Shah, Nayan 2011 Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West, reviewed by Clement Lai
Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011, 358 pages, $65.00 cloth, $26.95 paper, ISBN 9780520270855 (cloth), 9780520270879 (paper) (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270879)
Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy examines the social history of migrant South Asian males in the Canadian and US West during the first half of the 20th century. He analyzes this world not in isolation from other social groups but rather paradoxically as a world full of encounter. Encounter was both intimately tied to a larger multiracial male migrant world and also estranged from other groups through multiple processes of difference-making including class-exploitation, racialization, empire-making, and heteronormativity. Shah mines court documents of cases persecuting South Asians for supposed sexual and racial transgression to highlight how meanings of race and sexuality were formed, policed, and contested in these ‘borderlands’ of encounter, estrangement, and intimacy. His work offers particular insights on how the social construction of race has been spatialized and queered.
Although Stranger Intimacy does not use the phrase “spatialization of race”, Shah’s study delves deeply into how the bodies of South Asian male migrants (largely Sikh with some Muslims from the Punjab and also Bengalis) were racialized in terms of foreignness, in terms of sexuality, and in terms of heteronormativity. In particular, the scale of heternormative family was deployed to racialize and criminalize these migrants in a queering effort to maintain their outsider status, make them exploitable and expendable, and also (re)produce the heternormative Canadian and American family as White. Shah examines these processes through a close reading of court cases involving South Asian migrant males and their entanglements with the justice system in the North American West where they were being tried allegedly for sodomy, for the related crime of ‘criminal vagrancy’, or for indecency. He also analyzes cases involving marriages between South Asian males and non-South Asian females; property ownership in an era of Alien Land Laws throughout states in the American West; and naturalization and immigration restriction, which occurred at the national scale both in Canada and the US. His study investigates the racialization of the body and the state’s deployment of the heteronormative family as a key part of the racialization process and in so doing formed and reinforced this family as property-owning, rights bearing, and White. The heteronormative family, in turn, was vitally important to the regional and national making/coding of Western Canada and the Western United States as White – a project that was imperative to the consolidation of Manifest Destiny and national control and which hinged on the creation of excluded others. Thus, it was at these spatial scales that state and provincial governments throughout the West as well as national governments ‘jumped scale’ to mark South Asian migrants as undesirable outsiders to the body of the nation and to the national family. Here national security concerns played a role in racializing South Asian bodies through the surveillance of these migrants for anti-colonial and politically subversive activities. What Shah is analyzing, then, is how social-spatial differentiation processes were densely layered and scalar, sometimes contradictory, and overdetermined.
Shah argues that the South Asian migrant world transgressed national boundaries to follow employment, to escape waves of nativism that occasionally drove out Asian migrants from rural and urban areas in the North American West, and to build a transitory social world free from state interference where intimate ties (sometimes sexual) between males could form. These last points are critical: South Asian migrants in these borderlands were part of a larger male migrant world that played a central role in the economy of the West. These migrant males travelled between and existed within multiple empires (to borrow a phrase from Eiichiro Azuma) – in this case, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which still held important influence over Commonwealth nations and their subjects and which actively surveilled South Asian migrants and their organizations. These counterintelligence efforts crossed borders and enlisted the help of US and Canadian immigration and intelligence authorities to contain this perceived threat. They are a good example of how states ‘dumped scale’ to police migrants, reproduce the state, and create the nation and empire.
Stranger Intimacy is an interstitial study. While Shah reads the court transcripts to document the role of the state in othering South Asian migrants, he also mines the cracks and spaces in between the public transcript of court documents and the hidden transcript of the male-dominated world of multiracial migrants. In other words, Shah reads through the public transcript of court documents, which chronicle conflict, criminalization, containment, and copulation, to examine the hidden put present world of encounter, intimacy, and accommodation, and he describes this intimate world sometimes in incredibly detailed description.
It bears noting that migrant male laborers were made strangers to each other because 1) their recruitment ran up against rounds of nativism in the North American West that became important rituals for the formation of Whiteness; 2) processes of social-spatial differentiation estranged migrants; and 3) needs of capital pitted ethnic and racial groups against each other through differential pay and through a tiered work structure that included field hands, contractors, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farm owners. Importantly Shah argues that such divisions did not always fall along non-White and White lines with situations on the ground being much more complex, including South Asian farm owners with White Dust Bowl refugees as field hands. The intricacies of this world were intimate.
While this was a world of strangers rife with processes of estrangement, encounters did happen. In fact, they had to happen because of the involvement of different groups in Western agriculture, resource extraction, and transportation expansion. These encounters included a mixture of occasional cooperation, conflict, empathy, and sexual relations. Stranger Intimacy, then, illustrates the possibilities found in encounter, survival, labor, and the building of a social world. In a contemporary world that seems to be riven by difference, I think this image of possibility and intimacy even amongst strangers is a powerful one. Estrangement did not and does not preclude recognition.
Stranger Intimacy offers several contributions for geographers and planners. First, Shah’s work forces us to reconsider the social construction of race as a relational process that in the North American West involved multiple groups, including South Asians and other Asian Americans. That these groups may not be seen as racialized today is a cautionary note for geographers and planners to examine their conceptualizations of race and their own role in normalizing the public transcript. Second, this work helps us analyze the racial positioning process as a spatialized and scaled one, that has been and continues to be mutually constituted with sexuality, gender, citizenship, and class. The bodies of South Asian migrant males were racialized not only as outsiders to the nation and to Whiteness but also as deviant sexualized threats to the White family and to White boys. Thus, Shah’s work is particularly powerful as a text that helps us unpack the scaling of difference and the work it does. Finally, Stranger Intimacy helps us think through, at a most intimate level, what lives of strangers have been like and are still like, despite state-driven projects to divide, contain, and sometimes exterminate types of workers. In a contemporary world seemingly riven by difference, it is critical to recognize that encounter has happened and continues to happen and to find ways to facilitate and support the intimate world of strangers.
Clement Lai, Department of Asian American Studies, California State University, Northridge, CA USA