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.