Manahil Bandukwala Reviews Non-Fiction by Kazim Ali and Anvi Hoàng for EVENT 50/3
Manahil Bandukwala Reviews:
Kazim Ali, Northern Light: Power, Land, and Memory of Water, Goose Lane Editions, 2021
Anvi Hoàng, Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl?, Guernica Editions, 2021
Published in 2021, Kazim Ali’s Northern Light: Power, Land, and Memory of Water and Anvi Hoàng’s Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? are two powerful memoirs that revisit childhood and reflect on connections to family and place. Despite their different settings, both Ali and Hoàng confront colonial and gendered power structures and seek to reconcile their upbringing with the present.
Northern Light articulates settlers’ responsibilities toward both the land and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. As a child of immigrants, Ali asks, what does it mean to call a place home when the feeling of home comes at the expense of the land’s first and current inhabitants? Born in the UK to South Asian parents, Ali moved to Jenpeg, a community in northern Manitoba, at a young age. During that time his father worked on a hydroelectric dam that Ali later discovers was built on unceded land. While the town no longer exists, in the same area is the Indigenous town of Cross Lake, where residents pay Manitoba Hydro millions of dollars every year despite having been promised subsidized electricity. In many narratives of diaspora, people search for home in hope of finding an answer to their identity and ancestry. Ali returns to Jenpeg with similar intentions; however, he realizes that he cannot find a nostalgic home in a place built on unceded land. He writes:
Jenpeg—the Jenpeg that I knew—was built as a temporary town in the forest. It was built to support the building of a dam. It was never going to be there when I went back. It was never meant to be more than it was. It never belonged to us and there was nothing there to be found.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this place characterized from the start by non-permanence and provisionality looks nothing like he remembers: ‘The land has been chewed into by the river, and there is just the thinnest swampy margin of reeds and muck now between the lapping waves and the forest.’
He also fails to find ‘any of the spark of energy I expected to feel, no sense of a homecoming.’ Thankfully the Pimicikamak Cree Nation is there to extend a warm welcome. From the moment Ali emails Chief Merrick about visiting Cross Lake, she is enthusiastic about receiving him into the community. After spending time with her and other community members, Ali reflects:
Rather than answer my questions, she wanted me to come north, not just to visit but to see. When the politicians and executives of the south look north, they see resources—the minerals, the oil, the timber, the flow of the rivers—and with what they consider irrefutably reasonable logic, they devise ways of harnessing those resources for ‘Canada,’ that place that by population mostly…huddles along the southern border.
Ali comes to realize that his return is just the beginning of a larger reckoning with Canada’s program of resource extraction in the North and that to change his relationship to the land, he must do as Chief Merrick suggests and recalibrate his perspective.
Northern Light is not a traditional memoir, though it does begin on familiar terrain with the personal and ancestral. In the book’s first sentence, Ali writes, ‘I’ve always had a hard time answering the question “Where are you from?”’ In attempting to locate an answer, he starts with the 1947 Partition of India, a historical event at the heart of many South Asian diasporic narratives. Very quickly, however, he veers away from his family’s history of immigration and settlement in Canada. Rather than predominantly focus on his personal life, as might be expected from the genre, Ali shifts attention to the Pimicikamak. In doing so, he writes a book that addresses, without deflecting, his and his family’s complicity in ongoing colonialism while simultaneously forging a path forward as an ally.
Indeed, as the child of immigrants, Ali finds points of connection with the Pimicikamak. For example, when he speaks with a school principal about opportunities for children to learn Cree, he recalls how his understanding of his family’s language, Urdu, is limited as he had to prioritize learning English. Though Ali’s family has been touched by colonialism as well, his visit to Cross Lake reveals to him his responsibilities as a settler. Significantly, colonization is presented as an ongoing process, one not relegated to the past but requiring active repudiation by long-established and more recent settlers alike.
Northern Light is informative without feeling ponderous due to its journalistic style, which immerses the reader in Ali’s encounters with the people of Cross Lake. Covering topics such as British and French colonization, residential schools and language eradication, the book offers a helpful resource for settlers, particularly new immigrants, who might lack an understanding of Canada’s history of colonial violence toward Indigenous people. That being said, even readers aware of this history will be rewarded with new insights through Ali’s engagement with the Pimicikamak and their specific stories. If to ‘see,’ in Chief Merrick’s formulation, is to move beyond extractive logic and instead observe the people, animals and land, then Ali successfully sees, vividly evoking a sense of place—and we see with him.
Near the end of the book, Ali reaches a conclusion: ‘Places do not belong to us. We belong to them.’ In the search for home, Ali finds a home within himself, one made up of the stories and the people he has encountered throughout his life. Just as Chief Merrick intends, he returns to his childhood home on account of the dam, but comes to discover that it is so much more than a place rich in resources.
While Northern Light focuses on the impacts of industrialization and settler-colonialism, Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? focuses on Hoàng’s journey to understand her identity. After growing up in Vietnam, Hoàng moved to the United States in 2001 at the age of 29 to pursue a master’s degree. She lived there for a decade before returning to Vietnam, a visit that highlighted her complicated relationship to her former and current homes. She writes, ‘I went to Vietnam looking for closure, reconciliation, reconnection, to be de-Americanized, re-Vietnamized, de-Vietnamized, re-Americanized.’ Spending time in both countries, the memoir is Hoàng’s attempt to reconcile the positive and negative parts of Vietnamese and American culture, to challenge Vietnamese stereotypes and to find strength in her family’s stories.
The book opens with a narrative account of her beloved grandmother’s life during the Vietnam War, when she spent her time travelling great distances to visit her children in prison. Hoàng returns to her grandmother’s story repeatedly. She does this because she admires her older relative’s fortitude and resilience, but also because she’s interested in tracing how attitudes and behaviours shift over generations. In addition to being a story of family, Hoàng’s memoir is also a sociological study and work of history, trying to account for the ways the forces of colonialism, communism and capitalism have marked the Vietnamese. Finally, it’s a chronicle of the ups and downs of Hoàng’s life in the US, where she lives in Provo, Utah, and later Bloomington, Indiana. She writes about her experiences at university during her graduate degrees, meeting her husband, beginning her career as a writer and even conceiving of the memoir itself.
If this project sounds ambitious, it is. In Northern Light, Ali narrowly focuses on the impact of colonialism and resource extraction on the community of Cross Lake; in Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? Hoàng’s scope is much broader, arguably too broad. Eschewing chronological order, the memoir goes back and forth in time and between Vietnam and America; it moves from sensuous, moving descriptions of family rituals to history lessons, from her aunt’s experience as a steadfast socialist to a denunciation of materialism, from traumatic events to mundane details. Memoirs often prioritize the personal over the communal and cultural; Hoàng refreshingly gives equal weight to her own individualism and the external forces that have shaped her. Still, she shifts so rapidly between the two that it can be hard to follow at times. Hoàng’s style compounds the challenges of the reading experience: academic at times, lyrical at others. Reading the memoir as a series of vignettes rather than a continuous story allowed me to appreciate its poetry.
Much of the memoir grapples with Hoàng’s experience in America, where she must navigate the world of white Americans. She is dismayed to realize how little most Americans know of her country, but she takes pleasure in shocking them with the revelation that in Vietnam, the war is called ‘the American War.’ In the US she also faces the expectations of Vietnamese Americans, who perceive her according to their own histories and prejudices. For those who left Vietnam during the war, ‘their memory of the country stopped at the moment of their leaving. Their amnesia is the result of a decade of isolation and non-communication between Vietnam and most of the rest of the world after the war ended in 1975.’ In contrast, Hoàng has a different relationship to Vietnam. Recognizing how her identity differs from those who emigrated during the war as well as from those Vietnamese Americans who grew up in the US, she teases out the differences that exist despite a shared point of origin.
I could personally relate to many of these moments as, like Hoàng, I grew up in another country before coming to the West to study. As a collection of insights about cultural differences, the memoir is especially strong. Hoàng writes, ‘So I pit the American and Vietnamese systems against each other to spin out my own value fabric, its crude quality being fit only for myself as I tried to edge my way in the new place.’ In this anecdote, Hoàng contrasts Vietnamese and American perceptions of age, which felt incredibly familiar. In Vietnam, Hoàng describes, being young is associated with oppression because of constant scrutiny from adults. In contrast, being young in America is associated with freedom and countless opportunities. In Hoàng’s observations, American youth have the freedom to make mistakes, which do not define their futures. Although this observation may overlook nuances of race and gender, it reflects Hoàng’s optimism about America, particularly at the start of her residency there.
Throughout, Hoàng’s voice is strong and confident. As a youth she chafes against her country’s norms. For example, she sees how, ‘Throughout history, the unrelenting pressure to survive and the numbing tension to recover from ruins took over Vietnamese bodies, minds and souls. People rarely talked about anything else but survival.’ While this mindset is understandable, she derides the way it has become the default position. Hoàng states, ‘I knew early on that challenging dominant forces around me was the only way to free myself from the grip of traditions and thus find some measure of happiness.’ It is to Hoàng’s credit that this path to happiness, so straightforward in her youth, reveals itself to be less so as she matures. Similarly, America, the promised land of her dreams, becomes a more complex country.
Ultimately, Why Do You Look at Me and See a Girl? is a non-linear narrative of self-discovery, one that never reaches a clear answer to ‘Who am I?’ What Hoàng does offer is a determined attempt to resist cultural expectations and forge her own path.