Northern Light

Power, Land, and the Memory of Water
“Reading Ali is an act of redemption … both a challenge and a balm.” —THE RUMPUS
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Winner of the Banff Mountain Book Award for Environmental Literature
Finalist for the Lammy Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction
A Book Riot Best Book of the Yer
A Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year
An Outside Magazine Favorite Book of the Year

“Places do not belong to us. We belong to them.”

The child of South Asian migrants, Kazim Ali was born in London, lived as a child in the cities and small towns of Manitoba, and made a life in the United States. As a man passing through disparate homes, he has never felt he belonged to a place. And yet, one day, the celebrated poet and essayist finds himself thinking of the boreal forests and lush waterways of Jenpeg, a community thrown up around the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River, where he once lived for several years as a child. Does the town still exist, he wonders? Is the dam still operational?

When Ali goes searching, however, he finds not news of Jenpeg, but of the local Pimicikamak community. Facing environmental destruction and broken promises from the Canadian government, they have evicted Manitoba’s electric utility from the dam on Cross Lake. In a place where water is an integral part of social and cultural life, the community demands accountability for the harm that the utility has caused.

Troubled, Ali returns north, looking to understand his place in this story and eager to listen. Over the course of a week, he participates in community life, speaks with Elders and community members, and learns about the politics of the dam from Chief Cathy Merrick. He drinks tea with activists, eats corned beef hash with the Chief, and learns about the history of the dam, built on land that was never ceded, and Jenpeg, a town that now exists mostly in his memory. In building relationships with his former neighbors, Ali explores questions of land and power―and in remembering a lost connection to this place, finally finds a home he might belong to.

Publish Date
8.5 × 6.5 × 0.25 in
9.4 oz

Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali is the author of Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water, as well as several volumes of poetry, novels, essay collections, and cross-genre texts. He is currently a professor of Literature and Writing at the University of California, San Diego.

Praise and Prizes

  • “A powerful, thoughtful, and beautifully written exploration of the narratives that we create and that are created for us.”

    Book Riot, “Best Books of 2021”
  • “Ali moves from writing a memoir to something else, something larger than the story of one person, one family, or even one place … Northern Light transcends any one of these categorizations to become something much larger than the sum of its parts, a provocative consideration of what it means to belong to a place—and whether or not a place can ever belong to a person.”

    Shelf Awareness
  • “This lyrical memoir is a balm for the soul.”

    Literary Hub
    “Recommended Climate Reading for March 2021”
  • “Embedded in [Northern Light] … 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.”

    Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “One of Northern Light’s greatest strengths is Ali’s ability to weave between his personal connection to the land and the history of the people who call it home … Ali’s gift as a writer is the way he is able to present his story in a way that brings attention to the myriad issues facing Indigenous communities, from oil pipelines in the Dakotas to border walls running through Kumeyaay land.”

    San Diego Union-Tribune
  • “Ali’s ethical imaginary is as finely honed and illuminating as his prose … What a privilege his fine book is, what a joy to spend a week in Cross Lake beside Ali.”

    World Literature Today
  • “Ali’s prose shines when recalling his interactions with members of the Pimicikamak community and friends. Those concerned with environmental justice or the plight of Indigenous peoples will want to give this a look.”

    Publishers Weekly
  • “In Northern Light … [Ali grapples] with his family’s legacy as both victims and perpetrators of stolen land. On every page, he tries to decipher what it means to be ‘from’ a place, crafting a poetic exploration of home, assimilation, and belonging.”

    Outside Magazine
    “Favorite Books of 2021”
  • “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.”

    Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “Kazim Ali, an acute observer and listener, has helped bring voices of the Cross Lake community into our hearing. In this latest book, he shines some northern light over essential questions about identity, power, governance, and justice for all peoples.”

    Anchorage Daily News
  • “[Ali’s] experiences are relayed in sensitive, crystalline prose, documenting how Cross Lake residents are working to reinvent their town and rebuild their traditional beliefs, language, and relationships with the natural world … Though these topics are complex, they are untangled in an elegant manner.”

    Foreword Reviews
    *Starred Review*
  • “A world traveler, not always by choice, ponders the meaning and location of home … Ali alerts readers to the First Nations’ struggles to fend off an open-pit titanium mine, a gas pipeline, and other water projects, taking care to include many Indigenous voices … A graceful, elegant account even when reporting on the hard truths of a little-known corner of the world.”

    Kirkus Reviews
  • “A beautiful and meditative burst of recollections and reconciliations. Blending together the indigenous history of the region with his own past and present experiences was no small feat, but Ali pulled it off with poetic precision.”

    Seth Combs, San Diego Union-Tribune
    “My Favorite Books of 2021”
  • “Ali, known as a poet, brings his poetic sensibility to his literary reportage and descriptions of Cross Lake … The result is prose that brings lyrical beauty, dignity, and life to a place that has not received the respect it rightly deserves … Northern Light complicates our preconceived definitions of home, belonging, and identity, begging the reader to make every visit to their hometown a more nuanced, and perhaps more generous, experience.”

    The Adroit Journal
  • This lyrical tale of reconnection and self discovery deserves all the attention it can get.”

    Foreword Reviews
  • “Ali’s book grapples with place, ecosystem, ‘home,’ and how sometimes home is not an identifiable place. Through Ali’s memories of living near the Nelson River in Canada, he discusses the survivance of a community and concerns of exploitation and colonialism … I’ve already learned so much regarding this community and place I had not known of before.”

    Ecotone Magazine
    Most Anticipated Indie Press Picks of 2021
  • “Reading Ali is an act of redemption even when the worst is spiked and wired with hatred and danger. His perspective on time is both a challenge and a balm.”

    The Rumpus
  • “Ali’s lyrics are crafted with a controlled, delicate quality that never stops questioning, never stops teaching, never stops astounding.”

    American Poet
  • “Lyrical, political, humorous, light and deep—Kazim Ali strikes out in many directions… . The resulting harmonies—and even the discord—are beautiful.”

    Justin Torres
    author of We the Animals
  • “A master of so many genres and forms—poetry, fiction, essay, memoir—Ali seems to manage the ultimate feat: to slip free from the limitations of these categories.”

    Rahul Mehta
    author of Quarantine
  • “Purchase [Northern Light] for Ali’s gorgeous metaphors and well-paced prose.”

  • Northern Light is Ali’s writerly effort to grapple with his and his family’s history in a remote community in Canada. He recounts the formative years he spent on Indigenous lands as the child of Indian immigrants, learning about the impact of his father’s work on a dam on both the people and the environment in Jenpeg. The story he tells — of beautiful people, a unique community, and settler colonial dynamics — is an important and powerful one. The poet’s voice is evident in some of the most resonant passages, shaping the story Ali tells in wondrous ways.”

    Book Riot, “9 Unforgettable Prose Books Written By Poets”