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?
... resonated so strongly with me that I cannot pretend to be objective about how much I loved the book. I was captured by its compelling themes of global desi homelessness and what it means to love places that are not our own — what it means when none of the places we love are our own, but we belong to them anyway ... This is not a book with easy answers ... Ali gives the reader a crash course on Canada’s history of problematic relations with its Indigenous communities. The book is not exhaustive on that subject, and does not intend to be. But for me, a non-Canadian, the brief contextual snippets were eye-opening, to the point where my notes in the margins frequently degenerated into repeated exclamation marks ... forces the reader to keep thinking and engaging, throughout. That demand for engagement helps the book cut through the reader’s own baggage, based on every other story they have heard about an Indigenous community in trouble ... 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.
There are many powerful lines that hint at an interiority that is never fully breached ... 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 ... 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.
... eloquent ... Illuminating contrasts are drawn between Ali’s Indian/Pakistani Muslim background and Native culture; Ali analyzes differences between Canadian and Indigenous identity, and their diametrically opposed perspectives about land and resource ownership. Intracommunity tensions are acknowledged in relation to religion, gender roles, alcohol sales, and relationships between Pimicikamak residents on provincial and reservation lands and the government. Though these topics are complex, they are untangled in an elegant manner ... Lyrical motifs of stargazing, and of an origami crane that Ali carries as a talisman during his visit, enrich the book’s descriptive passages. Throughout Northern Light, Ali continues to reassess his understandings of his childhood memories and his reasons for returning to Jenpeg. The book’s open-ended questions, like 'What does it mean to be from?,' are resonant.