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Episode 49: Mahmoud Ababneh interviews Kazim Ali

Apr 1, 2023


In this interview, Mahmoud Ababneh talks with Kazim Ali on a number of pressing issues from the struggle to answer the question “where are you from?”, to diaspora, to the literal (jurídico-political) and philosophical (cultural distance) impediments that migrants face, as well as the paradoxical stance that immigrants have with settler nations and Indigenous communities. In the discussion of his book Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water, Ali discusses his relationship to Cross Lake and the ecological changes and challenges that faced the community because of the dam that was built there. Ali moves between number treaties in Canada, to personal experience, to insights into how the politics surrounding these spaces belies the deeply personal realities of Indigenous communities living there. This discussion is rich with warmth, generosity, and wisdom and recommended for all.


Mahmoud Ababneh is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Calgary on Treaty 7 territory. His research centers around trans-Indigenous and postcolonial literatures, decolonization, and settler-colonialism. Mahmoud is currently teaching at the University of Calgary and Bow Valley College. His work appeared in the Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies.

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. His books encompass multiple genres, including the volumes of poetry Inquisition, Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre texts Bright Felon and Wind Instrument. His novels include the recently published The Secret Room: A String Quartet and among his books of essays are the hybrid memoir Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. He is also an accomplished translator (of Marguerite Duras, Sohrab Sepehri, Ananda Devi, Mahmoud Chokrollahi and others) and an editor of several anthologies and books of criticism. After a career in public policy and organizing, Ali taught at various colleges and universities, including Oberlin College, Davidson College, St. Mary’s College of California, and Naropa University. 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 and a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light, which was a finalist for the 2022 Lammy Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction and a Winner of the 2022 Banff Mountain Book Award for Environmental Literature

Show Notes

5:30 – Kazim Ali has lost his taste for New York and loves the west.

7:01 – Approaches to several genres including nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and the differences in beginning each.

8:45 – Introduction to Cross Lake

11:13 –  The struggle to answer “where are you from?”

12:05 – On losing access to where one came from, being an Indian Muslim and the hostility of the home country.

16:30 – How Northern Light changed across drafts but began when Ali wanted to write about his childhood and the strangeness of growing up in a small town of seven streets.

17:55 – Writing to Cathy Merrick who was chief at the time

21:04 – On balancing the inclusion of his own voice with Canadian history and four different modes that organize the memoir

24:39 – Pimicikamak Cree Nation

28:35 – Mention of Elder Jackson Osborne whose photojournalism captures changes to Cross Lake

28:58 – Manitoba Hydro’s survey teams and the dredging of a second canal, which impacted the potability of the water in Cross Lake and affected sturgeon spawning patterns.

33:52 – The suicide epidemic in Cross Lake and instituting First Nations studies and Cree language classes.

41:31 – The danger involved in airports and how Ali spent 7 hours being interrogated by officers when travelling to Palestine.

45:22 – The Saskatchewan River used to be an Indigenous highway.

46:30 – The book feels like a “we” kind of book: working with several people including Indigenous editor Rhonda Kronyk.

48:57 – Returning to the town of Jenpeg, Manitoba, which is connected to the Jenpeg Generating Station

51:41 – Teaching yoga in Palestine and working on a book about yoga.

TIA House recognizes the generous support of the Canada Research Chairs program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. We also appreciate the support of the Faculty of Arts and the Department of English at the University of Calgary, where our offices are housed, as well as the guidance of Marc Stoeckle at the Taylor Family Digital Library.

TIA House is run by Larissa Lai, Shuyin Yu, Ryan Stearne, Shazia Ramji, Rebecca Geleyn, Mikka Jacobsen, Benjamin Ghan, Amy LeBlanc, Marc Lynch, and Mahmoud Ababneh.
Our Intro/Outro music is Monarch of the Streets by Loyalty Freak Music, accessed from the Free Music Archive.

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