Returning North: An Interview with Kazim Ali

By Kiran Bhat

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The story grew far beyond what I had originally intended—past the dam, past the suicide epidemic, and more broadly into the community itself, the impact of generations of trauma resulting from Canadian colonialism.
 

Introduction

Kazim Ali
Kazim Ali.
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones.
If I had to summon an example of a poet and writer whose life and its inception challenges the way that we construct narratives of belonging to a nation, Kazim Ali would be one of the clearest. Born in 1971 in the United Kingdom to Indian parents (his father from Vellore/Tamil Nadu, his mother from then-independent Hyderabad), Kazim Ali was raised in Canada, then came to the United States when he was ten. He has since lived throughout the country, and has also traveled widely across the world.

It therefore makes sense that Ali’s work is sojourning. He has not spent longer than a decade in one place, and so his sense of belonging is multiple. Ali’s work as an author channels his hybridities, as well.

In his seven poetry collections, five works of fiction, and six works of nonfiction, Ali interrogates concepts of religion, nationhood, and the human’s place not only in the world, but in the cosmos. His new memoir, Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (Milkweed Editions, 2021), documents the effect of colonialism on the Pimicikamak (Cree) people—specifically, the construction of a dam—and personalizes his relation to one of the lands where he was raised: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The book serves a unique space as both a tract of political activism for the Pimicikamak and an important addition to the migrant memoir.

Ali is currently a professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. We met over Zoom to discuss literature, life, and the meaning of citizenship.

I feel global. I feel like a nomad. I don’t feel tied down to any particular place.

Interview

Kiran Bhat: When I read Northern Light, I found that delineating your sense of self in relation to a country and narrative was of tremendous urgency to you. You write about how your parents migrated to the United Kingdom out of India, how they worked in Canada, how you ultimately made your way to the United States. So, out of all of the lands that you have inhabited or have a personal connection to, why was it that you chose to redress the part of yourself that belongs to Canada, rather than the United Kingdom or India or the U.S.?

Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water, by Kazim AliKazim Ali: Canada was a place that I once called home, but I didn’t know it at all. I only had my own perception of what it was. And of course, when I went back, I discovered that it was completely beyond what I perceived it to be.

One of the things that I confront in Northern Light is the question of how a place becomes home for a person. Do we choose a place or does the place choose us? It does seize our memory, our affections. When it comes to Canada, I lived there from when I was three. We didn’t move up north until I was five, I think, because I started Kindergarten there. I lived in the north until second grade, for three full years.

It’s hardly any time at all really to think about. But I did learn how to read there. I learned how to write there. It’s where my earliest memories are from. So that’s what I always thought of when I thought of home, when I thought of when or where I learned about the world—where I became what I realized I was as a person, where I learned how to write my own name.

So I don’t know why, but that place lingered in my memories. But it wasn’t until about 2015 that I started to really think about the area. And then I got obsessed with it to the point that I was dreaming about it. And that’s when I started to research what had happened there, and that made me even more curious to return.

Kiran Bhat: What happened? What caused you to suddenly have this desire to return?

Kazim Ali: My Dad worked at a hydroelectric plant as an engineer. Growing up, I never really thought about what that meant. It wasn’t until a long time after when I learned the dam had had an impact on the ecosystem and the livelihood of the people who live there.

Several winters ago I started to research, and learned about the many impacts of the dam, including shore erosion. While seasonal shore erosion is natural in any water regime, in this case, because of the dam, the water level fluctuated more than it would naturally. This affected the stability of the water because the silt at the bottom of the lake was stirred up by the water fluctuation. It affected the spawning patterns of sturgeon fish, and that had impacts up and down the food chain—from the water, trees, animal life, in all the ways they interact with each other. And even though there were mitigation procedures that were built into the treaty, the provincial government, the federal government, and the power authority, Manitoba Hydro continued to disagree about who was financially responsible for mitigating these adverse impacts.

The Pimicikamak are impacted the most. The winter before I began my research, there was a suicide epidemic among the young people there—seven high school students had died. And there were 125 other attempted suicides in the months that followed. So there was this huge mental health crisis in the community. And that is when I really started to feel like, “Okay, I have a responsibility to try to learn as much as I can about the situation.”

The suicides didn’t feel unrelated to me, especially since I was up there when the dam was being built. I felt like I owed it somehow to go back and learn about what happened.

Winnipeg Esplanade Riel Bridge in evening
Downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Photo courtesy Travel Manitoba via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.

Kiran Bhat: Was the book was written to bring global attention to the treatment of the Pimicikimak?

Kazim Ali: I did feel an obligation to the story, and a story that I was a part of. The government of Canada is not treating its Indigenous peoples properly, which may be surprising to Canadian and American readers, because in comparison with the United States, Canada is often presented as a socially progressive, forward-thinking place. While in certain ways that is true, it’s also an energy state. Tremendous portions of its wealth come from hydroelectricity, oil and natural gas extraction, and mining, both open-pit and fracking.

And much of this—the mining, the resource extraction, the energy production—comes at a high cost for Indigenous peoples, and that’s something not a lot of people know. But of course, once I arrived in Cross Lake, and began meeting people, the story grew far beyond what I had originally intended—past the dam, past the suicide epidemic, and more broadly into the community itself, the impact of generations of trauma resulting from Canadian colonialism.

Kiran Bhat: In Northern Light, you spend a lot of time with the Pimicikimak people, interviewing them, interacting with them, getting to know them. As a writer, how did you ensure you portray the Pimicikimak in an authentic light?

Kazim Ali: In Northern Light there were two things I wanted to contend with. One was to write about my own experiences as a settler, as a young boy growing up on unceded land. I wanted to deal with this national story, the story of Canada. We came in as a family of immigrants, and played an important role in building up Canada. We were also brown immigrants, by the way. I’ve always felt a certain level of honor and respect for the role my father played in bringing electricity to the province; it was difficult to learn that it came at a cost for so many people. So I wanted to subvert that narrative.

When I first reached out to Cathy Merrick, the chief of Pimicikamak at the time, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think she would invite me up to the community. I didn’t think I would take her up on the offer and go. And I didn’t think she would be the first person at the airport to meet me upon my arrival. From the get-go, I knew I was not actually there to talk about my own story: I was there to listen and to record and to understand. This story was not about me, it was about the local community. It reoriented me completely.

From the airport, before I did anything, before I even went to my hotel, they took me straight to one of the elder’s houses, where I had been invited to participate in a sweat lodge. And following the ceremony we all had dinner together and talked more. There was no in-between moment for me, no actual “arrival”—as soon as I got there I was integrated into the life of the community. I’ve stayed in touch with many of those people since.

Kiran Bhat: That’s something I can relate to. I think it’s essential that when we choose to go to another land and try to interact with a different community, that we go with kind of earnestness, this desire to just connect with them and to get to know them, to learn about their lives. It’s not always about us. He and I, you and him, we’re creating small bridges of interconnectivity when we communicate, and it’s those little moments that help us enhance the greater web of coexistence.

Kazim Ali: I think that’s true. I also think that I do belong to that place, and there are ways in which I belong to that community. Not that I have any claim over them, or that I have right to their identity, or that they owe me something for being from that place. But I lived on those lands as a settler, and for a while it was very formative to me. I have a Canadian passport, too. So I think of it as my home. I mean, I say I’m Canadian. I don’t know what that word means, but the same time, I could say that I’m British, because I was born there. I don’t. My mother and father were born in pre-independence India, my father moved to Pakistan and became a citizen and lived there for 20 more years before leaving. Am I Pakistani? Or Indian?

We tend to just have certain types of connections to certain cultural identifications. So if I was raised in Canada, I’m Canadian.

Kazim Ali
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones.

Kiran Bhat: Is there a particular way that Canadian spirit or way of thinking affects your writing, or understanding of literature?

Kazim Ali: Most of my mother’s immediate family still lives in Canada. I have a strong cultural and personal connection to the place and normally visit three or four times a year, though that’s been disrupted both by my move to the U.S. West Coast and by the closing of the borders due to COVID-19. I feel very impacted and influenced in my writing by Canadian writers like Kristjana Gunnars, Erin Mouré, and Mary Dalton, to name just a few. For a while, after the Trump election and the U.S.’s steep turn rightward into nationalism, I considered moving back. I would have loved to, but I love the United States as well. I’m American and Canadian both. As I am Indian. I cannot choose.

Kiran Bhat: Do you believe that there is a need to belong? Do you believe that we do have to belong to a land, or can we identify only as people of the globe?

Kazim Ali: I don’t know. I question it in the book. I don’t know why having a certain kind of paper gives me more rights than someone else who’s lived in this country just as long as I have, but doesn’t have the same kind of paper I do. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not logical. And it’s more than not being logical. It’s inhuman in certain cases.

So this idea of “citizenship” by documentation for me is worthless. I don’t understand. I feel global. I feel like a nomad. I don’t feel tied down to any particular place. I feel like when I go to a new city, too, I find things that I love. You show up to some place and you feel like, “Oh, this feels like home, and I’ve only been here for a week.”

I do that wherever I go. My partner and I, we went to Lisbon in the summer of 2015. We stayed in Portugal for ten days, and we loved it. We could settle there easily. We started to have routines. We’d go to coffee here, we’d write from this café there. We were tourists, though we were also writing, and that is a kind of work, so we were participating in the life of the place. What if you live in a place, you know people there, you work there, you make your life there? Doesn’t that make you a “citizen” regardless of how you arrived or what a card in your pocket says?

Kiran Bhat: Is there any particular way that growing up around Winnipeg in those early years influenced your perception of place?

Kazim Ali: I don’t remember a lot about Winnipeg, though we continued to go down there for weekends to visit family. Mostly I remember Jenpeg, the town in the north that Manitoba Hydro built for the dam project workers and their families. I loved it. I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been. We would go fishing on the lake. Then came those long and cold winters. We used to go cross-country skiing and we had our sleds, toboggans, a long sort of sled particular to that northern area. We used to go ice skating too. When we moved north to Jenpeg, I used to love looking at the night sky. The sky was so clear because this town was in the middle of the forest. There was no light pollution, so we could see the northern lights, we could see the Milky Way, we could see all these different constellations.

My dad had some telescopes, and so did some other people. They would come over. If there is something happening, like Jupiter was going to be there or Saturn was going to be there, people would come over and set their telescopes up in the backyard and we would look up at all of these different planets and stars. I’ve seen Betelgeuse, I’ve seen Arcturus, I’ve seen all of Jupiter’s four big moons, I saw Saturn’s rings, I’ve looked at Mars. All of this, as a child.

Imagine being five years old and understanding that the universe is infinite, having someone explain to you what a “light year” is.

Kiran Bhat: Do you think seeing all of these constellations and being in a place that allowed you such views affected your writing in a particular way?

Kazim Ali: Of course. I’m obsessed with astronomy, as well as the myths and the stories of the constellations. Not to mention it made me think about the vastness of the universe. Imagine being five years old and understanding that the universe is infinite, having someone explain to you what a “light year” is. I knew that we were just a tiny little part of the Milky Way. And then I learned about how our galaxy is just one part of the universe.

Imagine that I’m a five-year-old child and this is being explained to me and I’m understanding it. So of course now as an adult, the stars have a lot of place in my work.

Kiran Bhat: And what about landscape? What are some particular landscapes which influence your writing?

Kazim Ali: Aesthetically speaking, I suppose I love dramatic landscapes: the desert, the mountains, the ocean. I’m lucky right now to live in San Diego, where there are all three of these. For a long time I lived in the Hudson Highlands, where the Hudson River flows through the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Part of me will always belong there. I’m a fire sign, but governed by water it seems.

Kiran Bhat: What’s next for Kazim Ali? What landscape are you exploring in your new writing?

Kazim Ali: I have a nonfiction manuscript. It’s sitting right here on my desk. I started working on it in 2011. It’s a book about teaching yoga in Palestine, which I did for several years between 2011 and 2016. I want to tell the story of those years, the people I met. In a way, finishing Northern Light has taught me how to approach completing this project, as well.

 
Connect with Kazim Ali at www.kazimali.com
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Kiran BhatKiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is the author of we of the forsaken world… (Iguana Books, 2020), and has authored books in four foreign languages. His writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Brooklyn Rail, The Colorado Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, The Radical Art Review, The Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and elsewhere. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit remain in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Header photo of northern lights over lake in northern Manitoba by Jim Bishop, courtesy Shutterstock..

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