See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur

As a little girl growing up in California on a farm her family has owned for 100 years after immigrating from India/Pakistan, Valarie Kaur learns about how the world views her brown body and Sikh faith. Yes, there is antagonism from children at school, by Kaur’s grandfather reminds her that Sikhs are warriors and that she is not to abandon her post. But 9/11 changes everything, toppling some United States citizens into open acts of violence and terrorism against anyone who is brown or wears a turban, mistaking all Middle Eastern, many South Asian, and all Sikhs as Islamic extremists involved wtih the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Kaur’s family friends and community members are murdered and harassed, living in a state of fear that continues even after the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.

Some of the terrorism perpetrated by white nationalists is daily aggressive acts, but then there are a string of shootings in places of worship, including a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where the devout insisted on cleaning and repairing their own place of worship after a white man shot and killed several of their members. Repeatedly, they ask President Obama to come, like he did to Sandy Hook, but he does not, suggesting Valarie Kaur fairly criticizes aspects of both democratic and republican presidents. Not only is Kaur fair with her criticisms on both political sides, but she supports her work with extensive end notes (though write in that pesky form that doesn’t include numbered citations in the text).

Woven into a shared history is Kaur’s own experiences with a sexual assault, a physical altercation with a cousin during which he wielded a shot gun, and a toxic fiance who controls Kaur’s actions. If you’re thinking, “Wow, this book sounds heavy and like too much to read right now,” let me encourage you.

Valarie Kaur’s faith teaches its followers that they are warriors for all people. Part of a man’s dress includes the turban and a dagger/blade to protect people in need. I was grateful that Kaur continues to explain traditions of the Sikh faith because although I knew about turbans and swords (my husband had a Sikh co-worker who was denied permission to carry a sword on campus), there was much I didn’t know. I especially liked the poems/prayers. Much like other faiths, there are places where Sikhism contradicts itself. Though Kaur describes many Sikh women facing sexism in the name of religion, Kaur’s Punjabi grandfather explained to her when she was little that she is a warrior, strong, and a capable person. It is the foundation of “protect everyone, shelter everyone, feed everyone” that Kaur learns as a Sikh that shapes her way forward into some turbulent American history post-9/11.

When we listen, we hear the stories of others and humanize them. Kaur’s senior thesis at Stanford University leads her to travel the country and interview people affected by white nationalism after “patriotism” (I use quotes because hating other people in your country is not patriotic) is at screaming levels in the U.S. Her film leads her to a career in documentary making to capture the stories of immigrants, brown and black people, and prisoners and correctional officers; Yale law school to learn the language of the law and use it as a tool to make America the place it should be for other marginalized people; and Harvard divinity school, which she doesn’t write much about. Each step in Kaur’s journey is hard — really hard. But she always shapes the conversation about from where she drew strength, helping readers face terrible things without despairing or feeling paralyzed and helpless.

The organization of See No Stranger makes sense and assists Kaur with her waves of trauma and resilience. Section one is entitled “See No Stranger: Loving Others” and subsects into wonder, grieve, and fight. Section two is “Tend the Wound: Loving Opponents” and breaks into rage, listen, and reimagine. Lastly is “Breathe and Push: Loving Ourselves” divided into breathe, push, and transition. You might be able to see how Kaur approaches the “manifesto” part of this book indicated in the title. We must have wonder about the world, grieve with each other even when we don’t know the grieving person, and fight to protect love. When we face people who not only wish us ill but possibly want us dead, we must learn to be angry, listen to the person who drove us to rage so we understand them as a brother/sister or aunt/uncle we do not yet know, and then reimagine the world as we want it. The last section references the birthing process but also applies to how we can get through what seems an impossible moment.

Like this moment. COVID 19. Black Lives Matter. Poverty and unemployment. Political divide. The right to an education. Wildfires and hurricanes. These are just the obvious ones in the news right now, never mind homophobia and transphobia, sexism, classism, ableism, religious persecution, the prison industrial complex, and political turmoil in other countries.

There were moments in See No Stranger when I felt uncomfortable and tight in my throat, but what feels like self-help without the hippy woo-woo comes immediately after, working readers through the difficult moments to see the other side when things are bad. I’m apt to say this is the worst time in American history. But is it? I travel back in my head and think, “Oh, yes. This happened. And this, and this, and this.” There is loads of unprecedented horrible things happening now, but it’s all part of a history that has collectively led us here. Kaur explores the history of her life from 9/11 forward, reaching Trump and COVID 19, and connects the threads in an unbiased way to explore what it is to be an activist living in 2020 who has had a long road behind her. If you’ve read the famous essay “Why I Quit the Klan” by Studs Terkel and C.P. Ellis, you’ll get a sense of Kaur’s roots in documenting hatred and shifting toward love in See No Stranger. Highly recommended.

18 comments

  1. Fantastic review, I’m so glad you chose to share this with everyone. I’ve recently finished reading Caste and The Color of Law so I’ve added this book to my TBR.

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    • It’s wonderful how Kaur did so much in one book. I was educated about Sikhs, reminded of history from 20 years ago that is not forgotten but in my review mirror, discussed hard topics that affect women, and gave doses of kindness and healing, too.

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    • book review by gurdhyan singh 
      Valarie Kaur’s book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, is “foranyone who feels breathless.” She first thought her breathlessness revealed her weakness until her wise friend told her, “Your breathlessness is a sign of your bravery.” The memoir narrates her discovery of revolutionary love on her journey of awakening. The memoir’s formulation rests on what is moral and strategic for her. Her moral paradigm is a liberal worldview, and her strategic is what advances her personally and professionally.
      The memoir’s catchy title entices a potential reader’s interest with the understanding that thememoir deals with infinite compassion and unconditional love in times of crisis that can be used to solve America’s well-known social, economic, cultural, environmental, and politicalproblems. The memoir does not offer innovative and compassionate solutions; rather, it suggests replacing conservative ideals with liberal ideals. Valarie’s compassionate worldview excludes conservatives, tea party activists, racists, misogynists, traditionalists, and all others who fall outside her worldview.
      The memoir does not seem to be meant for Sikhs; and has successfully targeted primarily thebroad spectrum of the well-educated, white liberal, progressive, and left segments of thepopulace. Still a potential Sikh reader who has heard of Valarie and her work, may expect tolearn from her experiences in putting compassion, one of the core tenets of the Sikh faith, inpractice. She not only fails that Sikh reader but raises fundamental questions and doubts about the Sikh faith, its divine foundation and practices, and the Sikh faith’s relevance in thecontemporary world. Regardless of her intentions, the memoir represents her narrow version of the Sikh faith to both Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. It lacks the reverential and devotional vibe one might expect in such a memoir.
      Valarie gives an impression that her memoir is driven by an intense compassion emanating from a bleeding heart, but it is a calculated, philosophical masterpiece. Every letter, word,punctuation, and metaphor is marvellously woven into a dream-like tapestry. She interweaves the story of her personal evolution, her relationship with the Sikh faith, and her professional growth in a unique style that deludes the common reader. She discloses partial facts on most issues dealing with the Sikh faith and makes her own conclusions based thereupon, which results in inaccurate representations about the Sikh faith.
      In the memoir, she omits any inquiry into the appropriateness of her choices throughout her life, and avoids accepting responsibility for her actions, a hallmark of western culture and a core value of the Sikh faith. She downplays her own privilege and overplays her and her family’s sacrifices.
      Valarie is likely to mesmerize her liberal readership and to lose a dispassionate and independent reader’s trust due to her self-righteous and self-absorption. For Sikh readers, it is going to be a challenge to cope with perplexing representations of the Sikh faith. She makes efforts to create an ideal image of herself as a Sikh warrior-sage, without adhering to any Sikh religious practices.
      The memoir tells the story of a suffering Sikh woman, which is a sadly common experience of
      women everywhere, with a Sikh subtext lingering in the background. The memoir describes her inability to reconcile her exhausting experiences of womanhood with the Sikh faith. Her deep pain and anguish, resulting from racist childhood bullying, sexual harassment as an adolescent, and discrimination as a woman of color can have psychological ramifications and leave long lasting impacts unless treated or healed. Her description of these painful events is disturbing and revealing. In the process of growing into the woman she is today, she finds more comfort in the individual freedoms of modern liberalism than in the warmth of Sikh faith.
      Her professional and activist credentials as a civil rights lawyer and documentary filmmaker are top-notch, having attended three elite universities: Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School. Yet, she chastises others in her community who pursue higher academic earning in “safe careers” such as the medical fields when, in fact, being an attorney out of Yale is itself a guarantee for a safe career in private, public, or international law. Her story reminds of the privilege of education, opportunities, and of the potential benefits of being born in that context.
      Parents, especially hardworking immigrants, should be able to dream big and encourage theirchildren to become doctors. It should also be acceptable for children to work and study hard tofulfill their and their parents’ dreams of success and prosperity. Additionally, these doctorsprovide health services to the larger community, and continue to pave the way for furthermedical innovations. These doctors earn decent incomes, and, as a devotion for their faith, and affection towards their country and community, share their earnings to build Sikh places ofworship, organize mass humanitarian assistance drives, and fund Sikh community groups.As an activist, Valarie represented the Sikh faith at many interfaith events; the memoir is unclear on which version she represents. She seems most comfortable in her progressive socio-political milieu that celebrates individual choice. She has found increased popularity through See No Stranger, on top of her widely known image. Her rhetoric may sound radical but she has positioned herself as a moderate by unconditionally praising Obama and feeling sorry for his constrained presidency. Her memoir is in fine tune with the foundational stories of American exceptionalism, individualism, and aversion to discipline.
      Her pathway to becoming a civil rights activist is common within the American experience,where idealistic individuals, particularly from minority communities, tend to gravitate towardscivil rights activism due to their own life experiences. Their activism remains confined withinthe national/political concept of civil rights, which occasionally branches out to human rights. Infact, the scope of human rights is wider than civil rights. Human rights are available to allindividual beings; civil rights are granted based on national legislation.
      Human rights advocates outside of the western hemisphere are mind-boggled and shocked at the aberration of the American human rights scene, which lacks a substantial and national human rights community that campaigns for the human rights of all, without regard to any individual’s political persuasion or identity.
      In much of the world, the human rights community does not consider the government as areliable stakeholder, and maintains strict independence from the political process. This isimperative for the human rights community to effectively maintain independence and neutralityby presenting the image of being above politics so as to independently promote and protecthuman rights in a country regardless of a country’s philosophy and system of government.The vibrant American civil rights scene, of which Valerie is a part of, is partisan and is rootedwithin the liberal framework, limiting its ability to achieve wider credibility among the generalpopulace. In that scene, there is little separation between civil right campaigners, politicalprocesses, and governmental institutions. Rather, a good number of civil rights activiststransition into politics. She may have a bright future as a rising politician.
      In describing her relationship with the Sikh faith, she raises many issues, regarding itsfoundation, divinely ordained protocols and processes, and, most importantly, its revered divine figures such as the ten Gurus, saints and martyrs. She spurns most, selectively chooses some that suit her, and then unrestrainedly re-interprets them to convey her version to the readers. Valerie first frees herself from all religious encumbrances, then spiritualizes herself, creating her own Sikh paradigm that shortcuts divine processes.
      She is candid about not serving the demanding, divinely-inspired path envisaged by the SikhGurus. Their path requires deep devotion, compassion, ardent discipline, meditation, long spells of despair, a painful reordering of priorities, and individual and congregational practices. She ignores the idea of devotional love, the very basis of Sikh faith, but offers her own revolutionary love, which she admits is rooted in existing concepts of love in western philosophical writings. 
      My critical concern regarding the memoir is what kind of impact it will have on Sikhs, and particularly those who are on the way to be initiated via administration of the khande di Pahul, the nectar of the double edged sword. If the author formally joins politics or has a film made out of the memoir, resulting in even wider circulation and publicity for herself, the title is likely to entice young Sikh daughters to read the memoir. 
      These young Sikh daughters, particularly in the West, are already in a very delicate situation.Day in and day out, they are under tremendous pressure to compromise their internal andexternal Sikh way of life. They are already straddling the political correctness of conservativesand liberals, both inside and outside the community. Despite all odds, many are trying to hold on to the Guru’s ordained lifestyle. But the memoir treats such a lifestyle, including Sikh initiation, as dispensable and minimizes its relevance in the contemporary world.
      Her memoir has a potential to create doubts and disbelief in the realm of faith. Despite herefforts, the memoir shows her inability to see no stranger at all; in fact, she tries and falters, and she sees only strangers in the group of likeminded people that fit her scheme of personal,professional, and spiritual ambitions. There is a logical disconnect between the title of thememoir and its carefully crafted content.
      Her memoir is not a required read for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, but they may choose to read it. For young Khalsa daughters in particular, it will give them a point of reference to see Valarie’s spiritual compass in depth and compare themselves within the context of the Sikh faith and their inner journey. Other than that they won’t learn anything new that they are not already aware of. For independent non-Sikh readers, it represents only her version of the Sikh faith, and may give misconceptions of widely accepted aspects of the Sikh faith, particularly her representations of prominent Sikh Divine figures and her interpretations (or lack thereof) on common Sikh practices. The memoir more appears to be a manifesto of her political and professional aspirations, which undoubtedly is her prerogative.

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      • G, thanks for sharing your perspective on the book! I am interested in what you said here: “Valerie first frees herself from all religious encumbrances, then spiritualizes herself, creating her own Sikh paradigm that shortcuts divine processes.” In the U.S. it is quite common for people to adapt religion to suit their context — their location, financial situation, politics, how their parents teach them, etc. — and I can see how for some that works to create a sense of inner peace and structure, but for orthodox adherents of a religion, it may look blasphemous. I noticed a clash between Kuar and her grandfather. She was born and raised in the U.S., and he was from the Punjab region, so this reflects what you are saying about picking and choosing. I must confess, after I read See No Stranger, I realized there is a gurdwara not one mile from my home, and I wondered if they were all like the people in Kuar’s book, so I also see what you are saying about Sikh readers and non-Sikh readers, and how they are interpreting this book. Thanks for commenting! You’ve made me think about searching for more texts about Sikhism.

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  2. This is a really thoughtful review! The book sounds incredibly powerful, and it’s awesome to see that it seems to have left quite an impact. It’s really cool that Kaur is able to work through the painful, uncomfortable experiences to give a message that is ultimately hopeful and inspiring. Adding this to the TBR.

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    • After I started reading this book, I realized there is a gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, just down the road from us. I can’t believe I just chalked it up to J. Random Religious Place for years.

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    • It certainly made me think about what I mean by “reading diversely.” I’m trying to get folks who aren’t white, but I don’t have a specific focus on religious diversity. Well, any religion at all. See No Stranger doesn’t read like a religious book even though the appearance of Sikh people is what made them targets post 9/11.

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  3. This sounds really good. Vancouver has the second largest Sikh population in the world (after India) and I once lived down the street from a Sikh temple. They provide meals every single day and anyone is welcome. It’s a fascinating religion.

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      • Yes! In high school I hung out with a group of mostly Sikh girls and we would often go over for lunch! I’ve been to a few services and weddings too and you’re right, community is huge. I once even rode on a float in the Vaisakhi Parade! Family is super important and (it seemed to me) anyone remotely related to you is family. I always felt very welcomed at the temple and that they were happy to have me there.

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  4. So this book includes some mention of Covid 19? I’m assuming it’s hot off the press then? I loved learning a bit about the Sikh religion in this review, I knew they sometimes carried a sword but I wasn’t sure of the significance of it. Their religion sounds so positive, especially when it comes to building resiliency!

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  5. There is no doubt that 9/11 gave racists – in Australia as well as in America – an excuse to target a whole new class of non-whites, expanding out from the Middle East to include South-East Asians, Pakistanis, Indians and most notably Sikhs because of their turbans. Australia, again like the US, keeps non-white refugees in concentration camps while begging white Rhodesians and South Africans to come and settle here.

    I can’t imagine what political point white supremacists think they are making by shooting up temples (and churches). I see Biden stood with the Oak Creek Sikhs last month, so that gives us some hope.

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    • I didn’t realize Biden went to Oak Creek. The book notes that the Oak Creek Sikhs asked Barak Obama, president when they’re was a armed gunman attack on their place of worship, to visit. They asked many times, and while he did not go, Michelle Obama did. I imagine it was a difficult place to be in; Americans thought/think he was a secret Muslim terrorist born outside the U.S., so what would happen if he went? I have no idea. He should have gone.

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