Authors / News / Interviews

Kazim Ali wins the 2022 Banff Mountain Book Award for Environmental Literature

Briana Gwin — 10/29/2022

Milkweed Editions is thrilled to announce that Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water by Kazim Ali has won the 2022 Banff Mountain Book Award for Environmental Literature. The prestigious competition awards $20,000 in cash each year, to be distributed amongst eight individual book category winners that are selected by “an international jury of writers, adventurers and editors.”

Northern Light is the story of a queer Muslim poet, son of political refugees from India, who travels back to his childhood home in northern Manitoba to revisit the Pimicikamak people whose way of life was ravaged by the dam his father helped build. While that sounds like a logline from a film adaptation of a book of literary fiction, Northern Light is very much nonfiction, and a deeply grounded exercise in straightforward reporting. The result is a book which manages to bridge difficult gaps: a story that is equal parts sobering and inviting, prosaic and poetic, devastating and subtly optimistic. Everything about the book feels brave, as author Kazim Ali resolves to expose and celebrate the light in places where all too often, the prevailing cultural narrative sees only darkness.

—Chris Kalman, 2022 Book Competition Jury

We are grateful to not only have published this urgent and meaningful work, but also to have had the opportunity to catch up with Kazim as he stopped into our Minneapolis-based office on his way to speak at the University of St. Thomas for a Diverse Voices Author Lecture panel this past Tuesday. The California-based author breezed into the space like a vision in all black, his left arm bandaged in a matching black gauze that we were told was concealing a new, exciting, and impromptu tattoo of arrows. Our team was intrigued to find out where they’d point him next.
Milkweed Staff (MS): In Northern Light, so much of your journey revolves around home and a question of belonging. As a multi-genre creative—a poet, an editor, a prose writer, a professor, a translator, and co-founder and former publisher of Nightboat Books, among other things—is there a genre or type of work which feels most like home to you?

Kazim Ali (KA): I’m always at home in the poem, or the line, or the phrase; which is not to say I’m less at home in other forms—but I find myself most at home in the breath before a sentence, in something that can replicate half-assureity or tentativeness. I’m drawn to any form of art that evokes rather than depicts.

MS: Speaking of home: how did you come to the realization that Milkweed Editions would be the best home for your book, Northern Light?

KA: When I first set out to write this, I thought that it would be a long essay. But just the transcription of interviews that I had in my notebook was over 7000 words. I showed it to a friend who essentially told me that this had surpassed the point of being an article. And when I realized that this was a book, I knew that I wanted to make sure it had the widest audience possible. It was so important to me, because it wasn’t just about me, it was about remediating the damage; can the book be impactful and create justice? It had a role to play in that, and I knew Milkweed would understand the importance of this book and do the work to get the story out there. And I knew among other things that Milkweed has done a lot of work to publish other books with a strong environmental focus. I still remember the Credo series they published years back [this series, we’d come to find from scouring for a few of its books in our office’s central shelf, “explore[s] the essential goals, concerns, and practices of contemporary American writers whose work emphasizes the natural world and human community.”].

MS: What was the process like of working on this book?

KA: It was in the winter of 2017 when I was thinking about going back to Jenpeg, and in May of that same year, I made it to Cross Lake. Everywhere I went, I took my notepad with me and was constantly taking notes. After I came back with this book, it underwent a series of revisions from my dual publishers here with Milkweed (US) and with Goose Lane Editions (CA), from the fall of 18’ to the summer of 19’. And when it was time for me to edit the next draft, I went back to Cross Lake. I revisited my friends there, stayed in the same hotel, and ate at and visited all the same places. At the end of the day I’d return to my room and write for a few hours every night until it was finished.

MS: What’s next for you on your prolific journey?

KA: I’ve been collaborating with a friend of mine, who’s an Israeli poet, on making a book that’s a collection of our correspondences over the last 20 years. It’s not a collection about a single thing, but it’s messages we’ve exchanged at the intersections of politics, art, war, religion, zionism—in some ways, it’s a collection about everything.

Please join us in congratulating Kazim Ali on this incredible most recent award, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to grab a copy of his book, Northern Light, at our local or online bookstore today.