By Valarie Kaur. One World, 2020. 416 pages. $28/hardcover; $13.99/eBook.
When I read that Valarie Kaur, a Sikh, was going to be a plenary speaker at the 2020 Friends General Conference Gathering, I looked her up. I watched her 22-minute TED Talk and her six-minute Watch Night speech, given on New Year’s Eve 2016 at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic Black church in Washington, D.C., alongside Rev. William Barber, who had invited her there. I went to her Revolutionary Love Project website, signed the pledge, and pre-ordered her book.
In her Watch Night address Kaur said, “The future is dark. But what if—what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born?”
Friends will resonate with her vision of a nation waiting to be born: “an America that is multiracial, multifaith, multigendered, and multicultural, a nation where power is shared and we strive to protect the wellness and dignity of every person and work to save our earth and our collective future”; a nation that addresses Martin Luther King Jr.’s triple evils of racism, militarism, and poverty with her addition of sexism; a nation that grapples with its genocidal origin, slavery and reparations, including “the work of apology”; a nation that confronts White supremacy; and a nation that allows everyone not only to survive but to flourish.
Kaur is a lawyer; activist; filmmaker and with this debut book, an author. See No Stranger is autobiographical while painting the picture of Kaur’s vision of revolutionary love. Early experience with assault and bullying, later episodes of illness, and other damaging experiences motivate Kaur’s work. Her own beloved grandfather Papa Ji opposed Kaur’s marriage to a Hindu (he later blessed it); a childhood friend turned her back on Kaur upon learning that Sikhs are not Christian. All of this became fuel.
While Kaur was a student at Stanford University, she documented hate crimes in cities in the United States against Sikhs, Muslims, and others after 9/11, which resulted in the documentary film Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, premiered in 2008. The mass shooting at the Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wis., on August 5, 2012, is the subject of another film, and there are numerous short films on her website.
The content of See No Stranger reflects both struggle and redemption. It is divided into three parts, each with three chapters. (She does not capitalize her chapter headings.) Each part and chapter are components of her revolutionary love compass. Thus, part I is “see no stranger: loving others” with chapters on “wonder,” “grieve,” and “fight”; part II is “tend the wound: loving opponents” with chapters entitled “rage,” “listen,” and “reimagine”; and part III is “breathe and push: loving ourselves” with chapters “breathe,” “push,” and “transition.”
The three parts are followed by an epilogue on joy and a chapter that enfolds the book’s chapter titles into the “revolutionary love compass,” followed by Sikh shabads (devotional poems); selected further reading; and for each page of text, several references that were not annotated in the text. Along the way, the reader will learn about the Sikh faith and Hindu religion. An index and a glossary of Sikh terms would have been helpful to me.
Kaur’s work is clearly a labor of love. She walks the talk of those chapter titles. Fifteen years after the hate crime killing of family friend and fellow Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi, Kaur, together with Sodhi’s brother, made a call to the prison to talk with his killer.
And interspersed among the autobiographical narrative is the rebirth she envisions: the verbs used as chapter titles contribute to revolutionary love. She describes, for example, how wonder fits into loving others, and rage helps in loving opponents.
The book is riveting, dramatic at times, and had me in tears more than once. Kaur inspired me, gave me hope, and challenged me. She will you, too.
Rich Van Dellen is a member of Rochester (Minn.) Meeting.