ali's return to reacquaint himself with Cross Lake and its long-suffering yet gracious people. The effect is kinetic — the reading can be breezy ("the next morning is warm and sunny") and then downright slow, weighed down by the formal language of treaties, many of them broken.
Embedded in this overall effect, however, is the higher call to slow down and pay close attention to the injustices wrought upon the people of Cross Lake, including, as a result, its troubled youth. And to truly feel what it's like to be there, to reclaim a land that possesses you in return. One of the first things Ali does when he gets to Cross Lake is to partake in a ceremony at a sweat lodge.
"The herbs are pungent … it gets so hot inside that I feel the steam entering me," he writes. Then what comes rushing back to him are those memories of his childhood in long-gone Jenpeg, so beautiful, so vivid, so real.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based writer and critic.
By: Kazim Ali.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 200 pages, $24.