I live on the traditional lands of the Kumeyaay people, which are currently crossed by the US-Mexico border outside San Diego, California, but when I was young I lived on Treaty 5 land in northern Manitoba, on the traditional lands of the Pimicikamak people, a.k.a. the Cross Lake First Nation. I grew up in “Jenpeg, Manitoba,” about forty kilometres or so from Cross Lake, Manitoba—a little clearing in the forest with a set of trailers built by Manitoba Hydro to house workers and their families and to construct a dam, Manitoba Hydro’s Jenpeg Generating Station. My father was the lead engineer on the project and the designer of the electrical system. We lived in Jenpeg for a few years while the dam was being built, but at a certain point my father wasn’t needed anymore, and our family moved to Buffalo, New York. About a year later, the dam was completed, the trailers were taken off the land, and the site began to go back to forest.
Decades later, I decided to write a book about my weird transnational childhood. I wanted to write about living in that strange town of five streets in the middle of the forest—which was a fairy tale to me. What was that place? Was it even real? And so, I started to research. The first thing I learned about was the environmental destruction wrought by the dam, and the second thing was that at that time, in 2014 or 2015, there was a suicide epidemic among the youth in Cross Lake that was being covered in the Canadian national media. I wrote to the Nation, and Chief Cathy Merrick wrote back and invited me to Cross Lake. So, I went to visit, and I ended up writing a book that I did not expect to write. Rather than the book about Asian, Brown immigrants coming to Canada and trying to make our way in a new society, Northern Light: Power, Land, and Memory of Water (2021) ended up being about Cross Lake, the people there, the treaty, and the dam.
I found myself writing a story I hadn’t even known before about the collision between the immigrant and the Indigenous. I had no idea that my own Brown immigrant family still had more access to political agency and wealth from the dam than the Indigenous people upon whose land it was built. And so, the book became a book that I was not prepared to write and did not have training to write—part memoir, part essay, part reportage journalism, and part history. I came to realize that most people in Canada don’t know the histories of Indigenous peoples and colonization. What does it mean to live in territory covered by a numbered treaty? What are the differences between the earlier numbered treaties and the later, northern ones? What was the Sixties Scoop? What happened in the residential schools? For example, when the mass graves were discovered recently, there was a wave of indignation in Canada, but they are things that have been known and talked about for decades. I heard all about it when I was in Cross Lake. In 2017, Anne Lindsay was doing research on oral histories of residential school survivors in Brandon, Manitoba, and she found a mass grave by following a diagram that someone had drawn on a bar napkin. This is what I’m talking about: the open secrets in Canadian history—known but often not known—that the residential schools were places of death, and that Canadian energy systems and ways of life are built on the dispossession of Indigenous people.
What I want to say about my poetics in relation to this book is to challenge immigrant writers and immigrant writers of colour: being Brown doesn’t make you less of a settler. Being the victim of racism and discrimination doesn’t make you less of a colonizer. And that’s what I had to confront in the writing of this book—returning, as it were, to the scene of the crime, and trying to reconcile my memories and experiences with the experiences of the Indigenous people who were impacted by the dam. Writing this book, I struggled with the fact that I was telling the story of an Indigenous community. Tactically, my friends in Cross Lake recognized that I, as a non-Indigenous Canadian person, had more access to tell their story, and they were comfortable with that—but we all knew that was part of the problem. The next book about the Jenpeg Generating Station and/or Cross Lake should be
written by somebody from Cross Lake, and there are things that I can do as a writer and as a human and as an educator to try to help make that happen. The ethical responsibilities and the way one handles oneself as a researcher in an Indigenous community are things that I, as a poet, was unprepared for, and I had to learn it as I went along. I don’t think I’m done contending with this.
Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. A prolific author of poetry, novels, and cross-genre texts, he is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His newest books are a volume of three long poems entitled The Voice of Sheila Chandra; a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light; and the YA choose-your-own-adventure novel The Citadel of Whispers.
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